Plant a tree instead of just wishing me on my birthday.” This statement comes from nine-year-old climate activist Licypriya Kangujam based in Manipur. A plainspoken narrative by this young activist has a profound impact as she leads a youth movement in India, urging lawmakers to cap carbon emissions. She doesn’t engage in the contorted language so common in political discourse, choosing blunt words to raise alarm against a concern which countries have to quickly and boldly deal with.
A school dropout since February 2019, Kangujam received global attention when she addressed the COP25 climate conference in Spain’s Madrid in December 2019. Last June, she raised concern on the issue of climate change. “If they pass the climate change law, we can control carbon emissions and greenhouse gases. It will also give climate justice to millions of poor and vulnerable people who are victims of climate change,” she reportedly said.
Greta Thunberg, perhaps the most famous young eco-warrior, is a household name by now. From being in contention for the Nobel Peace Prize last year to drawing comment from US President Donald Trump, Thunberg is just 17 years old. Be it Thunberg, Kangujam, Canada-based Severn Cullis-Suzuki or Uganda-based Vanessa Nakate, it is heartening to see the younger generation march for the planet. They strike from school and walk on streets, holding protests across the globe. Unimpressed by political soundbites, the power of social media helps them to a great extent in provoking action.
Like 18-year-old Indonesian-Dutch activist Melati Wijsen, who has founded Bye Bye Plastic Bags to advocate a ban on single-use plastics. Her beach cleanups, online petitions and international speaking engagements (from the UN to the IMF-World Bank Group forum) played a role in the government banning single-use plastic in Bali in 2019.
Artemisa Xakriabá, a 19-year-old indigenous Brazilian activist, was seven when she joined students from her Xakriabá community to reforest areas near their homeland in Minas Gerais. As representative of the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities, which protects forests in Brazil, the Amazon Basin, Mesoamerica and Indonesia,she openly talks about the persecution of those fighting to protect the Amazon, their sacred territory.
Autumn Peltier, a 15-year-old indigenous Canadian activist, is called a water warrior for her campaign for clean drinking water for all.
Jamie Margolin, an 18-year-old climate justice activist from the US, founded Zero Hour in 2017 to amplify young voices in the conversation around climate change. Margolin led the first Youth Climate March in Washington, DC, and in over 20 other cities around the world in 2018.
Ayakha Melithafa, a teen activist from Cape Town, was one of 16 to sign a complaint, protesting government inaction on the climate crisis, with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child last September. She’s also a part of the African Climate Alliance and Project 90 by 2030 initiative that’s working for a sustainably developed and equitable low-carbon economy.
Ugandan Vanessa Nakate (23) started activism in December 2018 after becoming concerned about the unusually high temperatures in her country. In early January, she joined around 20 other youth climate activists from around the world to publish a letter to participants at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, calling on companies, banks and governments to immediately stop subsidising fossil fuels.
What, however, is not palatable is the controversy they are constantly dragged into, the talking down they encounter, being told to “just return to school”, and, of course, the little political will for climate control they have been able to generate.
Climate change is an imminent threat, impacting human lives in many ways. As estimated in a landmark UN climate report, unless global greenhouse gas emissions fall by 7.6% each year between 2020 and 2030, we will miss the opportunity to get on track towards the 1.5-degree Celsius temperature goal of the Paris Agreement.
“There is undoubtedly a growing ‘persona-centric’ movement. Young climate activists have made the dire impacts of climate change a household topic of discussion. Thunberg has received numerous accolades for her climate activism. Her logic is that the future is doomed due to human-induced climate crisis and it is the job of the leaders of the world to safeguard the future. She’s been championing the School Strike for Climate since 2018 hoping that adults will take notice when kids skip school. Many young activists followed suit and globally organised the school climate strike movement in their local communities under the name, Fridays for Future,” says Shazneen Cyrus Gazdar, programme manager, climate change and renewable energy, Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi.
Controversies & criticism
Thunberg has been criticised for having impractical ideas, but she has always stood undisturbed, slammed people, brands and governments. Roger Federer, the global face of Switzerland’s largest bank Credit Suisse, was slammed by her for endorsing it as it invests in fossil fuels. Her comments on deferring NEET and JEE exams in India in lieu of the pandemic made her face criticism. In her TEDx talk in November 2018, she said, “I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, OCD and selective mutism. That means I only speak when I think it’s necessary. Now is one of those moments.”
Thunberg slammed Associated Press (AP) for cropping a black activist out of a picture of Thunberg and other climate protesters at the WEF in Davos this year. The cropped image featured four white activists and removed Nakate, the only person of colour. AP later apologised to Nakate.
Thunberg was also slammed for ‘spreading fear’ over Covid. She posted that coronavirus was the biggest crisis humanity had ever faced and “we must unite behind experts and science… it’s essential that we act in solidarity with the most vulnerable and that we act in the best interest of our common society…” The tweets did not go down well with her critics who cruelly wished “Go back to school Greta”.
Even Trump asked her to chill and go to the movies after she was named the person of the year by TIME magazine. Thunberg in response changed her Twitter status to ‘chilling’. In a recent interview with The New York Times, she said, “There’s this false image that I’m an angry, depressed teenager… But why would I be depressed when I’m trying to do my best to change things?” Talking about not being used as a prop when meeting politicians, she remarked, “That’s probably the only reason they meet me. But you need to be able to have conversations, and I don’t say, ‘I had a meeting with Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron and they really seem to get it’. I don’t make them look good. That’s one thing I can do. People see through when politicians try to hide behind me.”
