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Our house is on fire, and we’re trapped inside

  • Published at 01:57 pm July 23rd, 2020
Ct_July 2020_Page 1
Photo: Guglielmo Mangiapane. Reuters

Young activists through social media presence have helped ensure that climate action is not forgotten in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and helped to foster connections across geographic divides

Young climate and environmental activists have succeeded in capturing the world’s attention. Youth climate action initiatives have played an instrumental role in creating the sense of urgency that many feel today, as illustrated by Greta Thunberg’s speech ‘Our house is on fire’. 

They have claimed a position of strong moral authority, demanding that political leaders respect their right to a safe and secure future. Their moral authority and collaboration with one another across political and geographical divides has caused the youth climate movement to become particularly strong and influential and has inspired young people across the world to speak up, take initiative and secure their future. 

Young people are often thought of as ‘the future’, but youth activists stress that this is a crisis that needs to be addressed in the present. For 16-year-old Bangladeshi-American activist Rebeca Sabnam, the experiences of climate change were first hand. In front of a crowd of more than 200 thousand at a climate protest in New York last December, she recounted how her uncle had to carry her to school on his back during flooding in her home city of Dhaka. Her speech went on to highlight how the effects of climate change are felt most strongly by vulnerable groups like women and migrants, exacerbating existing inequalities. 

Bangladesh is ranked seventh on the Long Term Climate Risk Index (2020). The increase of climate related extreme weather events risk lives in the present and denies young people their right to a liveable future. Sabnam wants to use the current momentum of the climate movement to bring Bangladeshi women, children and Rohingya refugees into the forefront of climate discussions. By speaking up and demanding climate action, young people have shown themselves to be capable of providing leadership to a crisis that many adults are reluctant to accept.

The success of youth climate movements in mobilising peers and garnering international attention has inspired young people to take action within their communities. Fifteen-year-old Leah Namugerwa advocates for climate justice in Uganda, leading student climate strikes and taking part in the Fridays for Future movement.

For Uganda, the increased risk of drought associated with climate change makes growing crops increasingly difficult and puts many livelihoods at risk. Namugerwa hopes for change in Uganda, and started the campaign #BanPlasticUG, calling for Uganda to ban plastic bags like its East African counterparts.

Single usage, light plastic bags are in very common use in Uganda. Without sufficient infrastructure to dispose of these, they litter towns and farmlands and clog waterways. Many cattle and birds also die from ingesting these stray plastic bags. Plastic pickups organised by Namugerwa and her supporters targeted these areas. This campaign is ongoing, but with lockdown measures, it has mostly been moved to online advocacy and petitions. Namugerwa’s experience in environmental activism and substantial support base gave her the confidence to tackle a new crisis threatening Ugandans: the Covid-19 pandemic. 

After lockdown measures were imposed in Uganda, Namugerwa started a fund to provide meals to starving children. “As much as children have had less direct effects, they are still severely affected indirectly,” she said in a video on Twitter. Namugerwa’s fund specifically targets children already disadvantaged by the effects of climate change, who now have to cope with further socio-economic problems associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.

As of early July, the fund has supplied approximately 1,000 meals to vulnerable children with Namugerwa eager to supply another 1,000 more. Namugerwa and other youth activists’ active presence on social media platforms allowed their initiatives to flourish, and made for an easy transition to online advocacy with lockdown measures in place.

"Fifteen-year-old Leah Namugerwa advocates for climate justice in Uganda, leading student climate strikes and taking part in the Fridays for Future movement."

Young peoples’ familiarity with social media platforms has allowed climate action groups to stay connected and continue climate protests online. Fridays for Future protests have continued, where participants strike at home and post a picture of themselves (and their placard) to social media.

Though some of the energy and enthusiasm may have been lost with the large climate protests cancelled this year, many young people still have optimism. Their social media presence has helped ensure that climate action is not forgotten in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and helped to foster connections across geographic divides. Furthermore, the pandemic proved that institutional change can happen quickly. The Covid-19 ‘crisis’ presents an opportunity for governments and institutions to change for the better. 

Today’s youth movements have shown themselves to be organized and efficient and capable of directly confronting crises. Despite this, their strength and resilience is oftentimes overlooked in decision making processes that will affect their futures. This highlights the importance of platforms that give young people a voice and harness their passion and enthusiasm. 

The strength and influence of the youth climate and environmental movement is game-changing for the future of the planet. Young peoples’ moral authority forces political leaders to confront the fundamental right of intergenerational equity and forces them to think of the long implications of their decisions on future generations. The fact that the majority of political leaders and their supporters are parents makes young peoples’ call for action message both personal and inescapable.

Rachel Nel is a student at University College Utrecht in the Netherlands and is an intern for the ‘Voices from the Frontline Project’ at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD)

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