It requires all of us to fight for a present and a future worth living in
November 7, 2022 1:36 pm(Updated 7:45 pm)
When 15-year-old Greta Thunberg staged a protest outside the Swedish government buildings in August 2018 holding a sign that read “School strike for climate”, she didn’t know that it was the start of something extraordinary.
Just under a year later a global school strike, also known as “Fridays For Future”, was organised in 125 countries with young people leading numerous protests. For several years after that, teenagers were the face of the climate movement; they spoke at the most important conferences, wrote books, covered magazines and led crucial campaigns. Though it was never their aim, the likes of Greta Thunberg, Vanessa Nakate and Xiye Bastida were elevated to celebrity status.
And for a while, it seemed to work. The message was simple and the image was striking – young people fighting for their futures which were fast being robbed by politicians in the pockets of, and expertly lobbied by, multinational corporations and Big Oil (the world’s six largest and most influential publicly traded oil and natural gas producers).
At a similar point in the timeline, Extinction Rebellion was founded and staged disruptive protests in major cities of the world, increasing the momentum of direct action. The group, together with young people, played a fundamental role in the UK, forcing the Government to declare a climate “emergency” and commit to Net Zero by 2050 in law.
Colloquially, this was known as “the golden age” of climate protest. Nearly everyone was convinced that this was the catalyst for global systemic action against a fast-approaching climate emergency.
Then the pandemic happened. Climate conferences were postponed and policymakers began dragging their feet, despite scientists ringing alarm bells on the few years we have to avert planetary catastrophe. In 2022, it seems that many young activists are burning out and losing faith in the powers that be. Thunberg has announced that she is skipping COP27 (the annual UN climate summit) altogether because it’s a forum for “greenwashing”, while other climate activists have started speaking out about being “youthwashed” at such conferences (a term used to describe young people being used by brands and politicians as good PR).
I saw it myself at COP26 in Glasgow – the stark difference between the men in suits protecting their own self-interest and the activists, many from the Global South, disrupting the status quo with their demands for a “Loss and Damage” fund – where rich countries pay poor nations to compensate for the climate damage they have caused. In the end, the need for it was recognised but no formal commitments were made. This was a huge setback for organisers and, in a year when a third of Pakistan was flooded, a hurricane ripped through Cuba, and heat records were broken worldwide, it was an extremely demotivating one. Some young people felt they were too naive to ever think they’d be listened to.
“From the beginning, youth strikers were holding together a complex coalition of children, allied around their age and the tactic of striking, rather than an explicit political agenda”, climate activist Eleanor Salter wrote earlier this year. “On the whole, young activists have grown out of organising along generational lines, instead moving into issue-oriented movements.”
This is true. Though youth activists no longer dominate media headlines in the same fashion, they have not stopped their dedicated work. Organisers like Mikaela Loach and Danielle Sams have worked hard alongside others to successfully halt the development of the Cambo Oil field. Green New Deal Rising has recruited countless young people to get involved in direct action and push for a Green New Deal. Thunberg herself continues to hold Fridays for Future protests. If anything, the gradual decentring of young climate activists in the mainstream indicates that the climate movement is changing, which may not be a bad thing.
The narrative before was that young people were fighting for their futures – because the climate crisis has always been positioned as a thing that will happen 10, 25, 50 years from now – but it has become more commonly accepted that it is happening now and is already disproportionately devastating marginalised groups, in particular the Global South.
Young people have every right to be freaked out, and many of them are. Almost six out of 10 people aged between 16 and 25 are very or extremely worried about the climate crisis, an extensive academic study concluded. However, with the increasing prevalence of a politicised climate justice movement, young activists are part of the wider solution and not the sole face of it. Besides, young people shouldn’t feel like they have to save themselves, nor do they have the material power to enact change.
Many, including me, were naive enough to think that children’s innocence would be enough to force through radical policy. Yet, when a brutal history of extractive colonialism, which caused the climate crisis, has been consistently ignored by world leaders and continues to exist in modern forms, it’s obvious that change needs a lot more than young people’s pleading voices. It requires all of us to fight for a present and a future worth living in. With COP27 now taking place, world leaders will reveal where they stand.
Diyora Shadijanova is an award-winning multi-media journalist and writer and is currently the climate editor at gal-dem.