Wildfires, heatwaves, droughts, and floods. Climate change is a code red for humankind. But politicians and world leaders are yet to take strong, decisive, collective action.
Young people are nervously watching the lack of action by grown-ups. They are anxious about their future and they’ve had enough. In fact, they are angry. They have a clear diagnosis of the problem and have many creative solutions to offer. But they are not getting the political traction and timely action they are seeking.
Instead of giving up, they are fighting harder for their survival, but not just their own. Their anger, passion, activism, research and political mobilization may well tip the scale towards the collective survival of human species. But they cannot take on this enormous burden of saving the world without allies and resources. They want to be trusted, paid, and mentored. They are sick of tokenism and no longer want to be ‘add-ons’ to adult-led climate action. This is what I learnt by interviewing 24 committed, inspring climate activists from around the world. This article is all about their voices, their motivations, their struggles and aspirations.
What motivates young people to fight for climate justice?
“I often hear that ‘young people like to work on climate change.’ But really we don’t advocate for climate action for the fun of it, rather because it is a necessity. If we don’t act now, who will act for us?” asked Laura Jung, an infectious diseases resident in Germany.
“I became a climate justice activist because we do not have the privilege to ignore the impacts the climate crisis is already having on our daily lives,” said Eric Njuguna, an activist with Fridays for Future MAPA in Kenya.
“The clock is ticking for our planet and if we don’t act now we are completely doomed,” said Melvine Otieno, another Kenyan activist. “We have a momentum across the globe and I feel this is the right time for a paradigm shift to engage in climate activism,” she added.
For many, especially activists in the Global South, their motivation comes from seeing the real devastation in their own communities. “I grew up seeing our communities consumed by floods. My country, the Philippines, is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the climate crisis,” said Mitzi Jonelle Tan, an activist with Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines.
“My family’s ancestral lands in Pakistan are becoming uninhabitable because of climactic warming,” said Ayisha Siddiqa, co-founder of Polluters Out and Fossil Free University
“Bangladesh is a poster child for climate change,” said Azmal Hossan, a Bangladeshi climate activist, currently doing his doctoral training at Colorado State University. “Decolonizing climate crisis is the biggest motivation for me to be in the space,” he added.
Bernard Kato Ewekia Taomia is a Saving Tuvalu Global Youth Leader. “The climate crisis is not being addressed as an urgent threat. On the contrary, it is being treated as a distant phenomenon,” he said. Time is not on the side of his people. Tuvalu is an island nation that is slowly sinking into the pacific.
“When the Amazon caught fire in 2019, I started a movement of boys and girls called Guardians for Life,” said Francisco Javier Vera Manzanares, a 13-year old activist from Colombia.
For Indigenous and Black activists, their motivation is closely tied to their quest to improve the situation for their communities that tend to be most impacted by climate change and environmental destruction.
“Indigenous Peoples have always been at the forefront of protecting Mother Earth,” said Anpothowin Jensen, a Oglala Lakota, and environmental engineer. “They also hold invaluable hope and solutions in addressing the climate issues we face as a globe today. My motivation is to continue this legacy of Indigenous leadership in climate and planetary health,” she explained.
Paccha Turner Chuji Gualinga, an Indigenous Kichwa activist and artist of the Ecuadorian Amazon, concurs. “My motivation comes from my awareness that the deep wisdom and knowledge that Indigenous Peoples across the world hold is uniquely valuable for humanity and is key for sustainable conservation and climate change adaptation,” she said.
“My biggest motivation to be in the space is to improve things and ensure the communities most impacted by environmental injustice, low income, Black and POC communities, have access to what I consider to be basic environmental human rights and needs like clean air, water and green spaces – which unfortunately isn’t the case,” said Leah Thomas, founder of Intersectional Environmentalist (IE).
For some, fighting for climate justice is a way to address their anxiety about the future and find support from like-minded people. “I’ve found that taking action and working with others is my best antidote to climate paralysis,” said Rita Issa, a climate activist and medical doctor based in the UK.
