It is essential for young people in the Global South to become more involved in international climate discussions, including around solar radiation modification, says Ghanaian climate leader Nii Noi Omaboe in this C2GTalk. His decision to screen a documentary about SRM screened at Accra sustainability week prompted many questions – both about the risks and insufficient governance, but also about opportunities for research.
Nii Noi Omaboe is experienced in youth governance, human rights and global sustainable development processes. His work in development started 8 years ago with a Accra-based organization building homeless shelters and youth training centers in an attempt to address urban poverty. Since then he has organized and worked for non-profit and international organizations like Amnesty International, Red Cross, 350 Ghana, Young Reporters for the Environment, AIESEC, Global Shapers, ActionAid Global Climate Justice Collective, UN-Habitat’s Youth 2030 Cities Project and YOUNGO, where he is a member of the Nationally Determined Contribution Working Group and Global Coordination Team.
He co-founded Sustainability Week Accra, the first local Sustainability Week in Africa in 2019, which mobilizes students through environmental education. On Earth Day 2022, Sustainability Week Accra collaborated with Youth Climate Council Ghana to screen a Suppressed Science Documentary, “Weather Control: The Debate Over Geo-Engineering”, gathering more than 150 youth patrons with the aim to create public awareness on geo-engineering.
He currently provides strategic support to Green Africa Youth Organisation’s Ghana team as well as supporting establishment of Youth Climate Councils in the Global South. He is also a Program Analyst at Impact Hub Accra, where he is immersed in the sustainable innovation ecosystem working as a solutions broker for the Net Zero Accra Initiative, the organization’s climate-smart city initiative.
He holds a BA in Political Science & French with particular focus on International Development.
Below are edited highlights from the full C2GTalk interview shown in the video above. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Let’s begin with where you started. What motivated you to work on and get into the climate change sphere? What are you seeing around you in Ghana right now, and what do you see coming over the next few years?
My work in the development space actually started about eight years ago with an organization that was building youth training centers and homeless shelters in Accra. I finished high school, and I was just a person who genuinely cared about people. In the future I got to the environment, but it was first just caring about the city and some of the things that were happening.
I joined this organization where we provided for people living in the streets of Accra, and from there my advocacy work in the development space transformed when I joined the University of Ghana. At the University of Ghana I was part of the International Association of Students in Economics and Business (AIESEC), one of the largest youth organizations in the world working on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I was also an organizer for Amnesty International on campus; I was an organizer for the Red Cross Society; and I was doing stuff with Planned Parenthood Association of Ghana, which is a reproductive health and rights group.
Sometime after the 2019 Africa Climate Week, an organization called Young Reporters for the Environment, which is also an international group, came to the University of Ghana to do a “Fridays for Future” campaign. When people ask me how I got involved in the climate space I often say I was influenced by the Greta (Greta Thunberg) effect, very much unconventionally, especially because for people in the Global South skipping school to campaign was not the most obvious thing because we have poorly resourced schools and access to education is quite limited, but I still felt that need to be part of this movement.
From there I started to learn more about the climate change challenge, read more, and joined online campaigns that were trying to demand more justice and ensure that the perspective of young people and people from the Global South are well-represented.
It has changed so much to the work I do today with the youth climate movement with YOUNGO and the Green Africa Youth Organization, starting an organization of my own, Sustainability week which I started also.
In terms of climate challenges and how Ghana has been affected, one of the most evident ones is the sea level rise, which is quite obvious in the Keta region. Almost every year we hear on the news that a Keta tidal wave has happened again. It has cleared out communities and has destroyed educational facilities.
As a person who has lived in a coastal community and very much attached to it, I am a Ga Adangbe, which is like a clan in urban Accra, where we have seen how artisanal farmers and informal fisher folks are recording low catches of their fish. A greater part of it is the coral reefs, which have been destroyed because of increasing waves and the fact that it is just a low catch. But it is also connected to economic needs and how it affects women, for instance, who depend on the fish to sell to take care of their children and so on. 4:43 conti…
How much awareness do you see, especially amongst young people but also more generally, that some of these things that are happening, like lack of fish and so forth, are linked to climate change? How upfront is this debate in Ghana right now?
