Young people worldwide take up climate activism

By Nicole Hoey  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, LONDON

Sun, Apr 15, 2018 - Page 15

Aru Shiney-Ajay first became genuinely worried about climate change when she visited family members in India, and found the streams and grass where she had played as a child had shriveled as a result of drought.

“Someplace that I knew really well turned into something unrecognizable,” said Shiney-Ajay, now 20 and a student at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

So she turned to the Sunrise Movement, a US-based youth network that aims to “build an army of young people to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process.”

“When I think of climate change, I am driven by fear and anger,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.

However, her activism — including occupying the office of Republican US Representative Patrick Meehan in December last year with other Sunrise Movement members — has given her a feeling that she can make a difference.

The sit-in was an attempt to stop Meehan from voting on a tax bill that would provide tax cuts to fossil-fuel billionaires, among others, she said.

Meehan voted for the bill anyway, which passed in December — but Shiney-Ajay now knows how to take a stand.

Her generation is ready to act on climate change, which is a “preventable crisis,” she said.

That is particularly true because younger people — who will live to see the more severe impacts of climate change — have more at stake.

Half the world’s population is now younger than 30 — and those youth are becoming increasingly powerful political and social advocates for action, including on climate change, according to a World Economic Forum study last year that questioned youths from 180 countries.

Youth-led climate organizations are springing up around the globe. Their desire for change stems from personal experience of and worry about climate change, as well as a desire to hold their governments to account for failing to act swiftly enough on the problem, their members have said.

Many young people have said they are searching for ways to make a difference in their own futures — and some are having early successes.

For example, 25-year-old Camila Bustos is a member of Dejusticia, a Colombian youth organization that has sued Colombia’s government, saying that its failure to stop deforestation in the Amazon — a driver of climate change — was violating the constitutional right of young people to a healthy environment.

“Grown-ups have failed — maybe not failed completely, but are still slow to act” to curb climate change, said Bustos, a researcher for the nonprofit.

Last week, the organization had an unprecedented victory: Colombia’s highest court ruled that the government must take urgent action to stem rising deforestation, in response to the suit by 25 young plaintiffs, the youngest 7 years old.

Under the ruling — the first of its kind in Latin America — the government has four months to produce a plan to reduce deforestation in the Amazon, Dejusticia said in a statement.

Around the world, youth-led lawsuits, peaceful protests and environmental action events are gathering pace, as younger generations use the most powerful tool they have at their disposal: their voice.

Sunrise Movement member Sophia Zaia, 23, remembers her family having to drag home buckets of water from their local convenience store after a major drought dried up their well in Texas while she was in middle school.

At the time, she remembers thinking: “How is this something that not everyone is talking about?”

Zaia felt that her community’s response — digging deeper wells — did not go far enough to deal with looming water shortages as a result of climate change.

Last month, she and 11 other students blocked entrances to a meeting of fracking lobbyists at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.

To counter US President Donald Trump’s assertion that global warming is a hoax and his link to fossil-fuel corporations, Sunrise Movement members shared personal stories of climate change for two hours before they were removed from the scene, Zaia said.

Finding an avenue to take action on their fears about climate change can be hugely helpful for young people, activist leaders have said.

“It’s quite empowering to be something in your global community,” said Melanie Mattauch, the European communications coordinator for 350.org, a group working to build a global grassroots movement to demand action on climate change.

Since 2012, the organization has worked with university students to help them demand that their institutions become “greener” and cut use of fossil fuels, Mattauch said in an interview.

Students at about 850 universities are now part of the network, including in cities ranging from New York to Berlin and Paris to Cape Town.

PUSH Sweden, another youth organization pushing sustainability goals, said social media and the Internet now make it easier for young people to work together.

“PUSH Sweden is creating somewhere young people can meet, not dependent on where they live,” 23-year-old board member Tove Lexen said.

For example, the group in 2015 held an online Climate Confusion event, with videos and a live panel talking about climate change, bringing together youth from several Swedish cities.

At the foundation of nearly all the youth climate movements is an urge to fight for a better, more livable future for generations to come.

Having youth involved in the fight to curb climate change means that the people most affected by decisions around the issue become a key part of the conversation, said Isabella Munson, communications leader for Zero Hour, a youth-run US group focused on taking concrete action against climate change.

“We have a duty to the earth and every generation to come to protect our home,” she said in an interview. “There are billions of young people in this world. We are not a force to be ignored.”