Cop-out not an option for young climate activists

A disappointing conference in Italy where the youth was supposed to give input on proposals for COP26 has not dampened the fighting spirit of these campaigners for change.

“Historically, the continent of Africa is responsible for only 3% of global emissions and yet many Africans are suffering some of the … worst impacts of the climate crisis,” Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate reminded everyone at a Fridays for Future march following the three-day Youth4Climate meeting in Milan, Italy. The purpose of the meeting was to draft a document for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), which takes place from 31 October to 12 November in Glasgow, Scotland.  

In January 2020, when Nakate was cropped from a group photograph of young climate activists taken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, it was emblematic of how little attention climate change activists from the Global South receive. She tweeted shortly after that “you didn’t just erase a photo. You erased a continent.” (The incident, ironically, went viral on social media and Nakate gained more than 100 000 followers on Twitter in the days that followed, raising her profile as an activist significantly.)  

The UN youth meeting in Milan, held from 28 to 30 September, was presented as an inclusive event and it was said that 400 activists from 197 countries would attend. But activists such as Omar Kaziz, 18, a Syrian who recently moved to the United States to study at university, and Selma Bichbich, 20, from Algeria, tell a different story.

1 October 2021: Ugandan activist for climate justice Vanessa Nakate speaks during the Fridays for Future student march in Milan, Italy. (Photograph by Francesco Prandoni/ Getty Images)

Kaziz, who comes from Damascus, founded Guardians of Nature, an environmental and sustainability movement supported by both the United Nations Children’s Fund and its development programme. He was supposed to take part in Youth4Climate, but bureaucratic problems prevented him from doing so.

“I spent a lot of time and 20% of my money travelling back and forth to Boston from Newport to get a visa, which was very challenging and had a mental tax on me,” Kaziz said. “As for the flight, the UN in Syria had to talk to the organisers to work on it, but I wasn’t eventually given the flight as I didn’t have the visa on time as promised.

“When I tried to contact the logistics team a few days prior to the event, I got an automatic reply saying they were travelling to Italy and weren’t able to address any issue. Logistically, it was a disaster.”

Kaziz also says online participation was problematic. “I have attended many online UN meetings as part of the young leaders training programme back in Syria and none was as bad as this logistical disaster.”

A letdown and low expectations

Bichbich, a member of Youngo, a UN network for youth-driven non-governmental organisations (NGOs), also has her own conservation initiative called Together for Blue & Green. She reports an experience similar to Kaziz’s. “Unfortunately, the [Youth4Climate] logistics team emailed me the day before my departure saying that my flights had been cancelled,” she said. “So I had to look for a last-minute alternative, which I eventually didn’t find, but that was supposed to be their task.”

According to Bichbich, those who attended online weren’t necessarily heard and the document produced for COP26 was not what some of the activists had wanted. “I was heard because I knew one of the group facilitators, but the proposals are unrepresentative of all the voices because the inputs of some delegates weren’t really taken into consideration.”

1 October 2021: Young and old joined the march for climate justice in Milan, just one of many events leading up to the COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photographs by Alex Cizmic)

Some of the African activists who did go to Milan highlighted other issues such as language barriers, a lack of inclusivity ahead of COP26, with vaccine inequality and budgets for logistics drastically reduced for developing countries, a lack of representation in leadership and coaching positions, and even discrimination against some delegates from fellow delegates and staff. The organisers also used an old Lesotho flag at the conference and forgot the Botswana flag, adding it at the last minute. 

Overall, there are low expectations from many delegates that the political leaders attending COP26 will take the proposals received from the youth meeting seriously. 

Adam Aburok, 27, a UN Youth Leadership Programme alumni, was the Palestine delegate at the event. He lives in the Gaza Strip, where residents have only seven hours of electricity a day and 88 litres of water per person per day. 

Aburok says people around the world tend to think that Palestinians have more important problems than the climate crisis to deal with, but this is not true. “[Climate change] is equally important for us,” he said. And though activists like him cannot count on many resources to fight climate change, they needn’t be “professional” climate advocates to make a difference. “We just need to be human,” he said. “We just need to do our part and remember that we don’t represent any political or geographical border. We represent our home – Earth.”

