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  1. Environment
19 October 2022

Generation Greta: the school strike that went global

The youth movement Fridays for Future has grown into an international force for change. Here, seven activists share their views from the climate front lines.

By India Bourke

Nicki Becker, 21

In Argentina we need helicopters to fight the flames

Last month the air in Buenos Aires was filled with smoke from wildfires in the nearby wetlands. These fires have been caused by human activity and a terrible drought, and the drought was caused by the climate crisis. Yet many people don’t make that connection.

It was this lack of awareness that first stirred me to action. I saw a 2019 Instagram video of Greta and other activists in Europe calling for the first school strikes, and wondered why no one in Argentina was talking about the climate threat. With some friends, I organised the first Youth for Climate protest, in front of Congress – around 5,000 people joined. Politicians realised that young people would be more likely to vote in that year’s elections if they had an environmental proposal – so they began calling us up.

The country has since passed a climate change law, establishing the issue as one that requires a national policy. Yet many in power believe they have to choose between protecting the environment and the economy. This frustrates me: we have to understand that these are human rights violations, and that the economy and the environment cannot be separated. We need our government to start investing in clean energy rather than fossil fuels. And we need the Global North nations to deliver the money for mitigation and adaptation that they promised in the 2015 Paris Agreement. We need money for rangers to put out the initial blazes, and for helicopters to fight the flames.

To motivate myself, I often recall being on stage at our first strike and thinking, “If we hadn’t organised this, then who would?” It’s the same thing now: if we don’t push for a new law to regulate and protect our wetlands, who will?

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[See also: “I haven’t met a politician ready to do what it takes”: Greta Thunberg and Björk in conversation]

Mitzi Jonelle Tan, 25

Growing up in the Philippines, I lived in fear of typhoons

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Mitzi Jonelle Tan, Fridays for Future

As a child, I was afraid of drowning in my own bedroom: flood-water from typhoons would come into our home. We stayed up by candlelight, listening to a battery-powered radio for advice on whether we should evacuate. Now, every time a typhoon hits, members of local Fridays for Future groups distribute supplies. Whenever the relief operations are near the capital region of Metro Manila, where I live, I join them. The Philippines is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries, with an average of 20 destructive storms and typhoons a year.

The life we choose is a dangerous one. Earlier this year, the environmental advocate and volunteer teacher Chad Booc was killed in an encounter with government troops. Last month people described Greta Thunberg as a “terrorist” on social media, after she said there would be “no climate justice” under our recently elected president, Ferdinand Marcos, in a Fridays for Future Philippines video.

All this contributes to a stigma: parents don’t want their children involved; young people don’t want to be targets of “red-tagging”, in which activists are harassed or killed. Yet being out on protests is where I feel safest: I can yell out all my fear. The international solidarity we have through Fridays for Future means that the world is watching.

Ayisha Siddiqa, 23

Tornadoes of mosquitoes are spreading malaria across Pakistan

Ayisha Siddiqa, Fridays for Future

This year we have seen compounding climate disasters. First, the hottest spring in decades; the heat was so intense that my father passed out and had to be hospitalised. Next came more heatwaves, glacial melting and flash-floods which ripped away bridges and homes. In August it rained for a month. This combined with the melt to cause a flood on a scale we have not seen in a hundred years: over 33 million people are displaced and the suffering they are enduring is unimaginable. Dead people, animals and crops are piling up; tornadoes of mosquitoes are spreading malaria. My little cousins have dengue fever, and the hospitals have collapsed under the strain.

I am studying environmental law in New York, and haven’t yet had a chance to return. But I am helping to direct financial aid to activists based in Pakistan. By raising money through the Fridays for Future Pakistan website, we can buy and distribute the goods that people need most: everything from menstrual pads to rice, milk and mosquito nets. The suffering is only going to get worse, however, along with the heat: women are giving birth in flood zones; unemployment and gender-based violence will increase; inflation is on the rise.

While the rain may have come from the sky, the factors that caused the flooding – higher temperatures, glacial melting – are a result of fossil fuel exploitation in the Global North. It is not enough simply to call for developed nations to pay loss and damage funding. As well as these crumbs, the International Monetary Fund should cancel Pakistan’s foreign debt so that the country doesn’t fall further into a new form of colonialism.

No one needs to tell those impacted by the floods that we are facing a climate emergency. We know it’s an emergency; we’ll show you where the emergency is.

Hilda Flavia Nakabuye, 25

The people of Uganda are scared but united and persistent

Hilda Flavia Nakabuye, Fridays for Future

I come from a farmers’ village in the basin of Lake Victoria in Uganda – a country the British once called “the Pearl of Africa”. We experience some of the worst effects of climate change, but contribute far less than 1 per cent to global greenhouse gases.

Thirteen years ago, my family owned one of the biggest plantations in our village. But our crops dried out and were washed away by heavy rainstorms. My grandmother had to sell off part of our land so we could buy food. My parents couldn’t afford my tuition fees, so I had to sit at home for months while other kids went to school.

I did eventually return to school, which makes me one of the lucky ones. Last year, around the world, more than four million girls left school because of the impacts of climate change: that’s four million daughters and sisters whose potential has been cut short.

