Gen Z climate activists on how we can save the planet as Cop26 begins: ‘It’s time to end youth tokenism’

Young people around the world are leading the fight against the climate emergency. Emma Snaith speaks to some of these remarkable activists

Monday 01 November 2021 19:47 GMT
The activists dedicating their youth to saving the world
The activists dedicating their youth to saving the world (Supplied)

For members of Gen Z, it’s almost impossible to recall a time when the climate crisis was not a looming reality.

They grew up with a ticker-tape of bad news scrolling before their eyes: warnings of record-breaking floods, wildfires and heatwaves that are now coming to pass.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that this generation, which roughly encompasses young people under 25, is leading the way in confronting the climate emergency.

“I am 19 years old, and in 2050 I will be 48 years old – and may have children who I will be worrying about,” climate activist Dr Mya-Rose Craig says. “Over the next 30 years we will see our futures destroyed due to the selfishness and lack of action of our parents and grandparents’ generations.”


Indeed, the first Cop summit, which brings together world leaders annually to discuss climate change, was held in 1995 – and yet carbon emissions continue to soar. Even if countries meet their current climate commitments, the world is heading for a catastrophic 2.7C temperature rise over pre-industrial levels by the end of this century, according to a recent UN report.

Young activists may not always be hopeful about the chances of success as Cop26 gets underway in Glasgow, but they continue to fight the climate crisis with remarkable courage and creativity.

The last three years have seen a huge wave of youth-led activism, from the school strikes led by Greta Thunberg to young indigenous activists protecting their communities on the front lines of the crisis.

The Independent speaks to some of the Gen Z activists at the forefront of the global movement

Disha Ravi, 22: India

Ravi has become the face of the Indian government’s heavy-handed crackdown on dissent
Ravi has become the face of the Indian government’s heavy-handed crackdown on dissent (Disha Ravi)

Growing up in rural India, Disha Ravi saw the effects of the climate crisis firsthand – before she even understood what it was.

She describes how her parents’ house in Mangalore would flood every monsoon – “that was the norm there”. She adds: “I moved back to Bangalore for my degree but my parents told me the situation got worse.”

Ravi also faced water scarcity as a child. “I watched my grandparents struggle with not having access to water,” she says.

It was only when Ravi turned 18 and had better internet access that she discovered the climate crisis was behind the worsening flooding and water scarcity her family faced. Soon after, Ravi helped to found the Indian branch of Fridays for Future in 2019.

Then earlier this year, Ravi became the face of the Indian government’s heavy-handed crackdown on dissent. She was arrested for sedition and criminal conspiracy over accusations she edited and circulated a document tweeted by climate activist Greta Thunberg relating to India’s ongoing farmer protests.

Ravi says she is unable to attend Cop26 as her passport is still being withheld by the police, but she is determined to continue campaigning around the event and will attend online meetings.

Centring the voices of young people and those from the global south would likely change the course of climate action, according to Ravi. “Cop26, like every other Cop so far, is elitist and inaccessible to most,” she says.

“I would like to see reparations from the global north to those of us in the global south … because they caused the climate crisis through colonisation and continued exploitation – it’s time to pay for that.”

Ghislain Irakoze, 21: Rwanda

Irakoze: ‘It’s the right time to end youth tokenism and start to hear our voice’
Irakoze: ‘It’s the right time to end youth tokenism and start to hear our voice’ (Ghislain Irakoze)

Ghislain Irakoze discovered the full scale of the waste problem at the age of 11 after an accident at a local landfill site.

He was visiting the site in northern Rwanda as part of a school trip to study the problem of urban pollution. As Irakoze and his classmates were inspecting piles of household waste, a mound of refuse collapsed and buried his best friend.

His friend eventually made a full recovery, but Irakoze was now determined to “create a waste-free world”.

At the age of 18, he founded Wastezon, a mobile app that connects people trying to get rid of their electronic waste with recyclers and manufactures. So far over 500 tonnes of e-waste have been recycled using the app, saving an equivalent of over 4,500 tonnes of carbon emissions.

Irakoze is passionate about the potential of the circular economy – an economic system which involves reusing, repairing and recycling existing materials and products for as long as possible.

“We are highly dependent on virgin resources, yet produce massive tonnes of waste,” he says. “It’s time to transition to a circular economy.”

Irakoze believes young people should be at the heart of this movement towards a more sustainable economic system. “It’s the right time to end youth tokenism and start to hear and consider our voice,” he says.

