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Grim scientific reports say the planet is headed for rising temperatures, rising seas, rising drought. But the young people who will inherit the Earth are taking action. They are motivated by hope – hope in humanity to have the intelligence and determination to address this era’s existential threat, and hope that any one individual’s involvement is a key factor in moving the whole world forward.
Four young activists living very different realities – in Japan, Senegal, India, and Haiti – are all making climate action a central purpose in their lives.
“We young people have had enough of the excuses,” says Vivianne Roc, whose group works with young women in Haiti. She says she is keenly aware that a small organization on a small island nation can’t do much to solve or even mitigate climate change. “Haiti didn’t cause climate change, it’s up to them” – world leaders, she says – “to take the big steps that are necessary.”
“But seeing young people’s frustrations transformed into involvement and action gives me hope. It allows me,” she adds, “to put on a little smile when it may not feel like there’s a lot to smile about.”
When the teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg arrived by solar-powered boat in New York last September to speak before the United Nations General Assembly, she garnered so much attention that the world might have thought her youthful climate activism must be something unusual.
Actually it’s not, and not by a long shot.
All over the world, in big cities and small villages, in developed and still-developing countries, in global powers and tiny island nations, young people are mobilizing and marching, as seen in Friday’s global climate strike. Beyond that, young people are starting their own organizations and innovating greener everyday-living practices, all in the name of addressing climate change.
Motivated by increasingly grim scientific reports on where the planet is headed – rising temperatures, rising seas, rising drought – and by the reality that they will be inheriting the Earth, young people are taking action.
But to speak with just about any of these young activists is to realize that they are also motivated by hope – hope in humanity to have the intelligence and determination to address this era’s existential threat, and hope that their own role, that any individual’s involvement, is a key factor in moving the whole world forward.
As Vivianne Roc, a health and environmental education activist in Haiti says, “We young people have had enough of the excuses. But seeing young people’s frustrations transformed into involvement and action gives me hope. It allows me,” she adds, “to put on a little smile when it may not feel like there’s a lot to smile about.”
Here are four young climate activists living very different realities around the world – in Japan, Senegal, India, and Haiti – but all making climate action a central purpose in their lives.
Mayumi Sato got the idea of using images to change thinking and build empathy around climate change from talking with her grandmother in Japan.
For a while, it seemed as if all climate conversations with her grandmother devolved into arguments, Ms. Sato says. “But then I realized that when I showed her pictures, things changed,” she says. “If you can attribute a face or an image to the community you’re talking about, it personalizes the problems, the issues they are facing.”
“With my grandmother,” she adds, “I realized the images served as an entry point to a conversation.”
That realization led Ms. Sato to found Landscape Narratives, a global photography project that helps communities affected by climate change to tell their story through images. She now has “teams” in Brazil and Guam, is assisting a friend in Mexico focused on the climate activism of an LGBTQ community, and has launched projects based on her own travels throughout Southeast Asia. Each project focuses on “encouraging climate action by transcending language through imagery,” she says.
In northern Thailand, Ms. Sato photographed the farmers and children whose livelihoods and health are undermined by the uncontrolled burning of plastics. In Cambodia, she took portraits of women taking climate action into their own hands.
Ms. Sato, who did her university studies at McGill University in Montreal and speaks English fluently, says a key motivating desire for her was to create a way of communicating the human impact of climate change without the limitation of language.
“I know English is the universal language, ... but photography is a kind of universal language, too,” she says. “So my goal is to use imagery that truly everyone can relate to, and to help spread the understanding that a changing climate isn’t abstract, it’s already affecting people and places around the world.”
Ndéye Marie Aïda Ndiéguène thinks youth-dominated climate demonstrations are great.
But the young civil engineer, entrepreneur, and budding novelist from Dakar, Senegal, says it’s important for young people not just to demonstrate but to do something. By that she means pitch in to develop the solutions, both large and small, to the global climate challenge.