“Honestly, I’m in this space because of love,” said Rhiannon Osborne, a climate activist in the UK and a medical student. “I love people, communities, ecosystems, and it is an honour to devote my time to fighting against the violence of the climate crisis and it’s causes,” she said.
“I’ve found wonderful colleagues who center justice in all their work and bring me joy, solidarity, and radical love,” said Abi Deivanayagam, a junior doctor living in the UK.
“The reason why I became a doctor is to help people and protect their health. How can I do that without responding to the unprecedented health consequences of our world’s changing climate?” asked Omnia El Omrani, a surgery resident in Cairo, Egypt, and Youth Envoy for COP27.
Are world leaders doing enough to address the climate crisis?
Climate change researchers and activists have been warning us for years that we are headed for trouble. The warnings are getting louder, with every Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, and every UN Climate Change Conference (COP). Earlier this month, António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, said this at a meeting to discuss the climate crisis: “Half of humanity is in the danger zone, from floods, droughts, extreme storms and wildfires. No nation is immune. Yet we continue to feed our fossil fuel addiction. We have a choice. Collective action or collective suicide. It is in our hands.”
I asked climate activists what grade they would give to world leaders and politicians for their work on addressing climate change thus far. While there were a few Cs and Ds, most people gave them an F grade.
“F, without a doubt,” said Neelima Vallangi, an independent climate journalist and documentary filmmaker from India, currently residing in Kathmandu, Nepal. “We barely have 8 years left to stay on track to limit warming to 1.5°C by 2100. We are already experiencing catastrophic impacts at just 1.2°C already and we’re set to breach the 1.5°C warming in less than a decade instead of 2100. How can world leaders be graded as anything else other than failing badly then?” she questioned.
“It has taken us 26 annual conferences (COPs), six scientific reports (from UN IPCC), and gazillions of activities about climate change held around the world… and we are still talking about the agenda for the next conference and writing the draft of another agreement,” said Renzo Guinto, a physician, climate activist and global health researcher from Philippines.
“I think it’s unfair to say that world leaders aren’t doing anything about the climate crisis, they are,” said Disha Ravi, a writer and climate justice activist in India. “They are actively making it worse by funding fossil fuels. That is an action,” she emphasized.
“It’s hard to grade them when they haven’t taken the test in the first place,” said Eric Njuguna. “Climate action has been delayed to a point where we cannot stop climate change and we are not trying to reduce its adverse impacts – that’s how bad it is!” they added.
“When you fail someone or give them a F grade, there is still opportunity to do better,” said Ayisha Siddiqa. “I would expel world leaders who claim to be solving the crisis from their seats, because if this was a homework assignment, it 50 years late, mediocre, incomplete, and has not only wasted hundreds of millions of dollars but has put people in harms way,” she argued.
A clear diagnosis
So many agreements, reports and meetings, and so little real action. Why? I asked young climate activists for their diagnosis on why we are failing to address the climate crisis. Their diagnosis was striking and consistent.
“Behind the lack of action there are many interests that put money above life,” said 13-year old Francisco Javier Vera Manzanares. “Basically, what has led us to this climate crisis is a predatory production and consumption model that sees the things on the planet as resources for the benefit of humans,” he explained.
“I see the global capitalism system compete to take big profits from anything, including through ways that destroy nature,” said Dicky Senda, an Indigenous climate activist from Timor, Indonesia.
“Our current mode of production and consumption is completely unsustainable, it favors those in power especially tycoons in fossil fuels, development, livestock, and agriculture,” said Aidil Iman, a Malaysian activist, and Advocacy Director at Kolektif Iklim, a youth-led movement.
“I think the real reason for our failure is greed and money in politics – extractive industries have made billions, if not trillions for countries globally and there is so much bias that’s clouding judgement and strict regulation,” said Leah Thomas.
“I would give a diagnosis of greed, exploitation of minorities people, resources, the land,” said Salma Tihani, a climate activist in Canada, currently doing her graduate studies at McGill University.
“World leaders refuse to let go of the fossil fuel industry burning the world,” said Mitzi Jonelle Tan. “Natural resources are wantonly extracted for the benefit and profit of the elite few. The profit-oriented system that led us to the climate crisis cannot bring us out of it,” she explained.