I think generally it is a growing discussion. I will be honest to say that the lack of economic opportunities often clouds your mind in seeing climate change as a very imminent issue. That is what I think is a challenge for young people, and even in the opportunities that exist.
For example, in Africa we have agrarian alliances so we can go into agriculture and so on, and climate change does not make it easy for young people to be involved in agriculture because of the increased ways that change in weather patterns is affecting agriculture, which could be an opportunity for young people to easily get themselves involved in.
It is quite a challenge, but I think that social media has made it easier for young people to know about these challenges. The growing movement that young people are seeing what is happening online and seeing that truly climate changes are happening through the issues of flooding that we face in Accra. Our perennial flooding is connected to the [inaudible] challenge but also very much connected to the climate challenge. 6:09 So it is a growing movement.
Tell me a little bit about Sustainability Week Accra. Tell me about how you set it up, what kind of response you had, and what kind of action it is leading to.
We started Sustainability Week in the latter part of 2019 with a group of friends who were already involved in this movement and doing little things here and there, so we came together. Sustainability at the time coincidentally is a movement that started in Switzerland. We were in touch with Sustainability International, Marie-Claire Graf was actually a former focal point of YOUNGO.
For me that strategic model was very much appealing to us because, you know, for young people we want things that are very much culturally appealing in learning about environmental issues but is not all boring but engaging — like doing workshops, doing film screening, group tree planting, engaging, and communing together and otherwise taking these environmental actions.
We decided to launch one in Ghana and started at the University of Ghana in Legon. We engaged with the Swiss Ambassador in Ghana and we got funding from the Swiss Development Corporation to start it. Also other partners like GAYO, Green Africa Youth Organization supported us in doing our sustainability.
It involved since opening, tree planting, Eco workshops, and even visits to a few environment sites. From there we started continuing the movement and doing other important things: weekly meetings, engaging, and being involved in engagements happening outside the student community.
It has transformed very much. Some of the students who have been part of Sustainability Week have gone on to work with environmental organizations and started their own initiatives.
One of them, our colleague is starting a go-to-fair that brings people who have environmental solutions together, entrepreneurs together, in one space to make it easily accessible to explore alternatives if you want them.
Perhaps you could tell me a little bit about — for people who looking to go into various forms of climate action, whether tree planting or entrepreneurial approaches — what are the biggest challenges for somebody in Ghana to get involved in that, whether it is technical or financial? I would just like to learn a little bit more about what are the challenges but at the same time where you see the opportunities. Is this where the new jobs are? Is this where new income can come from? I would be interested in how you are seeing that right now.
Absolutely, I think one of the major challenges is finance. I often speak to my colleagues and people who I engage with on climate. We just see how finance is transferred from government to government, and unfortunately there has not been much data accountability when it comes from financial flows from one capitalist government to another capitalist government, and we are finding issues of how to decentralize funding locally.
I think we need the same level of trust that is given to government in terms of access to finance, maybe the Green Climate Fund and other financial facilities. We need greater trust and power shift from these governments to young people. We need to trust young people more because a lot more young people are starting very good initiatives that can transform and create a chain of benefits for not just young people but for the entire country and could potentially transform a lot of things.
One of the things I see in terms of challenges is the gap in skills, especially when it comes to the renewable energy transition. I am very much concerned about the future of Africa when it comes to renewable energy, which is what we need to move toward, depending on renewable energy as a main source of energy in our economies.
I think that what is important for Africans, especially African youth, is to address the 42 million unemployed young people and to see renewable energy as an opportunity to transform skill sets, transform technological power, and put it in the hands of young people.
What I see for Africa, for example, is that Africa is the heart of wind power and all of these renewables. How do we make sure that young people are ready and own a greater part of this renewable energy transition? For me that is where I see the opportunity.
I want to take a step onto the world stage now because you have been involved in YOUNGO and the UNFCCC. How did you initially make that leap from essentially local action to getting involved on the international stage? What attracts you, but maybe also makes you think, Huh, this needs to be improved, about the international processes, Conferences of the Parties (COPs), and so forth? I would be interested in your journey there, how you encountered this, and how you feel about it now.
