There’s no arguing that Greta Thunberg has passionately protested her way to being the face of the youth activism movement surrounding the global climate crisis. Thunberg made quite a splash in 2019 when she reprimanded world leaders at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit for having “stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” The young activist spoke for an entire generation of children who face a bitter reality: their future on this planet is rife with dangerous climate conditions.
But Greta is far from alone in the fight for widespread change. In fact, there are millions of young activists all over the world demanding their voices be heard. These incredible young activists refuse to sit back and watch world leaders continue to ignore the lethal disasters resulting from greenhouse gases and other environmental destructions. They believe that together they can spark change, and we need to pay attention if we want to secure their future on this planet.
Mari Copeny is just 14 years old, and for the majority of her life, she and her community have not had access to clean, safe water. The people of Flint, Michigan, have suffered for over six years after being switched from Detroit’s city system to the Flint River, which resulted in a tainted water supply. Mismanagement led to high levels of lead in the water, a crisis that Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality completely ignored. For months, Flint’s residents complained about their water being discolored, having an odor, and being undrinkable, just to have their concerns fall on deaf ears.
State officials now estimate that around 9,000 children in Flint under the age of 6 were exposed to high levels of lead. These children, including Copeny, are at risk of developing severe, long-term developmental and health problems as a result.
Back in 2016, Copeny, who was just eight years old at the time, wrote to President Obama challenging him to visit Flint. Her letter, published by the LA Times, sparked an urgent dialogue around the clean water crisis and environmental racism her community was experiencing. Since then, Copeny has met with Presidents Obama and Clinton, Bernie Sanders, TIME Magazine, The Washington Post, NBC News, and VICE. Copeny is now a Youth Ambassador to the Women’s March on Washington and the National Climate March. She currently sits on the board of directors for Kid Box and is an active member of 18 x Eighteen, an initiative to get young people to vote once they turn eighteen.
Copeny’s work in the community led to the distribution of over 1M bottles of water to Flint residents. Recently, the young activist partnered with Hydroviv, a water filter company that works with her to distribute high-capacity lead removal filters to families and child-centric organizations in Flint. Copeny also raised $500,000 for her “Flint Kids” project to place thousands of books into the hands of local children, along with backpacks filled with school supplies. Copeny’s focus and dedication to supplanting environmental racism has directly resulted in change, and we should all be paying close attention to what this young activist has to say.
Kevin Patel became an activist at just the age of 12 to address food apartheid and food deserts, but his passion for activism intensified when he was diagnosed with various health issues that were the direct result of air and smog pollution in South Central Los Angeles. Now at age 20, Patel is a climate justice activist and the founder of One Up Action International.
“Air and smog pollution causes many health issues, such as heart palpitations, irregular heartbeat, cancer, asthma,” Patel said in an interview with In The Know. “I said you know what? This is not just an issue that’s affecting me. The fossil fuel industry is right in people’s backyards.” Patel was referring to the 53,000 oil wells in the area where he grew up. He knew in his heart that this level of pollution and environmental devastation would never be tolerated in affluent white neighborhoods.
Environmental racism is an urgent and systemic crisis. In 2018, a report from the Environmental Protection Agency found that people of color are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air. This issue came to a head during the COVID-19 pandemic when lung health was discovered to be the difference between dying of COVID-19 and surviving it.
“These communities are devastated with not only the air and smog pollution, but [also] the chemicals that are coming out of these drills of the fossil fuel industry and the corporations,” Patel says. “We make sure that we include the communities that are at the front lines of the climate crisis, like our Black communities, like our indigenous communities, like our Brown communities. We have to rethink these systems and say what works for everyone.”
While working with the Youth Climate Strike LA movement in 2019, Patel became inspired to start his own organization, One Up Action International, in an effort to get more young people involved in fighting for change. Today, One Up Action International has over 30 global chapters.
Kevin is one of the millions of people worldwide who are already victims of the climate crisis. If we want to ensure the planet is safe for everyone, we have to listen to the POC activists who experience the effects of environmental racism every day of their lives.
Quannah Chasinghorse is a 19-year-old Indigenous model who recently went viral for her stunning Met Gala look. But long before she graced the world with her immense beauty as a model, Quannah Chasinghorse was an activist. Quannah, a 19-year-old Han Gwich’in and Oglala Lakota youth, has traveled coast to coast, advocating to protect her homelands from the desecration of oil drilling. Her mother, Jody Potts, serves as the regional director for Native Movement and is a board member with the Alaska Wilderness League. Together, they represent the decades-long fight to protect their state’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge is known for its immense ecosystem of nearly 20 million protected acres, with mountain ranges providing a sanctuary for wildlife. Before the region was deemed a wilderness refuge by the federal government in 1960, it was known by the Gwich’in as “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit,” meaning “the sacred place where life begins.” But the region is now at an even greater risk of devastation since the Trump administration and congressional Republicans decided to open the refuge’s coastal plain to oil and gas development.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, living off the land has become more critical than ever for the Gwich’in. Due to flight shortages, the community has not had much access to imported foods and goods. But living off the land has proven to be immensely difficult, as climate change has impacted hunting, fishing, and berry seasons.
