Ecological crisis demands involving young people in decision making

Given the choices we face, younger people are more likely to put climate at the top of the political agenda

When I read about projections for the near future by climate scientists, I am sometimes at a loss as to the lack of widespread protest by the public. In spite of all that we know now about our reliance on a stable atmosphere and functioning Earth systems, our descendants are likely to inherit a legacy of ecological devastation, unimaginable climate hazards, food insecurity and endless political turmoil.

Yet activists are admonished, ridiculed and even criminalised for daring to protest. The economist Colm McCarthy scolded the Irish public during the financial crash with his line “anger is not a policy” but sometimes anger is the most rational and response to the folly of people who are old enough to know better. It is not surprising then that the climate justice movement is being led by young people. What is disturbing however, is how little power they exert at local and national level. In political terms, power means representation. Our youth are hopelessly underrepresented in our democratic structures and no Citizens’ Assembly or token UN youth post can fix that.

Local government should provide political opportunities for Irish youth. A comprehensive nationwide breakdown of the age profile of Irish local councillors is not available, but evidence from voting records suggests that a very conservative political culture prevails on many rural local councils. When it comes to climate change, rural councils in particular often block or delay critical policies such as renewable energy, active travel and environmental enforcement. There is nothing particularly unusual about this in European terms. However, in the context of the choices we now face, younger people are more likely to put the climate and ecological crisis at the top of the political agenda and thus should be part of the decision-making process now. Long-term horizons should shape decision-making instead of the short-term, pothole-fixing mentality to which we are accustomed.

Local elections are the launching pads for most political careers at the national level. The 40 per cent gender quota that will apply to political parties in the next general election means that more women are likely to run in the 2024 local elections. However no quota applies to age.


In my opinion, there is a strong case for introducing an age quota so that parties are required to field a minimum of say 20 per cent of candidates under the age of 30. At the very least, there should be term limits (for example a maximum of three consecutive terms or 15 years). I was a member of Dublin City Council myself in the early 1990s, and four of my then colleagues are still councillors today, 30 years later. One Kilkenny county councillor recently celebrated a whopping 50 years as a local elected representative. While politics undoubtedly benefits from age and experience, lengthy service effectively blocks younger talent from coming through. And despite our best intentions, as we get older our ideas often stagnate and we become more rigid in our thinking.

According to a report prepared by Ireland Thinks in 2022 for the European Climate Foundation, young people are much more likely to rank climate change as a political priority than older cohorts: those aged 18-24 (31 per cent) and students (34 per cent) are also significantly more likely to prioritise the issue over other pressing concerns. This does not necessarily map on to support for the Green Party. The most recent Irish Times IPSOS/B&A poll from February 2024 suggests high levels of support for the three largest parties among young people (37 per cent of the 18-24 age group intend to vote for Sinn Féin, with another 19 per cent and 16 per cent voting for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael respectively) with just 6 per cent intending to vote for the Green Party.

Voter turnout is an issue too. Researchers found half of the Irish public (49.9 per cent) didn’t vote in 2019, and it is likely that the turnout was much lower among younger voters. However, low turnouts are not inevitable. As we saw during the marriage equality and the repeal referendums, efforts to get the youth vote out likely clinched the Yes vote by boosting overall turnout. Measures to address this could reducing the voting age, social media and advertising campaigns, and door-to-door efforts to register, enthuse and mobilise younger voters.

The ecological crisis demands a new form of politics and a commitment to involving young people in decision-making. But we should not forget the need for climate-friendly candidates. In 2019, the centre left won just 23 per cent of the seats. Women represented 23.7 per cent of the total, with the lowest shares of women among independents, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, and Fine Gael.

Clearly the age and gender profile of local government leadership today is not adequately representative of voters. The least we should expect from publicly-funded political parties is a diverse and representative slate of candidates in the 2024 local elections, with climate-literate young people to the fore.

Sadhbh O’Neill is the senior climate adviser to Friends of the Earth Ireland