Obviously you can only do too little if you try to do local action. That is what has been the main influence for me to be part of the global climate movement because it is really the case that
you can only build a greater community of people who want to transform our societies if you work with people internationally and globally. That has been a main influence.
I have been part of the COP (Conference of Parties) process for some time, preceding COP 26, and like you mentioned being part of YOUNGO, and done a lot of work with the Cities Working Group, the NDC (Nationally Determined Contributions) Working Group, and also being part of the GCT (YOUNGO Global Coordination Team) helping with selections.
I can see what the entire negotiation process is, and I understand the point that it is very difficult for 196 countries to come to a consensus on different things regarding our climate; but, given the urgency, given where our world needs to go, and given the current overshoot situation that we may have, it is very much important for us to think of a global system of negotiating and a global system of agreement on climate policies and negotiating in a more transformative way than we have now.
I certainly understand the complexities, but I do think we need to think of a greater global governance framework that helps us to address climate change issues in a more imminent manner.
There has obviously been a move at many of these meetings to bring young people onboard. At the same time, sometimes young people have said, “Well, we’re there, but we are not necessarily feeling heard.”
What is your general sense of how that is developing? Are we seeing the concerns of young people sufficiently heard, and beyond heard acted upon, responded to, and built into whatever policy emerges from that? How is that working in practice at the international level?
What I can say is that, having been in the COP process and other international engagements, I think that generally as young people we are treated like just the observers that we are.
Young people have drafted position papers. For example, as part of the technical engagements at the SBs (Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice) YOUNGO had the opportunity to draft its position on where they want us to go in the next phase of our NDCs and in the global stocktake process what we should put as a priority.
But I think that being an observer does not give you enough power to make positions that are really considered. Even when you look at the observer constituency you see how YOUNGO as a youth observer is often given in these negotiating meetings one representative and other constituencies are given five reps, six reps, a considerable number of representatives, to be at the table for discussion.
Again, I understand the complexities, but I think if we truly understand how young people can shape the discourse — because we feel the pressing need to address climate injustices that are happening — we would consider and change the framework of our youth representation in these policy discussions.
Give me one example of how you might change that. None of us has a magic wand, but if you could basically say, “This procedural change would help get youth voices heard and responded to better,” what would that be?
I do not have a straitjacket answer, but I think that the way in which we can work is to ensure that young people are not just youth representatives at the table of discussion.
What comes to mind is how do party governments, for example, ensure that you do not just organize youth to represent them in these meetings but they truly understand representation and the need for young people to be in the party negotiations; not just to tick the box of young people being part of the delegation, but young people having an equal measure of power and representation in these meetings.
With the observer representation will be quite difficult, but the way in which we can go forward is making sure that country governments that are in these meetings ensure that there are enough young people in the meeting, young people actually treated with respect and given the same level of representation as other, older negotiators.
Will you be at the COP this year or in some form involved? What hopes do you have for this year’s event?
Usually COPs are issues of first accreditation, and funding, which is very much a marginalization discussion. Hopefully we will secure funding to be at the COP.
But I think in terms of who will participate in COP this year, the United Arab Emirates government for me is very decisive. I think the government itself has a number of successes in terms of developing their country, and even being the host of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the work IRENA is doing in the transition to renewable energy and the importance of decarbonizing our futures.
The place that we need to go to as an outcome of COP 28 is phasing out, first of all, equitably. I am just wondering, to be honest with you, how having a presidency that is associated with the oil industry could potentially narrow down the outcomes of COP 28.
Hopefully I will be able to be at the COP.
I think that usually the COP is first an issues of accreditation, and then next you have to find funding. These are not the most obvious things that you access when you are from the Global South. Hopefully I will be able to get funding and get accreditation to be at the COP.
But I think the UAE government, as we see, is quite decisive when it comes to some things to do with renewable energy, and that is why they are hosts of IRENA, some of the work that they doing with IRENA on the need to decarbonize our future.
What we obviously need as a strong outcome from COP 28 is really to equitably face out fossil fuels. If we do not deliver a much stronger message at COP 28, then I think we are not on-track in terms of delivering justice for people and the planet. Hopefully having a COP 28 president that is associated with the oil industry will not necessarily narrow down the discussion and the important outcome of COP 28.