It was that conviction that led Ms. Ndiéguène to develop a new model of barn or storehouse that addresses two critical problems at once: It uses materials like old tires, and plastic sacks and bottles, that traditionally are burned or find their way into landfills or waterways and the sea; and it reduces the high rates of crop loss that require Senegalese small farmers to produce more and more, just to squeak by.
“Originally our motivation was primarily to address the farmers’ very high crop loss, but we quickly realized that we could also play a part in addressing climate change by developing a new crop storage space,” says Ms. Ndiéguène, who is proud to call herself the CEO of Eco-Builders MS (for “Made in Senegal.”)
The prototype storehouse, which has won Eco-Builders a number of innovation prizes, used about 2,000 old tires, 3,000 liter bottles, and 1,000 large plastic sacks.
Noting that Eco-Builders’ aim is to create jobs for local young people to both gather the building materials and then carry out the construction, Ms. Ndiéguène returns to her theme of taking concrete steps to solve local problems.
“I think what Greta [Thunberg] is doing is so important, but I also think it’s just the first step in the youth climate movement,” she says. “I want to use my skills as an entrepreneur because to me, while it’s important to talk about the problems, it’s also important to come up with the solutions.”
When Vishnu P.R. Purushothaman got married last summer, the principles of sustainable living were so important to him that he and his wife-to-be agreed to have a green wedding.
The couple’s clever use of local materials like bamboo and banana in the place of plastics earned them a “green couple” designation from the district administrator. And it led to a new revenue source for the climate action nonprofit Mr. Purushothaman runs in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.
The nonprofit C5 – it stands for Change Can Change Climate Change – aims to raise awareness about steps everyone can take to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Now it also helps couples plan their own green weddings.
Mr. Purushothaman says the small army of 10,000 volunteers – virtually all of whom are younger than his 29 years – is proof that young people are serious about addressing climate change.
“Kids around the world are really scared about their future, and that is driving them to all these marches, but for many of them that’s not enough,” he says. “They want to do real things that have real impact, and so at C5 we are trying to exploit that drive to do real things.”
One focus of C5 is waste management. Young people go door to door explaining how households can do their part to reduce carbon emissions and help create a sustainable environment.
Mr. Purushothaman says C5 has the advantage of being in Kerala state, which boasts India’s highest literacy rate and a long tradition of social activism.
“People in Kerala are generally aware that things have to change now if we don’t want the very worst to happen concerning climate change,” he says. “The kids who go out into the communities generally find this level of awareness, and that gives us all hope that people can change, and so what we’re doing serves a purpose.”
Haiti has long sat near the very bottom of international rankings of countries by prosperity, human development, and good governance. And while that discouraging picture may deflate many Haitians, for Vivianne Roc it’s a motivating factor.
“In Haiti we face an ensemble of daunting problems, and now with climate change added to the mix,” says the founder and president of Plurielles, an organization that seeks to integrate climate action into efforts to address public health issues and other challenges, mainly through working with young women.
“I want my future and that of other young people to be much better, and indeed better for a wider number of people,” says Ms. Roc. “So that’s why we are making climate action an integral part of our work, because climate change has the potential to set back any progress we make in health or living conditions.”
Plurielles aims to break what Ms. Roc calls “very negative syndromes” in Haiti through educating young women and promoting healthier life practices. As examples of those “negative syndromes” she cites high teen pregnancy and Haiti’s disastrous deforestation – two challenges she says may not seem related but which both pose dire consequences for the prospects of Haiti’s youth.
Ms. Roc says she is keenly aware that a small organization on a small island nation in the Caribbean can’t do much to solve or even mitigate climate change. “Haiti didn’t cause climate change, it’s up to them” – world leaders, she says – “to take the big steps that are necessary.”
But she says the action of individuals like the young women she works with in Plurielles is nevertheless crucial, because it allows people to feel a part of something bigger, something global.
“If people feel they matter, that gives them hope,” she says. “And we’re not going to do the things we must to solve our problems if we don’t have hope.”