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Tamminen: Girls (and Boys) Gone Wild in Copenhagen

Of the estimated 20,000 people converging on the UN climate conference this week and next, half of them are expected to be under the age of 30.

Photo: Kristina Haddad

My colleague in Copenhagen, Kristina Haddad, reports: “I observed that many in the crowds of people were young. Most were wearing t-shirts or passing out flyers that essentially pleaded for the world leaders to do the right thing – to stop the talking and compromise and really do something about this crisis or they will have no future.”

She went on to describe how a group from India unraveled a banner at the conference center that had notes, drawings and messages from hundreds of children making similar demands.

Others took cellphone photos of themselves with a cardboard cutout of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (the real Governator will speak to delegates next week about the benefits of a low-carbon economy). And organized groups of these young people met with UN climate czar, Yvo deBoer, to press their views.

"Trust is something that is earned,” he told them, “and the [climate negotiations] process is something that has not yet earned your trust. Keep it up...negotiators must be reminded of why they are doing what they are doing."

Other than the anti-war campaigns of the 1970s, it’s hard to recall a movement that has been so embraced, even motivated, by the world’s youth. Solving the climate crisis is not the only thing these young people are focused on—they are also inventing, embracing, and sharing the solutions.

Twitter, Facebook, Badoo, Bebo, MySpace and Flickr are among the most active social networks that are ablaze with discussion about climate change and tips of what to buy, what to avoid and other ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

Why should policymakers, investors, or businesspeople care about this? Because these people are the voters and consumers of the next 50 years and they’re very serious about this low carbon thing.

Kristina Haddad with Arnold Schwarzenegger cut-out
Photo: Sasha Abelson
Kristina Haddad with Arnold Schwarzenegger cut-out

A marketing exec once explained to me why the 18-34 age group was so important—they will buy several cars, for example, in their remaining lifetime, while someone at age 55 may only buy one more. He wanted those youthful eyes, ears and any potential brand loyalty focused on his products and spent millions to understand that coveted age group. Ditto the politicians, as they think of future elections.

The Carbon Challenge - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage
The Carbon Challenge - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage

Well, neither marketers nor political consultants need spend a penny on polls and focus groups this month, but should spend a few minutes surfing the web and looking at the social networking sites to understand how deeply rooted this youthful interest is when it comes to climate change.

Then, look at your own products—supply chain, corporate carbon footprint, packaging and other contributors to their carbon footprints. If a reasonable observer (or an angry, unreasonable youth) would consider your products a net plus for climate change, find a way to communicate that and become part of the solution. If your products are more on the carbon-heavy side, I suggest a makeover pronto.

Mr. deBoer is right—trust on this topic must be earned, but any investment now by a company to be a meaningful part of these young people’s low-carbon future will pay handsome dividends for generations to come.

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Terry Tamminen, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is a partner at Pegasus Sustainable Century Merchant Bank and the Cullman Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. (Cracking The Carbon Code is a registered trademark of Terry Tamminen).