In the Fight Against Climate Change, Young Voices Speak Out
This article is part of a special report on Climate Solutions, which looks at efforts around the world to make a difference.
The climate conference in Scotland, known as COP26, concluded last week with an assortment of promises and agreements from participating nations on confronting climate change. How they will ultimately turn out is anyone’s guess. But among the participants — both at the conference and on the streets in protest — were young people, who are likely to face the most significant effects of a changing climate, if predictions for the coming decades prove true. Before the conference, we asked five of the participants in a Generation Climate program convened by The New York Times for their thoughts on the issues, why they had become involved and what steps make a difference. Excerpts from their written responses have been edited and condensed.
Can you trace your interest in climate change back to a specific moment? Was there a particular event or experience that made you realize this issue could no longer go unaddressed?
Bruno Rodríguez, 21, Argentina
Founder and leader of Youth for Climate (Jóvenes por el Clima) Argentina, part of the youth movement Fridays for Future
I was meeting in 2019 with a group of high school students in what eventually would become Youth for Climate Argentina.
We met with Indigenous leaders from the north and they were narrating their experiences fighting the destruction of ancestral ecosystems (native woods specifically). They told us that, in order to prevent the bulldozers from moving forward, they put a pregnant woman in front of the machine. They protected their territory with their own bodies. That story was concrete proof: Climate change and environmental issues do not affect us all in the same way. Indigenous communities and vulnerable sectors of society receive the worst impacts. I was 18 years old, and that experience shaped my activist life.
Vanessa Nakate, 24, Uganda
Climate activist from Uganda and founder of the Africa-based Rise Up Movement
Around the time I was finishing university, I became deeply interested in the climate crisis. I was inspired by my father, who has always been involved in community initiatives, to find out what the biggest issues facing my community were, so that I could do something to help. While doing my research, I kept coming back to the climate crisis. It seemed to be the cause of so much suffering in my country, Uganda — which is funny because no one was really talking about it. That’s when I knew I had to take action, so I started protesting in January 2019.
John Paul Jose, 24, India
Deputy director general of Zero Hour Southeast Asia, a youth-led movement that provides training and resources for young people seeking to take climate action
Knowing about climate change and how it was impacting the world provided a focus. In 2018, when extreme rainfall flooded more than half of our state and country, I realized we are in a climate emergency. My parents and other people also began to realize this was the first time they had seen something of that scale. As time went on, I started noticing that other impacts of climate change were visible and it was even impacting our livelihood: streams began to dry out quickly; wettest summer, driest monsoon; high temperatures. And yet, unlike other issues, tackling the climate crisis was a backstage event, and there were no mainstream political or media discussions on such a pressing issue.
Michiel De Smet, 35, Belgium
Finance program lead for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and finance initiative lead for the European Union Platform on Sustainable Finance
At high school, I became interested in food and livestock production, initially driven by concern for the treatment of animals. Increasingly, though, the industry’s role in climate change became clear to me, which then sparked further interest in global warming. Around that time I was also keeping bees, which made me aware of pollution and biodiversity issues. It became clear that the many challenges we face today, like climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, are connected. Add social inequality and one realizes we have to change our economic model.
Meredith Adler, 32, U.S. and Canada
Executive director of Student Energy, a nonprofit that organizes students across the world committed to a sustainable-energy future
When I started in university, I considered myself active on issues of poverty alleviation, youth empowerment, human rights and Indigenous rights. I came to recognize that the immediate problems people are facing are caused by larger systems that are inequitable or unsustainable. And so I became obsessed with energy. Our energy system — how we produce, transport and consume energy — is not equitable or sustainable. It is shaped by colonialism and capitalism, and a person’s access to energy or lack thereof determines so many things about their life, from health to education to how much money they can make. Increasing energy access is directly correlated to increasing income across the world.
How is the work you’re doing now contributing to solutions to the damaging effects of climate change?
RODRÍGUEZ I’m one of the authors of the climate emergency bill that was passed in the [Argentine] Senate in 2019 which declared the country in a state of climate and ecological emergency. In Youth for Climate Argentina, I also work with social and economically vulnerable groups fighting for climate justice. These social actors play a key role in the industrial transition processes. I’m pushing for a series of climate and ecological proposals which create jobs for their sectors and also elevate their standard of living by climate transition measures. I’m working as well on an adaptation proposal; many of my city’s poor neighborhoods lack the infrastructure to prevent the impacts of floods and other extreme climate events.
NAKATE I started a project called Vash Green Schools. We install solar panels and climate-friendly stoves, and so far have helped 13 schools in rural areas in Uganda. Many of these schools didn’t have electricity before, so they’re not even transitioning, they’re just starting out green. This kind of thing is crucial across the continent of Africa, where electricity demand is set to double by 2030. But funding from foreign governments and banks still flows into fossil fuels instead of clean energy projects, funding things like the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline, which will destroy wild habitats and local farmland, let alone cause a huge amount of emissions.