As Gazdar says, “Thunberg has been at the centre of numerous comments and attacks, including Donald Trump’s, in which case the teenager handled herself better than the leader of the free world. There is a danger, however, in projecting a shallow understanding of other issues, expounding unfounded opinions and foraying into unknown territory. Though one may not agree with her strong stance on immediately stopping climate change, it can’t be denied that these young activists have the right to comment on the world we leave them.”
Kangujam was accused of faking her achievements. She rejected the #SheInspiresUs tag PM Modi had come up with ahead of Women’s Day and refused to be among the women to take over his Twitter account. She tweeted, “Dear @narendramodi Ji, please don’t celebrate with me if you are not going to listen to my voice. Thank you for selecting me amongst the inspiring women of the country under your initiative #SheInspiresUs. After thinking many times, I decided to turn down this honour.”
She has been accused of getting awards (including the World Children Peace Prize by Global Peace Index in 2019) by organisations her father KK Singh is associated with. She has been labelled ‘India’s Greta Thunberg’, but appealed: “If you call me ‘Greta of India’, you are not covering my story. You are deleting a story.”
Theresa Sebastian, 15, from Cork in the Republic of Ireland, who supports Thunberg’s school strikes, has faced abuse messages on social media criticising her campaigning or hateful comments about her appearance. Last year, she received racial slurs due to her Indian heritage.
Another Thunberg companion Autumn Peltier has often faced scepticism and hostility.
Sixteen-year-old Leah Namugerwa from Uganda who has been urging the government in Kampala to take action on environmental issues like harmful effects of plastic, deforestation, etc, has faced trolls both at home and abroad. Another Ugandan environmental activist Nyombi Morris, who has pushed to preserve the Bugoma Forest, faced a suspended Twitter account in the midst of a high-profile campaign in September. Morris says the freeze stifled his ability to speak out.
An activist in everyone
Not just youngsters, environmental movements or organisations have played a significant role in the implementation of global climate change policies, but their role is perennially surrounded by doubts.
Global leaders try to solve the puzzle, but some like Trump or Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro have been sceptical. Even if steps are being taken, they are not extreme. At least 25% of EU’s next long-term budget will be dedicated to climate-related initiatives, said European Council president Donald Tusk at the UN Climate Action Summit 2019. The EU will launch an international platform on sustainable finance to help private investors identify green investment opportunities across the globe. Modi has also committed to more than double India’s renewable energy capacity by 2030, reaching 450 GW, a step up from its already bold target of 175 GW by 2022.
Climate policy experts feel that all this depends on choices we make now, including how governments choose to spend on recovery from the pandemic. Most importantly, individual behaviour matters—turning vegan, using local produce, travelling by public transport or bicycle, taking the train instead of flying. But structural changes take decades. Can personal sacrifices serve as a solution to tackle the crisis?
“We mistake climate activism as just being large protests. Climate activism and consciousness begin at home—how many of us carry cloth bags to the vegetable market? While protests do hold an important place in the fight against climate change, it is not the only way to confront it. While policies, technologies and finance can resolve certain pressing issues, there is also a need to bring out a behavioural change in citizens. Awareness generation and effective communication would go a long way in bringing about this change,” says Karan Mangotra, associate director, earth science and climate change, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), a Delhi-based organisation, which specialises in the fields of energy, environment and sustainable development.
Natasha Mudhar, co-founder, The World We Want, a global impact enterprise, which works to accelerate progress to achieve the sustainable development goals by 2030, feels no effort is too small. “We need collaborative action amongst multiple stakeholders to create a roadmap for achieving environmental standards across the board,” she says.
HEAT IS ON
· The UN’s panel on biodiversity, Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which assesses the state of the planet’s biodiversity, warned that one million species face extinction as human-made activity has severely degraded three quarters of land on earth
· Last year, the Swiss held funerals for ice lost to global warming at the Pizol glacier in the Glarus Alps of north-eastern Switzerland. The glacier lost about 80% of its volume since 2006, a trend accelerated by rising global temperatures. A study also suggests more than 90% of Alpine glaciers will disappear by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are left unchecked
· Up to 630 million people, it is estimated, could be forced to leave their homes as a result of 2 m of sea-level rise by 2100
· Rising climate change may shift city capitals. Indonesia plans to move its capital from the traffic-choked Jakarta to Borneo as Jakarta is sinking by an average of 1-15 cm a year. The move would cost up to $33 billion and require an area of 30,000-40,000 hectares to house between nine lakh and 1.5 million people
· Until 1991, Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria, was its capital. Reasons for moving the capital to Abuja were its central location. Lagos was congested, Abuja is a planned city, the first in Nigeria
· California experienced the largest wildfires in modern history with millions suffering due to heat-triggered smog and fire smoke this year
· Severn Cullis-Suzuki, based in Vancouver, Canada, is the daughter of an environmental scientist. In 1992, she travelled with three other young activists to the United Nations Climate Conference in Rio de Janeiro
· Florida-based Delaney Reynolds is a student at the University of Miami and is educating Floridians about the risks of sea-level rise
· Xiye Bastida of the US is a teenage climate activist currently based in New York City and one of the lead organisers of the Fridays For Future youth climate strike movement
· John Paul Jose from India is a climate activist, writer and global peace ambassador who provides a commentary on the environmental crisis through an Indian lens
· Holly Gillibrand from Scotland is helping build a movement in the UK of children demanding action on climate change
· Canada’s Autumn Peltier advocates for clean water and is at the forefront of the global climate movement
· Eleven-year-old Ridhima Pandey’s interest in climate change began when she witnessed the 2013 Uttarakhand floods, which caused over 5,000 deaths and damaged more than 4,000 villages