“The climate crisis has its roots in capitalism, imperialism and colonialism,” declared Eric Njuguna.
“Climate change is the ultimate consequence of a cartesian and materialist, patriarchal and racist ideological glitch that has pervaded life on Earth for way too long,” said Paccha Turner Chuji Gualinga.
“The climate crisis is the symptom of a colonial capitalist economy designed to extract wealth from people and nature in order to fuel profit and opulence for an increasingly small elite class of corporations and rich elites,” said Rhiannon Osborne.
“We are blindsided by the dominant interests of a very few but extremely rich group. This influences the way world leaders engage in climate action,” said Claudel Pétrin-Desrosiers, president of the Quebec Association of Physicians for the Environment.
“The reason the elite are failing us is simple, a diagnosis of greed and power,” said Amiteshwar Singh, an activist based in Norwich, UK. “Many of those in charge are invested in the fossil fuel, and other harmful, industries,” he elaborated.
“Fossil fuels are very precariously tied up in our political sector, and often the narrow, partisan interests of politicians seem to trump the interests of the everyday people who lack legislative power,” said Anjali Sharma, student climate activist in Melbourne, Australia.
“We are going in circles because of how absolutely corrupt climate negotiations are,” said Ayisha Siddiqa. She pointed out that climate conferences are often sponsored by big polluters and the fossil fuel lobby.
“The real problem is human greed,” said Disha Ravi. “We are on a race to own everything on earth and we’ve killed, looted and laid siege to the planet to do that. World leaders strongly believe that technology (that doesn’t exist yet) will come in and solve the problem and we can continue down our path of extractivism,” she explained.
“Climate change has a huge gerontocracy problem where people in power seem to have no sense of urgency or feel responsibility as young people do,” said Neelima Vallangi.
“Most solutions continue to be ‘innovative technology’ dressed in green, yet continue to be extractive and harmful. The very companies responsible for the crisis participate in greenwashing, and governments continue to remain short-sighted, lining the pockets of powerful corporations,” said Abi Deivanayagam.
“It feels like everyone’s waiting for a technological solution that will be our golden bullet, and that young people’s ideas are dismissed as being too simplistic,” said Rita Issa. “And yet I think it’s the simplest ideas that are often those most likely to work: consume less, make it economically attractive to take the less polluting options, reparations and adaptation support for countries most at risk, and support a return to community and interdependency in opposition to highly individualistic and isolated societies, particularly in the global north,” she added.
Who will be most impacted by climate crisis?
Young people are acutely aware that the impact of climate crisis will not be evenly distributed.
A recent study by Jason Hickel suggests that the G8 nations (the USA, EU-28, Russia, Japan, and Canada) were together responsible for 85% cumulative CO2 excess emissions. But countries that are least responsible for causing climate change are the ones suffering most from its effects.
In her book The Intersectional Environmentalist, Leah Thomas wrote about how Black, Brown, Indigenous, and impoverished people, and many communities in the Global South, are facing environmental inustice at alarming rates. “We can’t save the planet without uplifting the voices of its people, especially those most often unheard,” she wrote.
Dicky Senda spoke about how indigenous people are particularly vulnerable and become victims of malnutrition, human trafficking, environmental damage.
“Indigenous Peoples rights need to be recognized and land needs to be returned especially when 80 percent of the world’s diversity is protected by Indigenous Peoples,” said Anpothowin Jensen.
Laura Jung spoke about how the most disadvantaged (and often the ones contributing the least to the environmental destruction) are the ones who cannot easily adapt. “Already now, people die daily at European borders, what happens when more places become inhabitable and migration increases?” she asked.
What do young people need?
It is clear that young climate justice activists have a clear diagnosis on what is wrong and what needs to change. But can they do it without help? What resources do they need to build power and reach a tipping point?
“Young people are more aware about climate crisis than older generations and they are both current and future victims of climate change,” said Azmal Hossan. “But when it comes to the decision-making process, often they don’t have a seat in the table,” he pointed out.
