THE BLOG
06/04/2014 01:13 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2014

To Solve Unemployment and Global Warming, Young People Hold the Key

Meet Alejandro Zapata, a young social entrepreneur from Colombia who nearly a decade ago founded a small enterprise in Medellin to design and implement innovative strategies for sustainable development. Since then, he has built a remarkable organization that collaborates with the private sector, governments, and NGOs to improve the environment--whether it's working with companies to reduce water consumption in the manufacturing process or creating alliances with local ministries to spur "green" business growth. Due to its success, Portafolio Verde has grown its workforce to 40--the majority of whom are 20 to 35 years of age.

Alejandro, a member of the International Youth Foundation's global network of YouthActionNet® fellows, is part of a worldwide movement of young leaders whose innovative thinking, passion for change, and entrepreneurial spark are helping to combat climate change and promote sustainable development. He is also a powerful example of how entrepreneurship itself--starting one's own company and creating much needed jobs in the community--is helping to address the global unemployment crisis that keeps so many of today's young people on the margins, unable to support themselves or build a future for their families.

Clearly, both climate change and youth unemployment, if not effectively dealt with now, pose grave threats to our collective futures. One recent report by a prominent military advisory board finds that global climate change is a growing threat to the national security of the United States, causing "global instability and conflict." The study concludes: "The lack of comprehensive action by both the United States and the international community to address the full spectrum of projected climate change issues remains a concern." Similarly, lack of progress in addressing high youth unemployment continues to roil regions like the Middle East and North Africa, where three years ago youth-led protests demanding greater economic opportunities toppled regimes and the status quo. The fact that 600 million young people today are out of school, out of work, and have no access to training should provide a renewed sense of urgency to move forward on these issues.

No one is claiming there are any quick or easy fixes to create more jobs or stop glaciers from melting. These are enormously complex, difficult challenges. Yet I believe young people--armed with the necessary employability and entrepreneurship skills and their innate drive for innovation--hold solutions to both.

Imagine it is 2030, and contrary to dire predictions, the global economy is back on its feet, the disparities between rich and poor have leveled off, extreme poverty has been nearly eradicated, and people--and the environment--are healthier. This rosy picture depends, of course, on whether we as a global community take immediate, coordinated, and sustained steps. To eradicate poverty and expand productivity, for example, we must have broad-based, inclusive, and equitable economic growth. And that cannot happen unless we provide millions more of today's 15- to 24-year-olds with the necessary training and support to succeed in the local and global marketplace.

If we can turn today's huge and growing youth population into an economic dividend that can drive global growth and prosperity, then in 2030, the children of today's workers and small business owners will be far more likely to stay in school, find success in the workforce, and become productive, taxpaying citizens. Without such a growing middle class, most countries won't have the stability, broad tax base, long-term private investments and political will needed to--among other commitments--clean up the environment, slow global warming, and create new jobs in a "greener" economy.

Time is running out to effectively tackle these daunting challenges. While we must continue to develop creative solutions, tested programs and successful strategies already exist that offer far-reaching social, economic and environmental benefits when taken to scale. Building multi-sector global alliances is also critical to mobilizing the necessary resources and policies for progress to take hold.

To keep us on track and moving forward, let's remember Alejandro Zapata's call to action: "While it would be easy to succumb to all the negative news about the state of our global environment, it's far more empowering to be on the side of making positive change, community by community."