JOSE Through social media, I began to make people aware of the climate crisis and the human hand behind it. Also, being from the global south, to highlight climate injustice and inequality. I follow three tracks to give me hope and prevent anxiety: first, individual actions or initiatives, from awareness through social media and educational materials to local initiatives like rewilding (protecting natural and wildlife areas) and regenerative permaculture (integrating human activity and environmental protection). Then come collaborative actions with like-minded people. Activism is the final hope to make everyone, including the leaders, know about the urgency to invest in available solutions.
DE SMET I’ve become increasingly aware that we cannot fix climate change until we fix the economy. Shifting to renewable energy can address 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but to achieve U.N. climate goals, it is imperative we tackle the remaining 45 percent. Taking on this global challenge can only be done if we shift from our current take-make-waste system to one that eliminates waste, circulates products and materials, and regenerates nature — a circular economy. To this end, I lead the Ellen MacArthur Foundation work in the financial sector, collaborating with large financial institutions and policymakers to inform and create solutions for scaling financing for a circular economy — one designed to eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials, and regenerate nature.
ADLER Student Energy is a movement of 50,000 youths in over 190 countries. We work to empower young people to deploy climate solutions in their communities, both to help prevent the worst impacts and to help communities adapt.
We provide the tool kit that accelerates climate-focused young people’s ability to become entrepreneurs, build their careers and influence policymakers. We also work with corporations, governments and organizations on strategies for meaningful youth empowerment. This year, Student Energy launched the Solutions Movement to mobilize $150 million in funding for 10,000 youth-led energy projects this decade. Instead of going after short-term “wins,” we are playing the long game of building the next generation of voters, consumers, employees and entrepreneurs who will address climate change and build clean energy solutions.
What do people still not understand about climate change or how to address it?
RODRÍGUEZ There is a strong obstacle to identifying climate change as a socioeconomic issue. Governments are used to dissociating the economic agenda from the climate agenda and this affects the public debate. A good way to address these difficulties is to inform how climate change specifically impacts our daily lives. Heat waves that affect children, the sick and the elderly the most; extreme economic loss and other examples could be useful for finding better ways of climate change communication.
NAKATE I think many people still believe it is something for 2050, or the end of the century. The fact that the media doesn’t report on the climate crisis like it is a crisis fuels that belief. The impacts in Africa are already severe: droughts and food shortages in Angola and Madagascar, flooding in Uganda, the monsoon shifting in Sierra Leone, even locust swarms, caused by wet conditions, destroying thousands of hectares of crops in East Africa. If the world properly understood the damage that is being caused in the most affected areas, perhaps there would be more urgency for countries to start cutting their emissions now.
What is the single most important thing people — at the individual level — across the world can do right now to slow the effects of climate change? And what are some of the obstacles they face?
RODRÍGUEZ Getting to understand the basic causes of climate change gives us the power to choose a different path as consumers; we can shape the economy of the future just by consolidating a collective environmental consciousness. Governments have the obligation to tell the truth about climate change through integral environmental education policies. The private sector is also responsible for this duty. Companies must inform consumers how they produce what they sell, how much they emit and other environmental costs.
JOSE Having impact and showing some progress are such individual actions as rooftop solar/micro renewables, rewilding, land/rooftop garden/regenerative agriculture, mobilization. Lack of resources are slowing down the progress in those actions. But even if millions of us act, those efforts amount to only a fraction of the impact that government and corporations could accomplish.
ADLER Talk to the people around you about climate change. A crisis of this scale needs to be front-page news and dinner-table conversation — not just when a disaster occurs, but when the solutions are being debated, and when communities come together and take action. Demand better from media when it comes to how they talk about climate change. Work to uplift and empower Indigenous leadership. Indigenous people are the stewards of our lands and research shows they protect 80 percent of our biodiversity.
Everyone will face obstacles in taking action, but each person is also uniquely qualified to do something.
There’s a tremendous amount of passion and energy coming from youth environmental movements all over the world. How can that energy be harnessed to create lasting climate solutions?
DE SMET While a shift toward renewable energy sources is happening, we need young people to also understand how we have to transform our production and consumption systems. The circular economy provides a powerful tool for an industrial transformation that can tackle climate change and biodiversity loss while addressing social needs. We urgently need to move from words to actions, and should use that passion and energy to create a resilient and prosperous future for not only today’s generation but those beyond.
RODRÍGUEZ Recognizing that youth leadership is not a matter of the future but a fundamental pillar of the present is a great step toward lasting climate solutions. I believe that all the young activist energy must be channeled not only through the power of the streets but also through decision-making processes.
ADLER We need to believe in young people and empower them. Hands-on experience paired with coaching, mentorship and funding will empower them to build the clean energy businesses we need, or develop skills to work with governments and companies to transform our world.