Bloomberg funds youth-led climate action in 100 cities worldwide

Young people have for generations signed their names in history’s ledger as agents of change. James Monroe and Alexander Hamilton celebrated their 25th birthdays during the Revolutionary War. Nearly two centuries later, college-age Black men and women mobilized for the rights they had been denied since the nation’s founding. The youth of today have seized the baton passed to them by their elders. They have raised their voices in urgent anger to demand action for the defining issue of their lives: the climate emergency. 

Yet only a few governments at any level, in any country, have answered their demands for action. On Wednesday, to help address that, Bloomberg Philanthropies — the nonprofit funded by former New York Mayor and one-time Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg — has launched the Youth Climate Action Fund. It intends to help 100 cities worldwide better incorporate the voices and visions of young people into how they imagine and enact policies.

“We want to help bring more and more powerful voices into climate activism,” said James Anderson, who leads the philanthropy’s government innovation programs and helped design the fund. “And we also want to make sure and help local governments invite all of the people that want to make a difference in their city on climate into the effort in ways that are meaningful to them.”

The funds it has awarded to cities in 38 countries across six continents should enable just that kind of involvement. With the announcement, each city will receive an initial disbursement of $50,000. Should any mayor respond with adequate urgency and commit, within six months, the money to programs or projects that involve youth leadership in local climate action, their city will receive an additional $100,000 to further support youth-led efforts.

When typical funding announcements for climate efforts often reach into the millions and billions or even hundreds of billions, a five- or six-figure payout might sound paltry. Yet it can make an enormous impact — especially in cities and countries that need it most.

“I’m shocked. I’m shocked, but in a good way, because that money is a lot, especially here in Zimbabwe, and I believe that it could do a lot of great things in our city,” said Nozinhle Gumede, a 21-year-old climate activist from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Bulawayo, a city of 1.2 million in the country’s southwest, is among those selected for the Youth Climate Action Fund. Gumede hopes to see the money used to support youth-led organizations actively helping local communities to adapt to climate change, and to create capacity at the city level for young people to advise the mayor.

“We are the custodians of the future,” Gumede said. “So I believe that we have a right to be a part of some sort of leadership or advisory board to see how this money shapes our future.”

Several cities have already sought to establish climate councils populated by youth to ensure that they can help mold the plans and policies that will define the boundaries of their futures. 

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, the mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone, has made climate resilience a foundational priority for her work leading the country’s capital and largest city, which was also selected for the Youth Climate Action Fund. She’s also made it a point to center youth in her work. “We work with the adage, ‘nothing for me without me,’” she said, so “when, in your city, 70 percent of your population are under the age of 35, you don’t do anything without the youth.”

A child indulges his curiosity at a borehole tap in Nyamandlovu, Zimbabwe. The government commissioned 20 boreholes at the Nyamandlovu Aquifer to supplement the water supply in Bulawayo, which experienced its worst water crisis in 2020. KB Mpofu/Getty Images

To further cement the essential status of youth involvement in the city’s structure, Aki-Sawyerr expects to launch a youth climate council later this year to provide a structured and ongoing forum to engage young people. This council will also help inform and shape how Freetown’s climate action strategy unfolds.

In cities like Freetown and Bulawayo, climate action is dissimilar to what cities throughout the United States and Europe concern themselves with. When she met with Freetown’s local chapter of Fridays for Future — the organization founded by Greta Thunberg to spread her Friday school strikes to other cities and countries — it forced Aki-Sawyerr to realize “how different our situations are, and how there should be no one-size-fits-all when it comes to youth movements.” In Freetown, “nobody cares if you go to school,” she said. “You don’t even get enough school time. You don’t get enough contact with teachers.”

Moreover, many young people in Freetown face a myriad of immediate concerns from food insecurity to forced marriages. “In the midst of all of that,” Aki-Sawyerr said, “their lives are being significantly, adversely impacted by climate change.” Yet, they get none of the benefits those in the Global North have accrued as they polluted the planet and exposed previously colonized countries to grave dangers. “You don’t get the light. You don’t get Broadway. You don’t get the fancy cars,” Aki-Sawyerr said. “But you get the impact of the emissions that come from all of that.”

As a result, their focus is not on mitigating a problem that they did not cause, but adapting to it. Already, Freetown has faced tragedies that climate change may make more common. In 2017, days of torrential rain triggered a landslide that killed over 1,000 people. Such rainfall is expected to become more common in places like Freetown. And in Bulawayo, Gumede said that the biggest concern is extreme heat, something residents already struggle with.

As these cities and others throughout the Global South seek to reinforce their resilience to climate change, the youth of the Global North face a daunting task: putting more pressure on polluters. In leveraging the resources of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Youth Climate Action Fund, cities in developed countries must learn to channel the energy and ambitions of youth to accelerate their actions to eliminate emissions.

A boy shows the message 'In your hands, our future', written on his hands during the demonstration organized by Extinction Rebellion against the fossil fuel industry on May 19th, 2022.
A youth activist at a demonstration organized by Extinction Rebellion in 2022. Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto

Several young climate organizers in the United States spoke to the drive and vision that they and their peers bring to this work. Holly Swiglo, a freshman at Oberlin College in Ohio who helps lead the college’s chapter of the Sunrise Movement, said that youth who see their future defined by a worsening climate crisis stand unwilling to allow the burdens of bureaucracy to obstruct the pace and scale of change that they believe is not only possible but necessary. For cities and mayors to harness that energy, they cannot merely offer performative actions of allyship. Kristy Drutman, a New Jersey-based climate activist and communicator who serves on the EPA’s youth advisory council, said that such empty actions leave young people frustrated and disillusioned. But cities like Mesa, Arizona testify to how mayors and city council members can take to heart their role as public servants.

The city’s Republican mayor, John Giles, has listened to the climate concerns of his constituents since shortly after he entered office when local climate activists questioned him about his plans for the city’s climate agenda. The climate action plan that Mesa then developed contains the typical points — goals for carbon neutrality, renewable energy, and reducing waste — but it includes a fourth pillar that Giles considers critical to achieving the others: community engagement. Mesa residents have already shaped the city’s approach to climate action, including its proposal to the Youth Climate Action Fund, which emerged directly from its Hacktivate Mesa program that gives high schoolers the opportunity to understand the issues facing their communities and devise solutions.

Such initiatives provide an outlet for the pent up energy and anger of a generation desperate for action. The Youth Climate Fund hopes to encourage many more like them. Such efforts are needed, because today’s activists have in so many ways made clear that they have heeded the lessons of those who came before and will do whatever it takes to bring about the change they wish to see.


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