I want to change tack now and talk a little bit about the proposed new technology approach to tackling climate change of solar radiation modification (SRM). Obviously the emphasis is on mitigation and removal, but there is the idea that this could help lower risks as the transition takes place.
What inspired you to screen a documentary about solar radiation modification or geoengineering last year? Tell me a little bit about that process and how you got involved in this discussion.
Close to Earth Day we wanted to screen a film that could engage young people because it was an important day to mark.
I engaged with SilverLining. Joshua Amponsem at the time was working on international strategy with SilverLining. Joshua recommended this film that we could screen.
When I first watched the film I was totally confused because typically I’m from a non-science background, I am more of a social science person, so I was totally confused. In fact, I watched the documentary for a second time. It was again very confusing, and I had to watch a third time to really understand geoengineering, the discussion around it, and why it is important.
We screened the film in Ghana at Green Africa Youth Organization and had a few panel discussions as part of the film screening. We had one geomatics engineer, one youth rep, and somebody who was working with the government on geoscience.
The first reactions from young people who were in the meetings was, “Okay.” They did not know there was something called geoengineering and solar radiation modification, so for many young people at that meeting it was the first time hearing about it and the first time doing anything on that track. From some of the feedback I got from the young people there, they were very happy that at least they got to know about this thing that is happening. It was just a regular film of a SRM film, but great learning coming from it and being immersed in science as well.
What kind of initial reactions did you get beyond, “Well, this is very interesting to know about?” Have you seen people react in a sense that this could be helpful, this could harmful, this is something we should explore, this is something we should not explore? I am interested in what kind of feedback you got and what was the initial sense of how people felt about these ideas, as a first sense of it, after seeing this film and after discussions.
Many of the young people that I spoke to were of the position that we should explore and learn more about it. In the position of many young people who virtually look for different opportunities that exist within this narrative they were in support of it, and especially very much so because many of the young people who joined were actually students at the University of Ghana, so they were mostly looking at how we can be involved in research and how some of them could dedicate some of their academic research toward SRM and potential benefits.
Also there were activists in the room, and many of the activists were very skeptical and definitely were thinking about the potential risks that could be involved with SRM and how it could affect Africa, and, given how unequal global governance is, how this could potentially play out and possibly work against Global South countries.
I would love to hear more of your thoughts on that. We have seen over the past few weeks SRM getting increasing attention. We have seen it at the United Nations in a United Nations Environment Programme-sponsored report, we have seen the European Union come up with a position, and we have seen something come from the United States, essentially pushing for more of a discussion.
What are your top-line thoughts on where you see now the global debate around SRM and its research and how one would involve the Global South and youth in particular more equitably in governance and decision-making processes? I would love your sense of where we are in that debate right now.
I think obviously we need to engage more and have greater discussions, especially centering discussions in the Global South, because discussions of the topics of SRM, geoengineering, and climate intervention are centered in the Global North. We are still not having discussions in the Global South, and many people are still unaware about SRM, climate interventions, and what we could potentially do in the overshoot situation we are heading toward.
I agree that we need greater learnings and we need to explore potential benefits that it could have for us. I think we need to channel a lot more finance toward research. It is unfortunate that we do not have enough funding being channeled toward research. How do we explore if you do not have funding channeled toward research on climate interventions? For me that is very much important.28:20 cont…
But also, how do we make sure, like I spoke about earlier, that technological advancement is an opportunity for young people to engage more, build skills, and address the skill gap that we have in Africa and parts of the Global South? That for me I think is the most important part of the discussion.
You have mentioned a couple of times “overshoot.” This is obviously a word that people are talking about more and is very relevant to this discussion of SRM. As you head into an overshoot situation risks increase, and here is a technology or approach which might reduce risks or might not reduce risks, depending on where they are. This is what we are learning.
Do you get a sense when you talk with your colleagues and friends about these potential technologies how people think about them? Do they think about them in the sense of risks versus risks or balancing of risks, or do they think about them more as this is something that should not be done or should be done? I am trying to get a sense of how people are approaching the discussion. Is it in a sort of almost scientific risk-based way or is it more sometimes in an emotional way about values and what we should or should not be doing? What are the kinds of dynamics you have seen out there?
