“I want to see leaders, governments, and corporations rise up for the people,” Nakate told CNN. “And that means putting an end to fossil fuel projects. Like I always say: we cannot eat coal, we cannot drink oil, and we cannot breathe so-called natural gas.”
Nakate’s generation is coming of age in a world that is warming far faster than scientists had predicted, and they see with clear eyes the climate catastrophe that looms.
They have long felt ignored by the older generation of leaders. Young activists who spoke with CNN said they didn’t think it would take this long for countries to commit to solving the climate crisis.
Vladislav Kaim, a 26-year-old Moldovan activist, started advocating for climate action in 2014, and in 2020 he joined the UN Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. He now wears the suit and walks the walk among powerful decision-makers and policy influencers on the international stage, though he still feels that the youth needs to be recognized as an equal partner.
“If we do not implement this principle of co-equality of expertise with the youth, I’m afraid there will be no meaningful intergenerational dialogue and significant change in how the structures of power in the space operate,” Kaim told CNN.
“Finding those inroads in working with structures of power and also challenging them at the same time is a tightrope walk,” he added. “When I am interacting in those corridors of power, I am particularly pushing on the pinpoints that are important to my region, while also finding allies from other regions — vulnerable communities — who share the same cause.”
“If young activists alone are able to transform communities, it shows that governments are actually able to transform their countries or the world,” Nakate, now 24, said. “But what they lack is political will to do so.”
Sally Buzbee, the AP’s executive editor at the time, later apologized for the error. “We regret publishing a photo this morning that cropped out Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate, the only person of color in the photo,” Buzbee said. “As a news organization, we care deeply about accurately representing the world that we cover.”
The moment was a turning point for her activism, but Nakate has been doing work in her home country that shows she’s more than the activist that was cropped out of a photo. Her book “The Bigger Picture” describes her involvement in protests in Uganda, her networking with youth activists around the world, and installing solar panels and energy-efficient cooking stoves for schools in Uganda’s rural communities.
She says she realized that if government leaders aren’t going to take concrete steps to justly transition away from fossil fuels and stop rampant deforestation, she needed to take a more holistic approach to address the multiple layers of crises in Uganda has been facing: unsafe learning conditions, energy poverty and gender inequity.
“If young people are able to undertake these projects and make them happen and transform people’s lives, then what about these governments that have all the resources, all the monies and all the infrastructure or the connections they need to make these things happen?” Nakate said.
That’s what Aji Piper, now 21, says he has been asking since was 12.
Piper said the lawsuit has been stressful for him. Convincing adults in power, he said, was always the most challenging aspect.
“They really underestimate your intelligence,” Piper told CNN. “I cannot describe how many times the response I got from people was like, ‘Oh, you poor kid working on the agenda of the adults around you.'”
“That was the hardest thing to get over, that adults really would just see me as a kid — speaking grown-up words for them — instead of a youth concerned for my future, understanding the problem and trying to convince them to see my point of view,” he added.
The lawsuit inspired other youth-led legal efforts on climate around the world. In 2019, 15 young activists, including Thunberg, filed a complaint to the UN that inaction on climate change is a violation of children’s rights. In October, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said it couldn’t immediately rule on the case.
Litokne Kabua, a 18-year-old climate activist from the Republic of Marshall Islands, was among the 15 who filed the UN complaint.
Yet the Marshall Islands continue to pay a steep cost for other countries’ failure to ditch fossil fuels.
“I believe that we younger people understand that we will face challenges that are far more serious than the one we see now,” Kabua told CNN, “yet some of the older generation still seem to disapprove this kind of statement.”
“Our anxiety, especially for people in the Global South, stems from climate trauma,” Tan told CNN. “We know that our countries will be the ones most impacted and are already most impacted and we already know how it looks. We already know the fear that it brings us, and we know it will get worse if business-as-usual continues.”
The fight to stop fossil fuel pollution is personal for Tan, who struggles with lung disease. But due to the lack of education about climate change in the Philippines, people are mostly unaware of how climate is linked to other issues such as public health. To address this gap, Tan and fellow activists at YACAP have delivered climate lesson plans to vulnerable communities and are in talks with the Department of Education to institutionalize climate learning in the curriculum.
“There is definitely a knowledge gap, because even just looking at the climate science available, it’s all in English,” Tan told CNN. “That language barrier is a huge thing. It’s these small things that we think are not that important but it’s actually really important, to have language that people understand about the climate crisis, so that people are empowered with knowledge so that it can turn into action.”
The letter, which includes a five-point plan, has since been signed by more than 1.5 million people around the world — another example of the youth leading the way.
“Climate change is more than just weather, it’s more than a statistic, it is about the people — and people are being impacted right now,” Nakate said. “Youth activists know we can transform this world. It’s time to look at climate change beyond what you have been seeing, it’s time to look at the bigger picture.”