Looking towards Cop26, Irakoze wants to see “a concrete action plan” for the £100bn climate fund provided by rich countries to help poorer countries adapt to climate change.

“For a continent that is heavily being affected by climate change whilst has a low contribution to global emissions, Africa needs more support to fight such a crisis,” he says.

Elijah Mckenzie-Jackson, 17: UK

Mckenzie-Jackson is known for his hunger strike against a planned demolition of coal mines in west Cumbria
Mckenzie-Jackson is known for his hunger strike against a planned demolition of coal mines in west Cumbria (Elijah Mckenzie-Jackson)

Growing up as a vegetarian, Elijah Mckenzie-Jackson has always been very passionate about animal rights. This soon led him to explore the issue of climate change. “I realised that animal mistreatment was just one issue affecting the rise of global emissions,” he says.

Mckenzie-Jackson has helped to organise school strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests to raise awareness of the planetary emergency. But he is probably best known for going on hunger strike in protest against plans for the UK’s first deep coal mine in 30 years.

“It was physically very difficult,” he says. “However it was very effective in raising public awareness of West Cumbria Coal mine’s premeditated destruction.”

Following sustained pressure from campaigners like Mckenzie-Jackson, the UK government U-turned on its decision not to intervene over local officials’ approval of the plan for the coal mine in Cumbria earlier this year.

A public inquiry into plans for the coal mine has just closed. A subsequent decision from the presiding planning inspector is expected in December or January.

Like many climate activists, Mckenzie-Jackson is not hopeful of the chances of success at Cop26.

“Leaders are yet to give teenagers a reason to believe they will save our future,” he says. “However we won’t let this lifeline of a conference go, we will do all it takes to ensure a liveable future for all.”

He believes that climate change requires systems change. “Endless growth, greed and overconsumption will never and can never be compatible with the natural world,” he says. “Resources are finite and need restoration periods.”

“One thing everyone can do is use their voice, we all have one,” he adds. “It’s just about finding ways to feel empowered enough to use it.”

Joycelyn Longdon, 23, UK

Joycelyn set up Climate in Colour to help make the conversation accessible and diverse
Joycelyn set up Climate in Colour to help make the conversation accessible and diverse (Joycelyn Longdon)

Joycelyn Longdon is a PhD student at Cambridge University using AI to research the role of technology in forest conservation.

“In recent years remote sensing and machine learning have emerged as invaluable tools supporting the understanding and monitoring of forest ecosystems,” she explains.

Although she stresses the urgent need for conservation to make use of the latest data science, Longdon also says that it is imperative to foster links with indigenous communities and use their local knowledge.

Not only is Longdon involved in critical academic research, she is also the founder of Climate In Colour – an online education platform that tries to make the climate conversation more accessible and diverse.

She set up the organisation after feeling disillusioned by the lack of intersectionality in the environment movement after attending her first march at the age of 16.

“It wasn’t until I learned more about the connections of colonial legacies, racism and oppression, and how they intersected with the climate crisis that a flick switched,” she says. ”I wanted to be part of a movement of people and move others to take action.”

Looking towards Cop26, Longdon wants to see as quick a shift from fossil fuels as possible. “This means getting out of big oil and gas’ pockets, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and investing in the future of clean energy,” she says. She adds that world leaders need to fulfil their duty to providing £100bn of climate funding a year to developing nations, “not out of charity, but because that is the debt owed by western countries for being historically the biggest emitters on the planet”.

Longdon believes that the climate crisis is in fact one of “compassion and spiritual connection to the world we live in.”  She adds: “If I could change one thing it would be to revive the world’s spiritual conscience, in order to guide people to make the healthiest, most just and least destructive decisions, driven not by power or profit but by love and care.”

Joycelyn Longdon is one of the panelists at THE EXTREME HANGOUT on Friday 5 November, 10-11am. Sign up for free tickets here.

Dr Mya-Rose Craig, UK, 19

Last year Craig staged the world’s most northern climate strike on an ice floe in the Arctic circle
Last year Craig staged the world’s most northern climate strike on an ice floe in the Arctic circle (Dr Mya-Rose Craig)

At 19 years old, Dr Mya-Rose Craig is thought to be the youngest person to have seen half of the world’s bird species. She was just nine days old when she first went bird watching.

