By Sharon Pia Hickey (see full bio at end of article).
The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance’s (“International IDEA”) “Global State of Democracy Report 2021” has recently described how, while the number of democracies is increasing, the quality of democratic governance has fallen. Covid-19, in particular, has exacerbated the fault lines that were widening before the pandemic struck. For many (especially in the Global North), the experience of lockdowns, restrictions, fear, and scarcity was the first taste of what life might be like under emergency conditions caused by climate change. While the jury is still out on how the world handled the pandemic, it is clear that innovation, solidarity, and commitment will be needed to sustain democracy in the face of the ever-increasing manifestations of climate change.
Important international agreements like the UN 2030 Agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement provide vital policies and goals for the upcoming years. Further, international bodies are beginning to express a consensus on the issue. In October 2021, for example, the UN Human Rights Council recognized the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, followed by the appointment of a newly created special mandate: a Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change. In the same month, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, in its first climate-related petition, established that states have extraterritorial obligations for negative impacts of climate change. Even though the international community has taken these significant steps, the global awakening, in general, has been sluggish, and in February 2022, scientists issued “the bleakest warning yet” that we are reaching the very last opportunity to avert the worst impacts of climate change.
About 20% of the world’s population is between the ages of 15–25. This group, and the generations coming after, will bear the brunt of climate change. Despite this, young people have been a largely ignored stakeholder in conversations relating to climate change. But young people are taking up the mantle of leadership, forcing states to account for lack of environmental governance. This generation, like previous ones, wants to “save the whales,” but it also wants to save us all. This piece will explore how state constitutions are a potentially overlooked avenue for funneling this politicized generation’s goals into governance, embedding the principles of intergenerational justice and providing a long-term solution against short-term thinking. In particular, it will consider the normative and political reasons for lowering the age of voting and minimum age of candidacy for parliament as key components to combat climate change.
II. The generational gulf
There is a generational gulf in the sense of urgency that climate change is an imminent problem that needs swift and decisive remediation. Young people feel frustrated that those in power are not acting, while young people will inherit the consequences of this inaction. Of course, “youth” is not a homogenous block, and young people have intersectional identities and differing priorities. Nevertheless, youth-led climate protests and climate strikes have fomented a decentralized worldwide network of young people unified by the imminent threat of climate change. Recent polling supports this contention. The 2020 African Youth Survey found that 80% of youth in Africa are concerned about climate change. In Sweden, the home of Greta Thunberg, 65% of people aged 18–29 were “very” or “somewhat” concerned about harm from climate change, compared to just 25% of those aged 65 and over. A similar gap in concern per generation was recorded in Australia, France, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States.Polling in Britain indicated that nearly 50% of voters aged 18 and 24 ranked climate change as the most urgent issue of our time, compared to less than 20% of those over 65.
III. Centering the concerns of young and future generations: the role of constitutions
Innovative thinking is needed to sustain and strengthen democracy against opportunistic authoritarianism caused by crises. In particular, meaningful participation of youth in governance and policymaking is essential to ensure that young people’s priorities (and innovations) are reflected in planning and decisions that impact their future. Constitutions can play a key role in providing a stable framework for environmental democracy, and there are several compelling reasons for this. Perhaps the most salient reason is that environmental provisions and safeguards contained in constitutions bypass short-term political considerations tied to election cycles in favour of longer-term protection of the environment. The same is true of provisions that enhance youth representation and leadership in governance, which would presumably bring to the fore key priorities of young people and encourage strong environmental governance and more sustainable economic models to deal with rising food and energy prices.
IV. Constitutional design for youth representation
Current constitutional provisions relating to youth span symbolic provisions, statements of principle, and directive principles. They often include rights and responsibilities of the state and young people, and sometimes establish advisory or oversight bodies to speak for youth and future generations. While statements of principle are not directly enforceable, they can provide key guiding principles for the state. For example, the preamble of Guyana‘s constitution acknowledges “the aspirations of our young people who [. . .] have declared that the future of Guyana belongs to its young people” and “who aspire to live in a safe society which respects their dignity, protects their rights, recognises their potential, listens to their voices, provides opportunities, [and] ensures a healthy environment.”
a. Constitutional provisions establishing advisory bodies / fourth-branch institutions to represent youth issues
Some constitutions establish national youth councils as advisory and representative bodies for youth to the government and public bodies. The constitutions of Algeria, Congo, Morocco, and Rwanda, for example, establish such bodies. The effectiveness of these institutions varies depending on their functional independence, resources, staffing, powers established by law, and, of course, political receptiveness to their agendas and recommendations.
Other constitutions establish an office of a children’s/youth ombudsman or commissioner, like Poland and Guyana. Guyana’s constitution specifies a broad mandate for the Rights of the Child Commission, including monitoring, evaluating and making recommendations on “policies, procedures and practices of organisations, bodies and institutions in order to promote the rights of the child”—this includes private bodies. It is further mandated to investigate and resolve complaints relating to children’s rights.
