For young climate activists, the pandemic is the defining moment for action

Can the urgent global response to COVID-19 be repeated to address climate change? Youth activists think it can.

Portraits of climate activists. Clockwise from Top Left: Alexandria Villaseñor, Ghslain Irakoze, Kehkashan Basu, Mayumi Sato, Rosie Mills, and Felix Finkbeiner
Photos (Clockwise from top left): Victoria Will, Thomas Jamieson, Rebecca Hale, Thomas Jamieson, Thomas Jamieson, Dana Scruggs

Of all the trauma of the past year, one moment stands out for Alexandria Villase̴̴nor, a teenage climate activist, as the bellwether of what’s in store for the planet: It was last summer, when toxic wildfire smoke spread through northern California as the coronavirus prompted a lockdown.

“Businesses weren’t open or allowing people inside because it was unsafe,” she says. “But the air quality index was like 300-plus outside, which wasn’t safe either. It was, like, what mask do I wear for wildfire smoke and COVID? How can I stay safe from both threats?”

Villasenor, 15, has been talking about her anxiety for the future ever since climate  change-driven drought and intense heat turned California into a tinderbox. She believes that her adult life will be lived in a world so altered by climate change it will be unrecognizable, and the changes to the Earth will be locked in before she’s old enough legally to drink a beer. 

The arrival of an airborne virus that has killed more than three million people globally has only multiplied her anxieties, and she spent part of the last year learning new ways to cope. She took up arts and crafts, planted a garden, and got a cat. But as founder of a climate education group Earth Uprising, she also put in long hours on Zoom with other climate activists to strengthen the movement that brought millions of young people into the streets in 2019. She says they are better prepared now to turn out in even larger numbers when the pandemic wanes. 

“We’ve used this time to recruit and educate new activists, prepare actions and campaigns, and work … on our communication and technology,” she says. “We’re coming out of this pandemic so much stronger.” 

Last year I profiled a number of young climate activists for a special Earth Day issue of National Geographic that went to press just as the pandemic was taking hold. In the weeks before Earth Day 2021 I reached out to them again to see how they were doing. 

If they learned anything heartening from the pandemic, a number of them told me, it’s that world leaders are capable of responding to an existential crisis. The young activists are more determined than ever to compel leaders to respond to the climate crisis with the same sense of urgency. As the world’s first generation of digital natives, they may also be best equipped to push their movement even further.

“COVID is the punctuation mark on the message these young people have been trying to send about climate change, that the earth is out of balance,” says Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist in Washington, D.C., and co-founder of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, an organization that educates colleagues and the public on climate change and mental health. “This is the moment that precedes the question: What are we going to do next?”

Adapting to the new normal 

At first, the young activists were as stymied as older generations by the way the pandemic so abruptly upended life.

In Pakistan, where Rabab Ali, 12, and her brother, Ali Monis, 8, have sued the government for the right to live in a healthy environment, daily life narrowed to such a degree that reading became the activity that sustained their family, says Qazi Athar Ali, their environmental lawyer father.

Elsewhere, activists went to work online. In Rwanda, Ghislain Irakoze, 21, who founded Wastezon, a company that has helped send 460 million tons of electronic waste to recyclers, spent much of his time working with officials from the European Union and the African Development Bank to expand the business. He also tended a vegetable garden, exercised to keep up his energy, and resolved to make one result of digital living permanent: cutting back on flying. In 2016, Irakoze took 26 flights to attend conferences.

 “By adapting to remote conferences in 2020, I learned it can be possible to reduce flight emissions,” he says. 

Kehkashan Basu, 20, quarantined with her parents in Toronto, found ways to keep the Green Hope Foundation, the nonprofit she founded, operating on the ground in Bangladesh and Liberia, where volunteers in COVID-affected villages distributed free masks, soap, water filters, blankets, and menstrual hygiene kits. The organization also installed toilets in Bangladesh and solar panels on homes, a community center, and a school in Liberia.

“We tried our best to turn the challenges into opportunities at every step,” she says. “I was worried about how my work and Green Hope Foundation’s advocacy would progress, given that our work is so ground level. Then I realized that technology was a tool that could be used for our benefit to connect with people across the world … and in counties where the lockdowns weren’t that strict, foundation members were able to go out into their communities and continue our work.” 

Felix Finkbeiner, 23, who founded the tree-planting nonprofit Plant-for-the-Planet, also reorganized after the pandemic forced him to cancel speaking engagements in Europe and switch his graduate studies to online. He moved to a remote Mexican village on the Yucatan Peninsula to join his organization’s largest planting project—an attempt to plant 100 million trees by 2030 in a forest badly degraded by logging. Finkbeiner, a National Geographic Young Explorer, is also working with scientists to set up large-scale forest restoration experiments.

Mayumi Sato, 26, who is originally from Japan but is beginning doctoral studies in the United Kingdom, worked in several research programs that address other global issues that the pandemic exposed, such as racism and human rights.

“It doesn’t take a pandemic to understand discussions around Black Lives Matter or anti-Asian racism, but I do think the pandemic has given us time to be a bit more cognizant of how even in a non-COVID world, people of color have been losing their lives to structural injustice every day,” she says.

Reason for optimism

In many ways, the celebration of Earth Day in 2021 offers a far more promising look to the future than last year. Now, the world has seen the blue skies over Delhi after traffic in India’s capital city came to a standstill. The United States has moved to rejoin the Paris Agreement and President Joe Biden used Earth Day to announce an ambitious plan to cut carbon emissions by at least half by 2030.

Yet to ask these climate activists if any of this gives them hope for the future, is to ask the wrong question, they say. Rosie Mills, 20, an activist in the United Kingdom and a student at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, is reserving judgement to see what concrete steps are taken.

 “To be honest, the U.S. being in the Paris accord is a bare minimum to me for any attempt at a global effort to combat climate change,” she says. “It is good that such a large country has stopped actively working against climate action, but there is still a long way to go.”

Basu, a National Geographic Young Explorer, sees opportunity in the Biden administration that didn’t exist in its predecessor, but she’s found a more relevant lesson about leadership from the pandemic: “The pandemic reinforced my belief that women make better leaders,” she says. “The countries that recovered best from COVID all had female leaders."

Jamie Margolin, 19, one of the founders of the climate activist group Zero Hour and now a film student at New York University, says she’s asked about hope and optimism all the time. While she has days where she sees “glimmers of hope,” she doesn’t think it’s necessary for everyone to be optimistic.

“I’m exhausted and I’ve been through enough to know the best way to make the universe laugh is to make plans,” she says. “I don’t know if I have hope for the future, but I get up every day and take the actions that I can to see if there will be one. That may seem dark, but that’s the truth.”

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