In last year’s Children’s Climate Risk Index, global children’s rights organisation UNICEF reported that one billion children (almost half of all the world’s children) live in countries that are at extremely high risk from the worst impacts of climate change. It’s these children who will inherit the earth – with its predicted increasing carbon emissions, soaring temperatures, extreme weather events, droughts, famines, food shortages, global displacements and all.
It’s no wonder that more than half of the UK’s child psychiatrists are reporting a rise in ‘eco anxiety’ among their patients, with many young people aged 16-25 shouldering an enormous psychological burden as they face an uncertain future. But the kids are also all right: there’s a whole new generation of youth climate activists demanding and taking action and inspiring hope.
Here, we highlight 10 youth climate activists from around the globe who are finding novel ways to sound the climate alarm.
1. The teenager who sued for climate action
When Australian climate activist Anjali Sharma was 16, she filed a class action suit against the Australian federal government – and Minister for the Environment Susan Ley – for failing to consider the impacts of climate change on young people. Though ultimately her win was overturned in the court of appeals, her story hit headlines – including featuring on the award-winning 7am podcast – and inspired many more to fight for more climate justice.
“The federal court today may have accepted the minister’s legal arguments over ours but that does not change the minister’s moral obligation to act on climate change… It does not change science. It does not put out the fires or drain the flood waters. We will not stop in our fight for climate justice. The world is watching.”
2. The COP speaker who starred in a climate activism music video
British climate justice activist, student, and leading UK environmentalist Dominique Palmer began her activism as part of Greta Thunberg’s Fridays For Future/School Strike for Climate movement – switching to a digital strike during the COVID-19 pandemic. After speaking at the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference – COP25 – her speech was sampled in Sharpened Knife by Swedish artist Titiyo and producer Paresse, release on Earth Day.
The race to safeguard the future of this planet has begun, and so we must act now. We are not only fighting for our futures but against the present crisis and those already suffering. We need ambitious systemic change that places people and the planet at the heart of it.”
3. The Birdgirl who runs nature camps for inner-city kids
In February 2020, British-Bangladeshi ornithologist, and campaigner for equal rights Dr Mya–Rose Craig, aka Birdgirl, received an honorary doctorate in science from the University of Bristol – the youngest Briton to receive such an award. Not content to rest on her laurels, this year she released her acclaimed memoir Birdgirl, about her mother’s struggle with mental illness and her passion for social justice and fierce dedication to preserving our planet and took home a Diana Award for her charity Black2Nature, which runs nature camps to give marginalised teens access to the great outdoors.
“I am a naturalist and love nature and wildlife, though my love of birds is the most special to me. If you spend any time with birds, you will realise how special they are. Birds are amazing. They can fly, so how awesome is that? I get a thrill every time I see a new bird.”
4. The California eco-communicator schooling the world on intersectional environmentalism
California-based intersectional environmental activist and eco-communicator Leah Thomas kick-started her environmental career as blogger Green Girl Leah and founder of The Intersectional Environmentalist Platform, a ‘resource + media hub that aims to advocate for environmental justice + inclusivity within environmental education + movements’. She is Passionate about advocating for and exploring the relationship between social justice and environmentalism, she’s written for Vogue and ELLE on the topic and her debut book, The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet, comes out in the UK in September 2022.
“I think environmentalists are pretty nice people, but I think people have been using that goodness as sort of a shield to say, ‘I’m an environmentalist. I’m doing enough for the planet, and I don’t have to focus on the social justice stuff…’ But at this point in history, especially, it is not enough to just care about recycling if you are not thinking about the people who in different parts of the world are getting shipped all our recycling and having to deal with our waste. We can’t think about saving endangered salmon without thinking about the communities that might be relying on that salmon.”
5. The uni student who kicked fossil fuel out of climate change negotiations
While studying for her BA in political science and English in New York, Pakistani-born Ayisha Siddiqa also found time to mobilise 300,000 climate activists onto the streets of Manhattan, co-found Fossil Free University – a 12-week climate justice training course – and co-found Polluters Out, a global climate coalition. Inspired by the failure of COP25, where youth and Indigenous activists were removed while the fossil fuel industry had a presence, Polluters Out launched in 2020 with just 150 members globally, demanding that the fossil fuel industry relinquishes control of every aspect of our society from Indigenous lands, governments, banks, universities, and climate negotiations.
“Polluters Out has a very tangible task. It is not only measurable; it is achievable. It has been done before. The World Health Organization set a precedent when it kicked out Big Tobacco. That allowed the US, the UK and other wealthy nations to put taxes and warning labels on tobacco. It changed the course of what we thought. And this is just tobacco, right? It’s internally harming people. Fossil fuels are the leading cause of the climate crisis: the leading cause. Since we created Polluters Out, we’ve formed chapters all over the world. We’re a coalition. We support local groups on the ground because we also understand that not everybody has relationships with polluters that are Big Oil. There’s mining and plastics. Pollution is a very broad term.”