While it would appear Quannah’s activism efforts have paid off in a way, the community has a long way to go. For example, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, Citi, JPMorgan Chase, and Morgan Stanley have all committed to no longer backing Arctic drilling projects— but the Trump administration still announced its plans to open up 82% of an Alaska nature reserve for oil and gas leasing.
But Quannah is more dedicated than ever to honoring her ancestors and fighting for future generations and the preservation of this sacred land. “I’m not an environmentalist; I’m an Indigenous youth trying to stick up for our ways of life,” Quannah said in an interview with TeenVogue. “They’re just tearing up more land, destroying more water, and in the end, when all of the oil is extracted out of Alaska, what are they going to do? We need to reconnect and rebuild our relationship to the land. If all of this were to be destroyed from drilling and oil spills, I don’t know how I would feel connected anymore. I don’t want that taken from us.”
Quannah has a deep connection to the lands and her people’s way of life. We need to join her in this fight to keep this sacred land protected at all costs.
Devishi Jha is an 18-year-old climate activist and Director of Partnerships at Zero Hour, an international youth-led climate justice organization. Devishi advises multinational brands like UNILEVER and Johnson & Johnson on their environmental commitments, a role she takes very seriously after having witnessed the monsoon season in India get worse because of climate change.
In April 2020, Devishi launched a platform called Voyagers that connects companies with Gen Z advocates who can help them adapt their business practices. She believes economies that reduce, reuse, and recycle natural and artificial resources are the future and wants other young activists to join in the fight for a green revolution.
“We noticed that there are so many young consumers that care about sustainability, and we wanted to get the conversation going between businesses and Gen Z. To get companies to speak about what they’re doing and what product they’re selling in the context of diversity, equity and inclusion, human rights and of course climate change,” Jha explained in an interview with Forbes.
Devishi believes a sustainable future is one that is able to maintain longevity and prosperity for all, not just a select few. “I remember seeing climate change intensify the monsoons, heatwaves, and drought in India, where I was born. I realized that I needed to speak out and advocate for marginalized communities who are most affected by the climate crisis, because it impacts people of different means and identities (such as) race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality, differently.”
She hopes that her work in activism allows more Asian-Americans to enter the space and contribute in a meaningful way. It is her dream that her platform Voyagers will “change the core of corporate business models, placing sustainability at the same pedestal as financial returns.”
Vic Barrett was just 11 years old when Hurricane Sandy devastated his upstate New York hometown. For this young activist, climate change is a human rights issue. Barrett, a transgender Black, first-generation Honduran-American, is one of 21 young people suing the executive branch of the U.S. government for failing to respond to the global climate crisis. He says he can’t recall a world before climate change, which he believes is directly linked to police violence, inhumane migrant treatment, and Indigenous land dispossession.
Barrett delivered a speech in New York back in September of 2019 and said, “I am Garifuna. My people are an Afro-Indigenous community from the island of Saint Vincent in the Caribbean. We are being pushed from the lands that my family has inhabited for generations. That land will be underwater in a few decades if we continue on the path we are on.”
After realizing a huge number of the people most impacted by Hurricane Sandy were poor, Black, and Latino, he started to view Hurricane Sandy much differently. Barrett learned that hurricanes like Sandy devastate low-income housing communities. This crisis will only worsen as hurricanes and storms are likely to become more intense each year due to global warming. So, he decided to get involved in fighting for change. During his freshman year of high school, he joined Global Kids, an after-school program that helps students build activism campaigns around human rights-related issues.
“We’re here to write a new story, a story in which our country is doing everything in its power to address not only the climate crisis, but the systemic injustices at its roots, a story in which our constitutional right to a safe climate is recognized by the highest courts,” he said in an interview with Mashable. “When you have this lived experience of feeling unheard or unlistened to, or ignored, you kind of want to prevent that for other people. I think the climate movement is a really good home for that.”
Barrett became a senior fellow with the Alliance For Climate Education, which educates students about climate change and activism. He made speeches to local elected officials on the organization’s behalf, and he was invited to the Paris Climate Conference with ACE in 2015.
Determined to make his voice heard, Barrett reached out to Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit law firm in Oregon that represents youth in legal cases asserting their right to a stable and safe environment. As a result, he became one of 21 plaintiffs represented by Our Children’s Trust suing the U.S. government for environmental degradation related to climate change. The plaintiffs argue that the U.S. has enabled industries that contribute to climate change, such as the fossil fuel industry, and in doing so, has infringed on their basic rights to life, liberty, and property in a future of increasing environmental degradation.
Barrett has many intersecting aspects of his identity, including being Black, Latino, first-generation American, transgender, and Indigenous ancestry. He is an invaluable source of information for the American public. We can all learn from someone like Barrett, who can offer the world a unique perspective and educate us on how these climate issues affect all people of all walks of life.