Max van Deursen – Youth Engagement and Climate Activism

Max van Deursen is a student of Global Public Health and Environmental Sustainability at Leiden University College. But more importantly (for this interview), until the 30th of October 2017 he was the Dutch Youth Representative on Sustainable Development to the United Nations. A position he held for two years.

He gave us the honour of an interview about his time as Youth representative, Youth Education and Youth activism and the problem of acute under-representation of young people in politics.

Lugo: Thank you for talking with us. First, let me ask you, how did you get the idea of running for the position of youth representative?

Max: After finishing high school I decided to go abroad for a year. During that year I spent a few months in Tanzania as a school teacher for physics and mathematics. At some point, we had a debate in school about climate change and I was supposed to prepare my class for the discussion. But, looking back, my class taught me much more because they made climate change very tangible and real. Previously, I had seen climate change from a very abstract perspective, it was about numbers, calculations, science and overall it seemed rather far away. But for my students’ climate change was about droughts or flooding, about the harvest, about very tangible things, close to home.

That got me really interested and I wondered why we had such a different idea. It made me want to learn more and I applied to an Indian NGO which works on environmental education. There we went to schools in the area, giving lectures about environmental issues. After India, I went back to the Netherlands and started studying at LUC. But after a few weeks of studying I quickly got the feeling, that while learning a lot of theory I was not making any change. A fellow student, who is actually my girlfriend now, told me about the job opening for becoming Youth representative. I decided to apply, got through all selection rounds and got elected.

Lugo: How does your work look like? You work with students, but also lawmakers, right?

Max: Yes exactly, these are the two main aspects but working with young people is the core duty because your whole legitimacy is based on the fact that you speak and engage with young people.

I mainly do that by giving guest lectures to young people from elementary school to secondary school, in institutions for vocational training, in university, all across the board. But it’s not only about educating them about sustainability and climate change. It is also about discussing with and getting feedback and new ideas from the class.

The nice thing about this is that you reach a broad range of young people, not only those who are and involved in sustainability. Some of them even say that they really don’t care about the whole problem or that they have no clue about it while some others are actually quite enthusiastic.

This is also a good reality check because often you are in a bubble with people who already think that sustainability is quite important and we have to quickly change things. But standing in front of a class you see that there are still a lot of people who have no clue at all about the transition we are going to go through.

On the other hand, with the lawmakers there is also a big battle going on. Young people are not decision makers. We don’t have the same status as a country on the negotiation tables. You need to make your voice heard in other ways. Imagine it as a big movement, comparable to the gender equality movement and it is a very long process to give young people a stronger and more equal voice. But how do we do it in practice?

The unique point of Youth representatives is that we are members of the official delegation of the Netherlands to international conferences, which means that we have access to all meetings and negotiation rounds. But our Mandate is to speak on behalf of young people not for our country. That gives us the chance to talk to many different people and try to convince the actual decision makers to include our points in the negotiations.

In Paris for example we even managed to write text proposals which actually made it into the final agreement.

In short, we lobby lawmakers for the rights and future of young people.

Lugo: Let’s look at some examples. You have been to Paris as well as Bonn if I’m not mistaken?

Max: In total, I went to about ten conferences related to climate change. My first one was in Paris, which was a very dramatic, kind of Olympic event where I was only one of over 30.000 persons.

That really was an overwhelming experience but I luckily had a senior, who guided me during that time.

And we managed to get a lot done. For example, article 12 of the Paris agreement, on climate change education and public participation would not have been in there without the engagement of young people. It’s only because my predecessors as Youth representatives together with some other young people, pushed hard to have this article in the agreement. Also, the mentioning of intergenerational equity is a gain for young people. We had to fight against the resistance of many country delegates and now it is at least in the preamble.

Lugo: You talked a lot about the formal part of the negotiations, but usually there are many actions, like protests outside of these conferences. Have you been part of that as well?

Max: Yes, especially in Paris I was involved in that as well. These demonstrations are rather important to build up pressure and media attention. What was interesting in Paris is that there were many actions inside of the conference rooms. I was part of one with hundreds of activists. With so many people involved, usually the security guards would come and throw everybody out, but in Paris there was so much media that there was no way to do that without a lot of bad press. And this kind of actions put pressure on the negotiations and help to put things on the agenda.

But there are also more subtle actions. There is a nice example from my predecessors. It was in South Africa at the time when the Copenhagen negotiations had failed and there was the question whether we should extend the Kyoto protocol for another term. Only one country was against it, the Netherlands.

Two Youth representatives from the Netherlands saw the Dutch Minister and asked him to take a picture with them. They wore t-shirts with the label: ‘we love the Kyoto protocol’ and asked the minister to wear the same t-shirt for the picture which surprisingly he did. This picture then made the front page of Dutch national newspapers on the next day and the government suddenly was under pressure to change their stance and they decided to sign the protocol.

Similarly, in Paris, initially most European countries and the US were against setting the target to 1.5 degree but actions by activists and ensuing media attention played a big part in changing the opinions of those in charge, which shows the power of such actions.

Lugo: Let’s move on to what individuals can do. We know many young people who want to become more active on sustainability but don’t exactly know where to start.

Max: In my opinion one of the best ways to get started, is to join a youth organisation working on sustainability.

Lugo: Any examples of such organisations?