6. The climate science graduate making jokes about the emergency
Comedian and Columbia University grad – in climate science and policy, no less – Rollie Williams performs under the comic brand Climate Town, sharing YouTube videos on topics such as fuel prices, fast fashion, and what banks really do with your money. The latter uses jokes and Toy Story references to alert audiences that while banks representing 40% of global banking assets have joined the Net Zero Banking Alliance, fossil fuel financing from the world’s 60 largest banks reached US$4.6 trillion in just six years since the Paris Agreement in 2015. But it’s not all lols: the videos also include advice on how to tackle the issues, including this step-by-step toolkit on what to do about banking.
“Climate Town’s whole deal is we’re making comedy videos about the climate crisis. It’s a really complicated issue and a lot of people don’t feel comfortable cracking into it with friends, co-workers, family, whatever. Climate change can also get kind of boring sometimes if you’re not careful. I think if people like you and me talked about the climate crisis 10x more than we do now, we’d have a shot of solving this thing.”
7. The student empowering marginalised youth to take climate action
American climate justice activist, community organiser, student and UN Togetherband Ambassador Kevin Patel openly shares his experiences as a front–line climate activist diagnosed with severe heart issues due to Los Angeles’ poor air quality. He founded OneUpAction International, an intersectional youth-led organisation that supports and empowers marginalised youth by providing them with the resources they need to be climate changemakers. It offers free support, resources and programmes such as fellowships to empower young people to innovate and implement to solve the crisis.
“Something that I say to people who have eco anxiety and are afraid for the future is this: there is still hope. Despite all the headlines and visual effects of what’s happening around the globe, there is hope. There is hope in young people. There is hope in everyone – because everyone willing to make a change will make a difference in giving our communities a fair and just future. We must stay optimistic; if we don’t, we’ll never solve this crisis. Whoever is reading this is, know that you can make this change. It only takes one action.”
8. The global group – from high schoolers to young adults – making climate protests accessible
The Re-Earth Initiative is on a mission to make the climate movement accessible to all. The initiative has its roots in an action from two years ago, when the founders mobilised thousands of people to take part in digital protests: asking them to make two climate pledges for Earth Day, one individual and one systemic. Since the success of the campaign they’ve been working to help people turn pledges into action.
“While youth are becoming more aware about social and environmental issues, there remains a gap in driving real, concrete change. We want to break the echo chamber and bring climate action to the masses, by hosting informational webinars and writing toolkits. We recognise that not everyone is able to participate in protests (physical or digital), nor afford environmentally preferred products and foods. We therefore strive to provide a wide range of avenues for people to participate in the climate movement.”
9. The ‘small island gal with big dreams’ who spoke at COP21 and COP26
Poet, climate warrior and anti-nuclear advocate Selina Neirok Leem, from Majuro, Marshall Island, was the youngest delegate at COP21 – where the Paris Agreement was formed. The One Young World ambassador’s speech then appeared in Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary on the climate crisis, Before the Flood. Selina went on to speak at the World Leaders Summit at COP26, and shared her poem I Grew, Giant at Flourishing Diversity’s alternative COP26 event Real World Leaders on Climate, listening to Indigenous peoples’ voices.
“If we continue at the rate we are going, it will be too soon that we all must migrate. Yet many people I have talked to do not even fathom leaving. I have met adamant and spirited people who said if their country drowns, then they will drown with it. If I look at the numbers, my country’s future looks very bleak. But I cannot give up hope.”
10. The Kenyan climate activist who co-founded a national network
Climate activist, Africa coordinator at Earth Uprising International and one of the Top 100 Kenyans 2021, Kevin Mai co-founded the Kenya Environmental Action Network (KEAN) to create a national network to support young Kenyan environmental sustainability leaders. KEAN also runs restoration programmes, offers conservation education, and anti-plastic campaigns such as #AfricaIsNotADumpster. Last year Greenhouse hosted Kevin on his first visit to the UK to help him to spread the word about KEAN’s work, and we are funding four schools and a community garden as part of the Bustani Schools Garden Project (see video below).
“It’s very important for people from the global south to speak for themselves, not other parts of the globe to speak on their behalf. Because we are the ones who have been affected by climate change, so it’s very important we can hear from our own people, with our own ideas, our own voice.”
Follow Kevin and KEAN on Twitter: @KevinKevinmtai and @kean_network
Read more youth climate activism: Menu for Change: Amplifying young voices in food systems transformation