Youths take up activism to counter climate change

Youth-led climate organizations are springing up around the globe and pushing for measures to counter climate change. Drawing from personal experience, they are rallying to hold their governments accountable for failing to properly address problems.

Jeff Chiu/AP
Students rally for clean energy in front of San Francisco City Hall on Feb. 28, 2018. Youth-led climate organizations are springing up around the globe. Their impetus stems from personal experience and a desire to hold their governments accountable for failing to address climate problems.

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 Ms. Shiney-Ajay, a student at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

So she turned to the Sunrise Movement, a United States-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.

But her activism – including occupying the office of Republican House Rep. Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania last December with other Sunrise Movement members – has given her a feeling she can make a difference.

The sit-in, she said, was an attempt to stop Representative Meehan from voting on a tax bill that would provide tax cuts to fossil fuel billionaires, among others. Meehan voted for the bill anyway, which passed last 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’s 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 under 30 years old – and those youth are becoming increasingly powerful political and social advocates for action, including on climate change, according to a 2017 World Economic Forum study 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 say.

'Grown-ups have failed'

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

Camila Bustos, for instance, is a member of Dejusticia, a Colombian youth organization that has sued Colombia’s government, saying 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, Ms. Bustos, a researcher for the non-profit, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Last week, the organization had an unprecedented victory: Colombia’s highest court ruled 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, according to a Dejusticia statement.

“This affects us, my children, my grandkids, my great-grandkids,” Bustos said. “We are taking care of the planet we love.”

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.

Sophia Zaia, another member of the Sunrise Movement, remembers how her family had to drag home buckets of water from their local convenience store after a major drought dried up their home 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?”

Ms. Zaia felt that her community’s response – digging deeper wells to get more water – didn’t 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 Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.

To counter US President 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.

A sense of belonging 

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

“It’s quite empowering to be something in your global community,” said Melanie Mattauch, the European communications coordinator for, 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 their institutions become greener and cut use of fossil fuels, Ms. 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.

“What we do now will determine what civilization will look like in 20, 30 years from now, which is still in their lifetime,” said Mattauch.

PUSH Sweden, another youth organization pushing sustainability goals, says 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,” said Tove Lexén, a board member of the organization.

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

The group is currently preparing for Sweden’s autumn election, deciding which issues – from climate change to food sustainability – they want to make a priority, Ms. Lexén said.

“We have the resources and knowledge to gather youths,” Ahmed al-Qassam, PUSH Sweden’s former president, said in a telephone interview.

Getting busy young people together can take work, the French Network of Students for Sustainable Development (REFEDD) admits. But last year, the group drew over 400 young people to two-day sustainability workshops.

Quentin Zins, REFEDD project manager, said self interest is one driver in students’ desire to act on climate change, with 81 percent of students they surveyed saying they want “sustainable” jobs.

Often students are persuaded to turn to activism when they begin to discover the connections between climate change impacts and their own lives, at which point getting involved is “easy and natural," said Mr. al-Qassam of PUSH Sweden.

“In Sweden, there is a tradition and culture of engaging in organizations,” he said.

'Not a force to be ignored'

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.”

This story was reported by The Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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