Craig says that “everything comes back to birds for me.” She adds: “That’s where all of my race and climate activism came from.”

Craig, who is of British-Bangladeshi heritage, says her experience spending a childhood outdoors made her realise how few opportunities there are for people of colour to explore nature, let alone get involved in the environmental movement.

So, in 2016 Craig set up her charity Black2Nature, which campaigns for equal access to nature for all and runs nature camps for young people from inner city areas. Last year, she became the youngest person from Britain to receive an honorary doctorate in recognition of her conservation work and her advocacy.

Craig believes that young people from around the world “should be listened to at global leader meetings”. “As we will be the most impacted by climate change, we should have the most say,” she says.

Her recently released book We Have a Dream highlights the importance of amplifying diverse voices in the climate movement. It tells the stories of 30 young indigenous people and people of colour striving to protect the environment.

“Our media is mainly focused on white environmentalists who live in the UK, Europe and North America,” she says. “Very few talk about racism and global climate justice in relation to the impact of climate change.”

If she had the power to make one change to help solve the climate crisis? “That is a hard one, but I would get rid of GDP. The definition of a successful nation as continual growth is not sustainable and we must look at alternative ways of measuring wealth.”

Tori Tsui UK, 27, UK

Tsui describes the high levels of pollution in Hong Kong as ‘incredibly sobering’
Tsui describes the high levels of pollution in Hong Kong as ‘incredibly sobering’ (Tori Tsui)

“Mental health advocacy, much like climate justice, is a survival instinct,” Tori Tsui says.

From a young age she has campaigned to raise awareness of both issues, which she believes are strongly connected. “I have struggled with ill mental health since I was a child and my only way of coping was to vocalise and mobilise,” she says.

Increasing awareness of the ecological emergency has led to a rise in climate anxiety, with young people particularly affected. A global survey earlier this month found that 75 per cent of young people believe that "the future is frightening".

Tsui says her experience growing up in Hong Kong and witnessing the “environmental degradation” of the city due to high levels of air pollution and poor waste management was “incredibly sobering”.

She now lives in Bristol in southwest England and is one of the founders of Pass The Mic, a platform which amplifies the voices of people on the frontlines of the climate crisis, including black and indigenous groups. Tsui also helped found Bad Activist Collective, which helps connect campaigners around the world who are working on different causes.

Tsui believes that Cop summits should be made as inclusive as possible and “open its doors to as many marginalised and frontline communities as possible”.  She adds: “Sadly, barriers like vaccine inequity, prices of travel and connections to accredited organisations make this incredibly difficult.”

Tsui emphasises the importance of the redistributing resources as the world tackles the climate crisis.

“I want fossil fuel companies dissolved and to be tried for crimes against humanity,” she says. “I would want their wealth and power to be used to fund a just green transition.”

Tori Tsui is one of the panelists at THE EXTREME HANGOUT on Friday 5 November, 5-6pm. Sign up for free tickets here.

Mitzi Jonelle Tan, Philippines, 23

The Philippines, where Tan grew up, is the most vulnerable country in the world to climate impacts
The Philippines, where Tan grew up, is the most vulnerable country in the world to climate impacts (AC Dimatatac)

Mitzi Jonelle Tan grew up being afraid of drowning in her own bedroom when typhoons and floods hit her home.

“I remember waking up in the middle of the night having to scoop out flood water from my room, spending days in the dark, waiting for the storm to subside, afraid of a tree falling on our roof,” she says.  But Tan points out that her story is in fact “a privileged one”.

The Philippines, where Tan grew up, is the most vulnerable country in the world to climate impacts, according to a report by the Institute for Economics and Peace. But it was only when she was older that Tan realised the floods and typhoons that she had experienced were getting worse due to global heating.

“They taught us that climate change was about ice caps and polar bears – not about what we were already experiencing,” she says. “And we didn’t learn that the fossil fuel industry and multinational companies are the reason behind it.”

It was when she spoke with a Lumad indigenous leader that she realised she wanted to join their fight to protect the environment. Now aged 23, Tan is the convenor and international spokesperson of Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines.

Ahead of her journey to Glasgow to attend Cop26, she feels hopeful: “So many of us are going to come together and fight for climate justice”.

“But more than hope, we need action,” she adds. “We need to change the way that we view development as GDP and everlasting growth for the global north through the exploitation of the global south… To a world where no one is left behind with true climate and social justice.”

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