The discussion about finance is very important when it comes to climate change. From Copenhagen the $100 billion that was promised Global South countries in dealing with climate change has not actually been achieved
I think sometimes when people from the Global South, in places like Ghana, hear things like this, especially because it is a discussion that comes from the North, they think it is another way of tricking us to agree to something that we do not really know about and could affect us. I think that distrust when it comes to this discussion is something we must deal with.
The second thing I think is that the global governance structures that we have not been fair to people from the Global South. If we do not center these inequalities as an important part of the SRM climate intervention discussions, we will not make headway.
I think we just need to address this level of distrust. If we want to make sure that people are involved, we need to address global governance structures which are fundamentally unfavorable for people from the Global South if we want to engage more and build better dialogues in terms of some of the opportunities that exist in terms of dealing with emission levels and their harmful effects on us.
I think that is so important, especially at a time when people have so many sources of information or misinformation. Building trust is one of the big challenges.
Let’s end this debate around SRM and how to govern it. Can you suggest some initial steps that could be taken to help build trust? What kinds of things could be done to help get that rapport and get confidence that this is not some trick or whatever, that there is a discussion to be had to decide whether or not this is an approach that might be taken? What kinds of things could help build that trust?
I think the way in which we can first build trust is better dialogues. That is why the example of this broadcast is important because we are continuing to engage and learn in our land different aspects of a system that has been unfair and how to build better dialogue. First of all, I think it encourages us to engage more in terms of dealing with distrust.
Second of all, I think in terms of SRM and some of the solutions that exist, places like Africa should not be an experimental hall [?]. Immediately you want to do something and center it in parts of the Global South. Then it creates a level of distrust that, “These people want to use us as a test kit or to test some of these solutions.” It is dialoguing and engaging more and seeing what global governance in this truest sense.
Do you think youth-focused NGOs that you work with or civil society organizations are ready for this discussion? Do you see that there is a desire for it, or is there still a lot of work to want to even get to the point where they are ready to start having this discussion and this dialogue?
Like I mentioned earlier, the capacity gap is still a huge thing. Many people are not aware of the global discussions on SRM and climate interventions.
We need to address the capacity gap. We need continually NGO, nonprofit, and civil society shared learnings on climate interventions to transfer knowledge to parts of the Global South in places like Ghana and parts of Africa because from my experience in the climate space we still have a huge capacity gap when it comes to climate interventions.
Just one more thought on this: Where do you think would be a good place to have these discussions, these dialogues? Do you think they fit in one UN body or another, or are there other places where these discussions might best be held which can help build this sense of trust, local knowledge capacity, and so forth? I am interested in where some of these conversations might happen.
That is a complex question, but I think representation is very important — I think it is not really where it is happening, but how to make sure that that discussion is very representative of the different stakeholders that make up our society — marginalized people, government, youth, people of different backgrounds, and indigenous people — how to center the discussion, making sure that we have enough representation, is very much important, agreeing on where the discussion happens.
I often finish these talks by asking people about where they find sources of hope versus how to tackle sometimes the despair that can sometimes be felt about this very difficult problem. Internally what level of hope do you have that humanity is going to be able to achieve its climate goals during your lifetime and avoid the worst impacts of climate change?
This question is always the most important question for me.
Being a climate activist and also being a very reflective person, it is often very hard. It seems like a very lonely field to work in, given some of the struggles that we face, access to finance to lead projects, and even just getting to the professional aspect of being part of climate change discussions.
Where do I find hope? I find hope in the possibility of being the person who can transform something in the little way that I can. These days I think about being in political governance a lot. Somebody who I very much admire often says, “You know, the sky is the limit but politics is the lid.”
I think we need more young people, especially young people who are very reflective of our society, the injustices in our society, and where we should go to occupy spaces and governance.
I am building a career to be city mayor in ten years. I think that is where I find power, that is where I find hope, because I understand that I can build a ten-year career, I can build learning for the political governance that I want to use and what I could potentially do with it. I guess what gives me hope is that if I do not do it, who else will?
On that note, Nii Noi Omaboe, thank you so much for being a guest on C2GTalk.
Thank you so much, Mark, for having me.