Tunisia and Hungary offer two examples of fourth-branch institutions specifically designed to monitor and enforce environmental rights and protections for future generations. Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution creates the Commission for Sustainable Development and the Rights of Future Generations. However, like four of the five independent institutions outlined in the Constitution, the Commission is not yet fully established and staffed. Hungary’s Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations (now Deputy Commissioner for Fundamental Rights) was established by legislation in 2007 (and constitutionalized in 2011), primarily to protect the constitutional right to a healthy environment and the Constitution’s specification that natural resources should be protected for future generations. The office originally issued notable binding and enforceable resolutions, such as halting the privatization of public water utilities.
b. Constitutional provisions to increase youth parliamentary representation
Some constitutional provisions can oblige politicians (not necessarily young people themselves) to represent youth issues in parliament. For example, article 97(1)(c) of the Kenyan Constitution foresees that parties will nominate 12 members who will represent “special interests,” including the youth. Article 98(1)(c) requires that two members in the senate (one man and one woman) will represent young people.
Other constitutional design options encourage the representation of young people’s interests and priorities through reserved seats for youth in parliament or on political party lists. In Uganda, the electoral law (reflecting the principle of Art. 78(1)(c) of the Constitution) reserves five seats for people under 30, one of whom must be a woman. In Rwanda, two members of parliament are elected by the National Youth Council.
Lowering the voting age and minimum age to run for parliament are natural boosters to increasing the number of young people in parliament, a crucial way to encourage youth leadership, and to directly represent the priorities of younger generations in climate change law and policy.
Minimum voting age differs across the world, with the vast majority of states setting 18 as the minimum age to vote in national elections (with variations for constituent and local elections). A much smaller number of countries and territories set the minimum voting age for national elections at 16 (approximately 12, including Argentina,Ecuador, Malta, and Wales). On the other end of the spectrum, approximately 12 states and territories set minimum voting ages between 19 and 21 (including Cameroon, Kuwait, Oman, and Tonga).
When it comes to the minimum age of candidacy for parliament, many nations set a minimum age of 21 (including, for example, Brazil, Ireland, Antigua and Barbuda) or 25 (Colombia, India, the Philippines, Italy, United States) for first chambers (even as old as 28 in Iraq). For second chambers, the minimum age tends to be higher, up to 40 (in, for example, Czech Republic and Thailand). Minimum age for head of state or head of government can be even older (for example, 50 in Italy, and 35–40 in some other states).
The results of this are unsurprising. As of 2016, less than 2% of parliamentarians globally were under 30, and as of 2018, the average age of cabinet members in the OECD was 53. There are varying historical, social, and physiological arguments surrounding the 18-year-old minimum voting age. But research shows that 16-year-old voters make similar-quality choices to older voters to ensure that their interests are represented. Research also shows that the right to stand in elections from the age of 18 leads to higher numbers of young people in parliament. Excluding younger adults from voting and running for parliament creates a democratic deficit (and the imbalance grows larger if youth are excluded while older generations live, and vote, longer). There is a burgeoning trend of countries considering lowering the voting age. Most recently, the parliament in Taiwan voted to lower the age of voting from 20 to 18, which will be put to referendum at the end of 2022. In addition, New Zealand’s parliament will consider lowering the country’s voting age to 16. And Germany is also considering lowering the voting age to 16, in response to the Fridays for Future movement. There is also a trend toward lowering the minimum age of candidature. For example, to 18 from 25 in Turkey, to 18 from 25 in South Korea, and from 30 to 25 in Jordan.
Youth representation in parliament is a good in itself, because representative democracy should resemble the population it represents. Further, given that young people make up a large percentage of the world’s population (albeit “lopsided”), a lower voting age means politicians will need to appeal to younger voters, running on platforms that address climate change. Political parties would also need to field candidates that would appeal to young people including, presumably, younger people. Additionally, political parties would face heightened accountability to deliver on their promises in order to succeed in subsequent elections, as young voters today will have a long voting life. In the words of Greta Thunberg, “Hope is not passive. Hope is not blah blah blah. Hope is telling the truth. Hope is taking action.” While youth advisory bodies, commissions, and ombudsmen are important constitutionalized institutions that represent youth, the opportunity to harness the power of young people’s policy and economic priorities through youth leadership in governance may be pivotal in combating climate change now and in the long term. Constitutionalizing a lower age to vote and run for parliament would be a symbolic and practical conduit to transform young people’s hopes into policy and law.
About the Author
Sharon Pia Hickey is an Associate Programme Officer in the Constitution-Building Programme at International IDEA, where she generates knowledge on comparative constitutional process and design and supports constitution-building processes. She is a member of International IDEA’s Task Force on Democracy and Climate Change.
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 “Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises.” Olivia Lai, 7 Powerful Greta Thunberg Quotes and Speeches to Inspire Climate Action, Earth.Org (Jan. 13, 2022), https://earth.org/greta-thunberg-quotes-speeches-to-inspire-climate-action/ (quoting Greta Thunberg, Address at the Youth4Climate Summit in Milan, Italy (Sept. 28, 2021)).
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 Id. art. 212V(f).
 Id. art. 212V(b).
 Id. art. 212V(e).
 Politically neutral and independent from the three traditional “branches” of government–executive, legislative, and judicial–,independent regulatory and oversight institutions, such as electoral management commissions, anticorruption agencies, or ombuds offices, charged with “ensur[ing] the integrity––and improv[ing] the quality and resilience––of democratic governance,” are sometimes called “fourth-branch institutions.” Elliot Bulmer, Independent Regulatory and Oversight (Fourth-Branch) Institutions: Constitution-Building Primer No. 19, Int’l Inst. For Democracy & Electoral Assistance 6-7 (2019), https://constitutionnet.org/sites/default/files/2019-09/Independent-regulatory-and-oversight-fourth-branch-institutions.pdf.
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