2 October 2021: Adam Aburok, an environmental activist from Gaza, says Palestinians cannot ignore climate issues even though they face other pressing issues daily.

Around the world

Rahma Chikh, 20, also looks beyond borders with her environmental activism. She lives in France but comes from Gabès, Tunisia, where she founded an NGO called Environment Without Borders to fight the terrible effects of climate change on her city.

According to a 2018 study by the European Union, the Tunisian Chemical Group emits 95% of the city’s air pollution, which has appalling consequences for people and the environment’s health. “I spoke to some people in Gabès and realised that very few of them knew what climate change is,” Chikh said. “People have to know what is happening in Tunisia, so our priority is to educate them on this.”

Zainab Waheed, 16, from Lahore, Pakistan, is a climate activist and freelance journalist. Since there aren’t proper platforms for talking about climate change in Pakistan, Waheed promoted “ideas to revolutionise our educational systems to inculcate climate literacy in the students” at the Youth4Climate event. She suggested “adding elements of climate change in every regular subject at school and creating a climate education career at the university supported by the creation of new green jobs”.

1 October 2021: Climate activists in Milan make their opinions clear during the march.

Among the main dangers posed to Pakistan by climate change is a growing risk that drought could cause food shortages and damage the economy, which relies on agriculture. An average increase of 1.4°C to 2.6°C in daily maximum temperatures is expected between 2040 and 2059. Heatwaves, urban floods and locust attacks are already hitting the country as well.

Floods are a major issue in Thailand, too. In September, floodwaters inundated around 70 000 homes and killed six people in the country’s northern and central provinces. Aminta Permpoonwiwat, 16, aims to raise awareness about the climate crisis and founded the Youth Mentorship Project, which mentors children to further their education on issues such as sustainability. 

“I don’t want them to repeat the same mistakes that the past generations have done before,” said Permpoonwiwat. “People sometimes forget that Southeast Asia is one of the most diverse regions in the world in terms of biodiversity and they don’t really know what we are going through. I would like to see more Asian activists having a platform to speak.”

Building resilience

Outbreaks of migratory locusts affected southern Africa in 2020 as well. They weren’t related to the desert locust outbreaks that struck eastern Africa starting from 2019, but worsened food supply for around seven million people in the region.

In Zimbabwe, where 70% of people are employed in the agriculture industry, the locusts attacks compounded the problems caused by heavy rains and flooding, and prolonged periods of serious drought since 2015. That’s why the work of Natalie Mangondo, 25, is fundamental. She is a sustainability manager in agriculture based in Harare and teaches smallholder farmers in rural communities about best practices. “We basically help them build resilience and offer them microfinance, because whenever a destructive climate event happens there is a loss of livelihood,” she said.

Mangondo believes the might of capitalism means “in the system that we are working in, nothing is going to change unless being climate responsible is linked with profitability”.

Collette Levy-Brown, 19, who represented her birth country Botswana at the Youth4Climate conference, is a co-founder of Fridays For Future Zimbabwe, having moved there to study. The protection of the Okavango Delta in Botswana is among the environmental issues she is tackling.

1 October 2021: Many students skipped school to take part in the Fridays for Future march.

The Botswana government has given permission to ReconAfrica, a Canadian company, to do oil and gas exploration in the Okavango Delta, which is a sensitive habitat and home to thousands of endangered species and indigenous people. “The government is trying to wipe out the last tribes of indigenous people,” Levy-Brown says. “So we have been working on stopping it, but they don’t want to listen to us.”

Apart from their climate activism, it is a fear for their future that unites all these activists. Waheed says the huge quantity of negative comments on social media, mainly expressed through memes that are supposed to be funny, speaks volumes of how her generation fears its future.

That’s why Permpoonwiwat believes that the narrative surrounding the climate crisis should change. “If we only offer a negative perspective [in the media], then people won’t be incentivised to change because they will think that all of their daily actions don’t matter,” she said.

Mangondo points out that eco-anxiety, as it is called, isn’t experienced in the same way everywhere. “In Zimbabwe, we don’t necessarily experience eco-anxiety, but it’s an anxiety of instability,” she said. “Since you are economically unstable in your daily life, how can you think about these greater issues? That’s why we also need to address inequalities.”

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