Earlier this year a team of 12 young people, selected as youth representatives, spoke in the opening address at the international Planet Under Pressure Conference. The conference focused on sustainability, and attracted scientists, policy makers, charities and industry leaders from all over the world, who came to join in the discussion on global sustainability. 

The team of young people delivered a ten minute presentation to an audience of 3000 delegates on the key areas that they felt the conference should be addressing - posing questions and challenges to delegates on issues from water shortage to the development of emerging superpowers.

The 12 teenagers were selected from across the UK, as young people who have a significant interest in the area of environmental research, as part of a public dialogue run by Sciencewise-ERC. In the six months leading up to the conference, the team worked closely with researchers from the Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) programme, and with their peers at school and in their communities to develop the presentation.

We interviewed one of the team, Rebecca Diez, pictured far left, from Ursuline High School in Wimbledon, South London, about her experience of being involved with Planet Under Pressure Youth Voice.

Can you tell us a little about your interest in environmental issues. How did you first get enthusiastic about this area of science?

My mother studied environmental sciences at university so from a young age I was introduced to this area of science. As I grew up I became more and more passionate about environmental issues. I read the New Scientist regularly, and from 2007-2010 I was an eco-representative for my class. In 2009 I attended a conference in central London with my head teacher, my head of year and one other student to discuss pressing environmental issues and school sustainability projects with representatives from other schools. Since 2010 I have been an Environmental Student Leader, attending weekly meetings, managing eco reps and organising fundraising events to fund sustainability projects in my school, such as providing recycling bins for each classroom. Being able to take part in such projects nurtured my passion for environmental science.

How did you get selected to take part in Planet Under Pressure Youth Voice?

I found out about Planet Under Pressure through my school. I had to fill in an application form; this involved writing a paragraph on why I wished to get involved and why I felt I filled the requirements needed to take part. I also had to write a paragraph on what I felt was the main challenge that the conference delegates should address; I believed that the main issue was how to meet expanding global energy demands with renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy. Only 12 young people out of the whole of the UK got chosen to take part and I was absolutely thrilled to be one of them.

Can you tell us more about how you all came up with the key areas that you felt the conference should be addressing? How long did it take? What was the process like?

There was a meeting on 7 November at the Royal Society where the whole youth voice group met for the first time. We discussed ideas and decided on what we would be doing on the day. We cut down the main issues we wanted to discuss into three topics; environment, energy and media. We then split our group into three; everyone decided what groups they were most interested in - I for example was in the energy group. We decided the speech would contain three sections and so it was each group’s responsibility to bring ideas and research together to create their part of the speech. We also decided we wanted a Prezi presentation going on in the background and so we allocated the task of creating it to two members of our team, Tamzin and Katie.

Over the months leading up to the conference the youth voice group kept in constant contact through a Facebook group. At the meeting on 7 November we had decided that we wanted to conduct a survey on what young people actually knew about current environmental issues. Through Facebook we came up with questions and put together the survey. We interviewed 114 people and displayed the results from this on posters.

You must have been incredibly nervous speaking in front of such a large room of people. Can you tell us a bit about your experience at the actual conference?

It was extremely exciting seeing ‘the voice of youth’ written in the conference programme. At around 9.30 on 26 March we took to the stage and delivered our speech. It was a mind-blowing experience. Utterly incredible. I was terrified that I would trip on the way to the microphone or stammer, but I didn’t and I was very proud about that. When I walked to the microphone I could feel all eyes on me and it was silent. I was unbelievably nervous and I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins; however, as soon as I began to speak it was almost as if a calm had settled over me and everything was perfect. It was a strange sensation, I felt so happy at being in front of so many scientists that it was as if all my other emotions had been overridden. It was perfect.

Some of the highlights at the conference were being mentioned by Lord Martin Rees in his speech, meeting NASA astronaut and Deputy Director of Science and Exploration at NASA, Piers Sellers, and going to a conference about biodiversity.

How important do you think it is for young people to have a voice in conferences like this?

I believe it is essential that young people have a voice in conferences like Planet Under Pressure so that the scientists can gain some perspective on the views of young people today. Our forming perceptions will inform the science of tomorrow. Experiences like this are character building; I truly believe that taking part in the Planet Under Pressure youth voice group has changed my life. It’s given me so much confidence and connected me with the right people to pursue a scientific career.  It has also made me feel like a part of the scientific community.

Have you got involved with or are you planning to get involved with more projects like this in the future?

I want to get involved in the CREST Awards, and through Planet Under Pressure I am now in contact with many scientists over Twitter and am going to start writing articles for an online gazette style physics site.