“What they truly need is for politicians to actually listen to us and act,” said Bernard Kato Ewekia Taomia.
“We need to reorient the decision-making table where we are no longer considered an “add-on” to adult-led climate policies and discussions,” said Omnia El Omrani.
Aidil Iman concurs. “Young people should be at the forefront of environmental decision-making. We must continuously demand a seat at the table and our voices are constantly heard. We must denounce any tokenistic value and ensure that our activism is being translated into policies and legislation,” they said.
“Young people must be the ones sitting around the negotiation table,” said Renzo Guinto. “They can’t anymore be just delivering token speeches in front of world leaders and holding their own side events and protests outside the main room. I would love to see a future COP to be composed of youth leaders crafting an ambitious treaty (more ambitious than Paris or Glasgow) that the adults of the world will abide by and implement,” he added.
“We want to be trusted and we want to be paid for our work,” said Abi Deivanayagam.
“We need the grown-ups to take the climate crisis more seriously,” said Claudel Pétrin-Desrosiers. She hopes politicians and decision makers can be more accountable, and think beyond their 4-year mandate.
“We need access to the room,” said Amiteshwar Singh. “We need funding, to be able to travel and simply afford food and shelter at so-called ‘high level events’. We need to be treated as peers, not as newbies. Finally, we need the public and media to engage with us, to hear our experiences and our needs,” he added.
“Young people need politicians to engage with them – just like they engage with their donors, and with demographics they believe can make a difference to whether they get elected or not,” said Anjali Sharma.
A huge, pressing burden on young people
“We often hear “but your generation gives me hope, hope that things will be different in the future”, said Claudel Pétrin-Desrosiers. “The problem is that things need to be different now. Not in 25-30 years. I can’t wait to be 50 years old for bold, climate action. It will be too late,” she explained.
Neelima Vallangi concurs. “The tragedy of the current situation is that today’s young people simply are not old enough to be in any sort of powerful positions to enact the changes required within the extremely limited time we have left,” she said. She worries that the burden of stopping climate change is weighing heavily on young people. “Expecting young people to bring the pressure or change the status quo is abdication of responsibility by those who can and must address the situation this moment,” she said.
“Youth activists feel an incredible burden to make change with little support,” said Salma Tihani. She calls for more understanding and empathy for the struggles youth face and more importantly marginalized peoples.
“The weight of saving the planet is often put on young people when it’s an intergenerational problem,” said Disha Ravi. “As young people. we are already doing the best we can but it will not be enough if everyone doesn’t play a role in solving the climate crisis. The solution to the climate crisis needs to be just as diverse as the problem or we are going to fail,” she argued.
Grown-ups must ease the burden
“I don’t talk about it, but I’m anxious about climate change,” said my teen daughter the other day. She is not alone. Climate anxiety and dissatisfaction with government responses are widespread in young people across the world, according to one large, 10-country survey.
Many are drawn to climate justice work because of this, and the 24 young people I interviewed suggest that they are thoughtful, organized, dynamic, and hard-working. Like the young people in global health I interviewed for an earlier article, young people in climate activism are more than capable of leading the fight.
But grown-ups and adults cannot abandon young people in their struggle for survival. Young people need allies to support them (see my earlier piece on allyship), and they need many more people to join their movement.
Allyship requires older people to cede power, space and resources, and encourage younger people to lead, innovate, and find new ways of tackling climate crisis. “Give space to them without much intervention,” says Dicky Senda. As Renzo Guinto put it, “we cannot solve the climate crisis with the same paradigm that created it in the first place.”
“We can’t win this fight without building huge amounts of democratic people power to overcome the huge-vested interests fighting against climate justice,” said Rhiannon Osborne. “If you care about the climate crisis you need to be doing something,” she said. In other words, there is no sitting this one out.
So, that is my biggest take-away: I need to get more involved, and find ways to practice allyship with young people who offer us some hope of surviving the climate crisis. I hope this article convinces others like me to do the same.
Acknowledgement: I am grateful to all 24 young climate justice activists for their work and words. I am especially thankful to Rhiannon Osborne for helping me frame this article.