We Can’t Afford To Leave Young Climate Activists of Color Behind


Seeing Greta Thunberg’s impassioned speech to world leaders at the United Nations Climate Action Summit made me feel a sense of pride and relief. Finally, those in power are being forced to pay attention to the climate crisis. The chilling statistics Thunberg presented on the state of our climate punctated with “how dare you?” made me snap my fingers in agreement. Her weekly school strikes, which she started last year to “protest climate inaction,” inspired the Global Climate Strike (we love to see it). Despite the hatred that has been directed towards her following her powerful speech, both celebrities and politicians (including several Democratic presidential candidates) have expressed support for Thunberg and her demand that world leaders take action to combat a crisis that will affect the entire planet.

At the same time, while watching media reactions, I wondered if I’d ever get to see young climate activists of color given the same platform and having their voices taken just as seriously.

At first, I passed off this musing off as divisive. “After all,” I told myself, “the climate crisis will negatively impact us all. It doesn’t matter who’s speaking on humanity’s behalf; the fact that someone is given this platform is enough.”

Greta Thunberg at a press conference to announce an official complaint that she and 15 other children filed against five UN member countries. Photo taken by Radhika Chalasani, courtesy of Business Insider

But I started to poke holes through that initial response. While it’s true that the climate crisis will affect everyone, people of color around the world will be the most impacted and have faced the brunt of climate change for years now. NASA called Hurricane Dorian “the most destructive hurricane to ever hit the Bahama islands,”  and scientists Dr. Michael Mann and Dr. Andrew Dessler say that the warming climate “worsened the damage.” The NAACP says that climate change will result in Inuit communities in Alaska “losing their homes to rising sea levels in the coming few years.” And India has seen deadly heat waves and is experiencing a water crisis that will potentially leave 100 million people in 21 of India’s most populous cities without groundwater (which “makes up 40% of the country’s water supply”) by 2020, according to CNN.This water crisis is actually related with climate change and the heat waves, which have been ongoing now in India,” Dr. Shouvik Chakraborty told The Real News Network in June.

These examples and many others (some of which are highlighted in Hannah Claggert’s article “People of Color Disproportionately Affected by Climate Change”) highlight the reality of environmental racism, and show the necessity for young people of color to be given a platform, just like Thunberg has been given, in the climate justice movement. 

Let’s not forget Mari Copeny (also known as Little Miss Flint) who was only eight years old when she urged former President Barack Obama to visit Flint, Michigan. After visiting, Elle reports that “he later signed off on $100 million to help repair Flint’s water system.” Copeny has continued her work by distributing water bottles in Flint, and donating school supplies to children in her community. 

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Vic Barrett, and Journey Zephier are three of the 21 youth plaintiffs (who range in age from 12 to 23 years old) in the Juliana v. United States lawsuit, which “order[s] the federal government ‘to swiftly phase-down CO2 emissions … [and] develop a national plan to restore Earth’s energy balance’ because their lives are in danger from government-caused climate change,” according to In These Times.  

Similarly, alongside Thunberg and 14 other youth activists (all are under 18) from around the world, Ridhima Pandey filed a complaint at the UN Climate Action Summit against five countries who have “violated [the childrens’] human rights by not taking adequate action to stop the unfolding climate crisis.” Pandey’s no stranger to taking large actions like this; The Indian Express reports that “[i]n 2017, she had filed a case against the Indian government for failing to take action against climate change.” And while she spoke at a press conference hosted by UNICEF at the UN Climate Action Summit, she has not received the same media attention as Thunberg.

These young activists of color, and countless others, deserve attention from world leaders and support from the rest of the world in the fight for climate justice, especially when their lives and communities on the frontlines of this climate crisis. Thunberg’s work is absolutely vital. And I believe that I can hold that young climate activists of color should be seen as essential to this movement, as well. Historically, the voices of people of color have been relegated to the sidelines of important movements. That can’t happen in the fight for climate justice. There is no climate justice movement unless the voices of those who are being affected most drastically by the climate crisis are at the forefront.

Skyler Aikerson is a Psychology major and Professional Writing minor. She has written for In These Times, Baltimore magazine, The Quindecim, and Phluff. She has worked as a copy editor for The Quindecim, the poetry editor for Horizons, Waubonsee Community College’s literary journal, and as a senior editor for Verge, Goucher College’s journal of undergraduate writing.

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