Education gave me the knowledge and confidence to start Fridays for Future Uganda. We are an organisation of young people, determined to let powerful countries know that, although we are scared, we are united, persistent and very good at taking action.

At home we hold workshops on growing sustainable food gardens, and organise community clean-ups on Lake Victoria, a source of livelihood for over 40 million people. We also march against the construction of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline, which will endanger our lake, our environment and our lives.

[See also: Amitav Ghosh: “Climate change is becoming an all-out war”]

Disha Ravi, 24

I was arrested during the Indian farmers’ protests and charged with sedition

Disha Ravi, Fridays for Future

When we moved to Bengaluru when I was three, my mother fetched water from wells. We treated it as a precious commodity, but not a basic necessity of life. Later I became concerned about the impact of the water crisis on farmers like my grandparents. Why was water still so unavailable to so many? The answer was a combination of poor infrastructure and the climate threat. In 2021, I was arrested during the Indian farmers’ protests, for alleged sedition and criminal conspiracy. I had shared a social media toolkit on Twitter, with advice on how to support the farmers. When the toolkit was tweeted by Greta Thunberg, Delhi’s police described it as “a call to wage economic, social, cultural and regional war on India”. I was held for ten days, prompting international protests. But no prison is big enough for ideas, and asking for clean air and water is not a crime.

Through worsening heatwaves and floods, India is bearing the brunt of climate change. My biggest fear is that if today’s disasters are already greater than expected, then what is coming could be worse than currently thought. So we need to hold politicians and world leaders to account before it is too late.

Fridays for Future has been demanding climate justice from the start. It is giving people the option of building coalitions – locally, nationally, globally – and without such collaboration we won’t solve the crisis. Within India, for example, we are urging the government to take preventative action and to stop diluting existing environmental protection laws. Internationally, we are demanding reparations from the Global North for the harm (the “loss and damage”) their historic emissions have caused.

Ina-Maria Shikongo, 43

Does a foreign company have more rights in Namibia than we do?

Ina-Maria Shikongo, Fridays for Future

At 43, I am more of a mentor within Fridays for Future. When I hold workshops with local children, I like to let them speak about the environmental changes they see – from the rising heat to deforestation and overgrazing – and then help them add the correct terminology.

Our small movement in Namibia has become a target of intimidation, because of its campaigning against oil and gas extraction in the Kavango region in the north-east of the country. The Canadian-based company ReconAfrica is hoping to extract 120 billion barrels of oil from my beautiful, ecologically vibrant ancestral home. Water from the region feeds the Okavango Delta, home to the largest living population of endangered African elephants, which must be protected. Nor is it just animals that are at risk: tourism is essential to the local economy, and who will want to spend money in a place full of polluted holes?

Our leaders point to EU nations that have built successful economies on oil, but we are saying: “Stop, put on the brakes – we are witnessing climate collapse.” Rainfall patterns have already become irregular here, and the country is experiencing persistent drought. Lush, green areas like the Kavango could provide food security in a drying world.

The region’s people are the keepers of indigenous knowledge, but because they have little internet access that information can be hard to share. If we are not careful the Kavango will end up like the Niger Delta, where Shell’s oil extraction has left a legacy of pollution and violence. When a foreign company has more rights than a local person, that says it all: our independence is just a facade.

Laura Verónica Muñoz, 25

In Colombia we are experiencing every kind of climate change

Laura Verónica Muñoz, Fridays for Future

Few people know that, per square kilometre, Colombia is the most biodiverse country in the world. Beaches, rainforest, mountains, mangrove swamps and deserts – we have it all, as well as a huge range of ethnicities and cultures. Yet that means we are also suffering all kinds of climate change impacts, from rising sea levels to melting glaciers.

Our connections to the land, likewise, are fading. I was born and raised in Bogotá, the capital, since my parents could no longer rely on the lands of their ancestors, who were from the Chibcha indigenous peasant community, for a livelihood. The soil there isn’t as fertile because of agrochemicals, and the rainy seasons have been changing. With no guarantee of government support, their Andean land was no longer sustainable.

My family taught me that the climate crisis is not just an issue of this decade. Centuries ago, when my community was colonised by the West, the land was exploited and homogenised. I try to grab hold of my peasant identity and remember that keeping indigenous knowledge alive is crucial to keeping our modern world safe. The end of diversity is linked to inequality, racism and violence.

There is some hope in the fact that carbon-offsetting schemes and carbon markets are starting to channel investment into regions such as the Amazon rainforest. But it is a double-edged sword: it’s the multinational corporations that have the most access to decision-making at the international conferences, not those with direct knowledge of the forests. Ecosystems such as my ancestral Andean mountains, damaged for centuries, are being forgotten. At Cop27, world leaders must ensure the money raised by carbon markets reaches local communities who will take care of the land – not the rich who exploit it.

[See also: Greta Thunberg and Björk Guðmundsdóttir in conversation]

This article appears in a special issue of the New Statesman guest edited by Greta Thunberg and featuring contributors including Margaret Atwood, Amitav Ghosh, Rebecca Solnit, Ai Weiwei and Björk. Read more from the issue here.

This article appears in the 19 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency