In May, for the second time this year, more than 1.5 million young people in more than 125 countries walked out of schools, colleges and universities in the biggest day of global climate action ever. Young people have protested en masse before – millions marched against the Iraq war in 2003 – but this child-led uprising is happening with unprecedented momentum on a global scale.
The urgency of their protests reflects the very narrow window of opportunity left to make positive change. We are already living outside the climate parameters that first gave rise to humans, and the world’s leading climate scientists agree that we have only 12 years to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5°C. Still, most governments are not doing enough to stay within these limits as set out by the United Nation’s 2015 Paris agreement.
The complexities of the climate crisis have become highly politicised, but young people are able to cut through the noise. As Jamie Clarke, executive director of Climate Outreach, explains: “Climate change is the most politically divisive issue in America, more so than gun control and abortion. But young people have the social freedom to say it like it is.”
UK Youth Climate Coalition’s Jake Woodier believes that climate strikes are reconfiguring the political sphere. “Children who historically don’t have a voice in politics are really thrusting their opinions into the public domain,” he says. “We are seeing thousands of incredibly intelligent and articulate children who are grasping the severity of the climate crisis better than adults in power.” Here, seven young people who are doing just that, explain where their passion comes from.
‘It’s frustrating that we have Trump, a climate denier, heading our government’
Dylan D’Haeze, 16, Washington state, US
This autumn, Dylan releases the fourth environmental documentary in his award-winning series, Kids Can Save The Planet. “Film-making empowers me because I can visually show problems and solutions in a way that is much easier to comprehend,” says Dylan, who directs, narrates and films his documentaries. With the next US election just 17 months away, his latest film, about voting and civic engagement, is a timely call to action for a new generation. “If you elect people the world really needs into office, then the world will change.”
According to Dylan, the main hurdle is trying to convince the government and big corporations that climate change is a serious problem. “Most of them just want to make quick bucks instead of thinking what the world is going to look like for the next generation,” he says. What does he think of Trump? “It’s frustrating that we have a climate denier heading our government – that is two steps backwards from where we need to be right now.”
It was ocean pollution that first struck him when he travelled through California three years ago: “The plastic debris we saw on beaches really scared me, and my mum suggested that instead of being afraid, I could do something about it,” says Dylan, who is home-schooled by his parents, Dawn and Kevin, both film-makers. “At first I felt helpless, but then I started discovering solutions that were actually really simple, like carrying bamboo cutlery and taking beeswax wrap to the deli to avoid clingfilm,” he says.
Dylan and Dawn are now planning the ultimate home-schooling road trip in the run-up to the 2020 election. For six months, they will drive an electric car from their home on Orcas Island off the west coast, across America to Washington DC, filming as they go. High-profile mentors, including actor and environmentalist Ed Begley Jr, musician Moby and Cowspiracy’s Kip Andersen will join Dylan along the way. He will interview leaders spearheading green initiatives, youth activists from the nationwide Sunrise Movement and pioneers developing renewable energy.
As he travels, he will present his latest film in high schools and colleges, and speak in city halls and state capitals, asking people to make, on camera, a commitment to positive change. “It will be really powerful,” Dawn says. “Young people have to be engaged – there’s no other option.”
‘Our weather is not normal. Mudslides are washing away our homes’
Yola Mgogwana, 11, Cape Town, South Africa
“I see the effects of climate change every single day,” says Yola, from her home in Khayelitsha, one of Cape Town’s impoverished townships. “Our weather is not normal – one day it is hot, the next day it’s raining heavily. It’s a huge problem for farmers, and mudslides wash away houses, leaving poor families without homes.” Eighteen months ago, Cape Town experienced its most severe drought in a century. Residents’ water consumption was limited to 50 litres a day and the city was just weeks away from “day zero”, when taps would run dry. “For me, that was a big sign that we need to change our ways and stand up for nature – because our government wants to profit from the environment, instead of implementing policies that protect it,” she says.
In January, Yola began volunteering with the Earthchild Project, which integrates environmental education into classrooms and communities. “Our mission is to monitor our school’s food, water and electricity usage, and encourage other learners to reduce their consumption.” The school’s organic vegetable garden helps feed pupils, and a worm farm transforms food waste into compost, so the children learn how to conserve resources. “Every school should make environmental education part of their curriculum. Climate change is a foreign topic to my family – without this club I would be in the dark,” says Yola, who takes inspiration from the Zulu word “ubuntu”, meaning “I am, because you are.”
In March, Yola spoke in front of 2,000 young people in Cape Town, and she presents talks at neighbouring schools. “I want to show the world that we, as black youth from Cape Town’s under-resourced communities and townships, do care about the climate – because we are the ones that get affected the most.” Her plea to the South African government is to take urgent action. “We will not accept a life of fear and devastation. The crisis is now. People are dying.”
‘Michael Gove seemed interested, but politicians have so many things on their plate’
Amy, 15, and Ella Meek, 13, Nottinghamshire, UK
Sisters Amy and Ella are on a mission to encourage people, businesses and schools to adopt a “plastic clever” approach to reducing single-use plastics. Three years ago, they learned about the UN’s 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development while being home-schooled. Shocked by the impact that plastic pollution has on marine wildlife, they decided to do something about it. They founded their child-led campaign, Kids Against Plastic, and in April 2018 they presented their first TEDx talk.
“Kids can have a really powerful voice when they find something they are passionate about – but the key is to be educated about it in the first place,” argues Amy, who wishes the school curriculum focused more on environmental issues.
Plastic pollution is tangible and ubiquitous, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. The girls explain that to make every one-litre single-use plastic bottle of water, one-sixth of its capacity of oil is used. “The wasteful production of single-use plastics is so interconnected with the consumption of fossil fuels and global warming, and learning about these problems really opened our eyes,” Amy says.
“A youth movement in Bali called Bye Bye Plastic Bags, set up by two girls our age, really captured our imagination back in 2016,” recalls Ella, who now reports on environmental issues for FYI, a weekly news programme on Sky Kids. “I always wanted to be an environmental TV presenter, so it’s great to think others might be inspired by the features they watch on the show.”
As two of 250 British #iwill ambassadors for youth social action, the sisters recently met the environment secretary, Michael Gove: “He seemed interested in what kids like us are doing, but politicians always have so many things on their plates, so it can be hard to get them involved,” Amy says. “We are lucky that our MP, Vernon Coaker, and Gedling borough council have helped us to push change in our local area by installing water fountains and insisting that all vendors at council events adhere to the plastic clever policy (for instance, by using a returnable cup deposit scheme). Often, councillors and politicians are surprised to hear two schoolgirls stand up and talk to them – young voices get their attention and that has a powerful impact.”
Last December, the education secretary, Damian Hinds, urged schools to become single-use plastic-free by 2022, something the Meek sisters are excited about. But they still have concerns over the government’s 25-year environment plan. “We worry that there’s no sense of urgency. By 2042, we’ll be middle-aged – it’s frustrating and scary,”
‘Living near the bush, there’s a real risk of our houses burning down. It’s scary’
Harriet O’Shea Carre and Milou Albrecht, both 14, Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia
Bush fires are Milou and Harriet’s biggest worry. The teenagers experienced 46C (115F) days last summer, and January 2019 was the hottest month recorded in Australia, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. “The fire danger is really high. There’s a real risk of our houses burning down because we live right near the bush. It could be deadly. It’s really scary,” Harriet says. “All we want is a safe climate; we don’t want money or power, and we haven’t got any ulterior motive. We simply want our futures. How can you tell someone that they don’t have the right to live on and appreciate this planet, and be safe?”
Milou and Harriet started the Australian school climate strike in November 2018, together with their friend Callum Bridgefoot, 11. “Seeing Greta Thunberg leading school strikes in Sweden was really powerful – that’s what inspired us. Twenty of us started striking for climate action outside our MP’s office and it quickly escalated,” Milou explains. Weekly strikes now take place in more than 65 towns and cities across Australia, involving tens of thousands of young people, demanding 100% renewable energy by 2030 and no new coal, oil or gas projects.
In February, seven other young activists joined Harriet and Milou in Canberra to present their demands to Bill Shorten MP, then leader of the opposition Labor party. “Meeting us face-to-face was a clear sign he is taking us seriously,” Harriet says. “But we haven’t had an adequate response – we want to see a real plan for change in policy.”
“All the scientists agree that we’re right about climate change, so it’s difficult for people to find fault in what we are doing,” Milou says. In response to trolling comments on social media telling them to stay in school, Harriet and Milou insist that striking at the weekend would lack impact. “The people leading our country don’t want to listen to us – they want to shut us down,” Harriet says. “We can use our civil disobedience to capture the government’s attention. If they want us back in school, politicians need to start acting.”
Milou says their families are behind them: “They are supportive of what we do because they love us – they would rather have us alive and uneducated than dead and educated.”
‘If you are 2C above normal, you feel very ill. So imagine how the planet will feel’
Lilly Platt, 11, Zeist, the Netherlands
As Lilly walks to and from school, she litter-picks, often collecting up to 400 pieces of rubbish. She started four years ago, shortly after she and her family moved to the Netherlands from London. She was learning to count in Dutch with her grandfather and as they walked, they counted 91 pieces of litter within just 15 minutes. “My grandpa told me how plastic on the ground eventually makes its way to the ocean,” she says, “so I decided I had to do something about it. We picked it all up and took a photo to post on social media.” After that first pick-up, Lilly started researching plastic pollution and was horrified to read about the oceans’ “microplastic soup”.
“Plastic pollution just shows that we consume too much,” Lilly says. “We all need to feel responsible. Think about how much CO2 we have produced since the Industrial Revolution. Just think how many animals have been killed for needless reasons and how many trees have been chopped down for nothing but greed.”
She believes that all schools need to educate students about the climate crisis, and that politicians need to pay attention to scientists and strikers. She has been striking outside the town hall in Zeist since September 2018. “Listen, think and open your eyes and see what you have been doing to the world,” she says. “What happens to your body if you are 2C above your normal temperature? You feel very ill, so imagine how the planet will feel. We want world leaders, including Trump, to stay aligned with the Paris agreement, reduce carbon emissions and keep within 1.5C of global warming. Polluters must pay.”
Follow @LillysPlasticPickup on Facebook. Lilly is ambassador for HOW Global and youth ambassador for Plastic Pollution Coalition.
• This feature appears in the climate issue of Weekend magazine on Saturday 29 June.
If you would like a comment on this piece to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in print, please email email@example.com, including your name and address (not for publication).