Max: Studenten voor morgen work a lot on making the higher education system more sustainable. There is Jongeren Milieu Actief, basically Young Friends of the Earth Netherlands, which are more activist. You have the Jonge Klimaat Beweging [Youth Climate Movement] who organised the Youth climate summit for example. There is the National Youth Council, Jong en duurzaam. And many more. Interestingly, many of these organisations are rather small but have an enormous impact.

Joining a youth organisation and putting your time into it, is an important contribution. But if you don’t want to join an organisation right away, you can also go to a conference.

Just look online for sustainability conferences in the Netherlands for example. Once you get in there you could meet interesting people to work with and get your foot into the door.

Also within your own university you can make a difference. If there is a green office you can work there. But even if not, you can try to work with the student board or other bodies to get some sustainability policies going.

Or you can start your own initiative, become a social entrepreneur, start your own business or organisation, which is another big way to make impact.

Lugo: How to reach the people who are not yet interested in or engaged with sustainability?

Max: That’s the million-dollar question! One way is via the education system. To that end we are lobbying to get sustainability and climate issues into the curricula so that everybody at least gets the basics.

Apart from that, it is a nice challenge and quite important to engage people who are sceptical especially in your closer surrounding, with family, friends, colleagues.

An important aspect here is being a role model. Talking about sustainability is one thing but doing something is way more visible. For example, when I talk about my time as youth representative it is rather abstract and less tangible for people. Soon I am going to study in Malaysia for six months and I will go there by train instead of flying. This became a hot topic with my friends and my family and they were asking things like: is it really that serious? Is it really such a big problem? Or even: Oh, I had no idea that flying was bad for the environment! I even got reactions on Facebook, arguing that the train is less environmentally friendly because you need to print multiple tickets and in the plane only one and more paper is worse for the environment. But at least it gets a discussion going.

And the same thing goes for becoming vegetarian or changing to a sustainable bank etc.

Lugo: As you mentioned, vegetarianism. How would you promote behaviour changes?

Max: As for personal behaviour change I am more a proponent of gradual change. Behaviour change is extremely difficult but I think gradual change can go a long way. Try to gradually phase out eating meat. Try to gradually go for less and less and less. As for others, again the role model approach works well. If you want to convince somebody be a role model and instead of saying you should do this or you need to do that give small and tangible examples like a nice vegetarian recipe.

Lugo: Two more questions related to the political level: why are so few young people getting into politics and what are the biggest challenges for them to get heard?

Max: About how to get heard. Maybe a short anecdote. One year ago, I was at the sustainable development goals summit in New York. It was about reviewing the sustainable development goals and there were only six youth representatives there from four countries, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Sweden. Which was pathetic especially as one big topic of the summit was youth representation.

“He said to us, that we have a right to make our voices heard, to speak up and we should not be afraid to speak to anybody and ask anybody to address the issues important to us.”

That was when we decided we need to get vocal and to meet with as many persons as we could and address the issue. We spoke to delegations, with representatives of the general assembly and we thought: let’s just try and send a letter to Ban Ki-Moon, then Secretary General of the UN and ask him for a meeting. And guess what, he said yes and invited us to his office for almost an hour. He said to us, that we have a right to make our voices heard, to speak up and we should not be afraid to speak to anybody and ask anybody to address the issues important to us.

I think that is a very important message for young people, not to be afraid to speak to someone only because they are a CEO or a lawmaker and have more experience than a young person.

Regarding formal politics, there is a trend among young people, that they are getting less and less interested in formal politics. One of the reasons is probably that due to the current under-representation many young people feel that they cannot change anything anyways, so they stay away from running for office, which perpetuates the issue of under-representation.

But at the same time young people are getting more and more engaged in informal politics. For example by getting involved in activism, or social entrepreneurship but also via social media and by reflecting on what they buy.

Nonetheless it is a shame, that there are not enough young people in Parliaments and formal politics. Because you notice each and every time that there is a big difference between talking about young people and talking with them. The moment you have more young people in politics, the setting changes automatically as well as the outcomes. So, there should something be done about it. And this is also a message for young people not to wait until they are forty to run for office. Better sooner than later.

Lugo: Looking back, what were the biggest successes and challenges during your time as Youth representative?

Max: One of the biggest challenges is that you are fighting such a big problem and to figure out where to start. Another challenge is being taken seriously as a young person. So often people just use you as a photo-op but don’t actually talk with you.

Lugo: did you have a case where you managed to change somebody’s opinion and convinced them that it is worthwhile listening to the youth?

Max: Yes, I once had this moment when I was invited to the publication of a book and they wanted to symbolically hand over that book to a representative of the youth. I initially thought that this will be a picture moment but that I won’t have an opportunity to talk to the people there. I decided to agree but only under certain conditions. One was that I can have a meeting with the author beforehand to discuss the book so that I would be able to say something meaningful about it. The second was that during the hand over I would be allowed to ask some questions and say something on behalf of young people. That way I turned this into something more useful than a mere photo moment.

“Sometimes as a young person you need to stretch the rules a bit to make your voice heard”

One last example, that I really like is from one of the meetings in Bonn were us as Youth representatives were in the negotiation rooms, but only as observers. So, we basically had no say. But at some point, we decided to make our own nameplate, like those of country delegations and put it on the table into speaking position. The chairman was quite confused and said: ‘it seems like the Youth constituency would like to make an intervention, are there any objections. There were none and we were allowed to speak. In that way, we brought ourselves into the negotiations.

Sometimes as a young person you need to stretch the rules a bit to make your voice heard.

Lugo: That were all our questions. Thank you for your time.

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