Jon Bonifacio was on his way to becoming a doctor when the urgency and seriousness of the climate crisis began to sink in. The Philippines, where the 24-year-old was in medical school, was already feeling global warming’s effects, with more intense cyclones striking the low-lying archipelago. Projections of sea level rise indicated that even the hospital he expected to intern in would be underwater by 2050.
“The reality of it really makes you want to do something,” he said.
What he did was to drop out of medical school earlier this year to devote himself full-time to addressing climate change. Last week, he headed for the climate meetings in Glasgow, representing Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines, an organization he founded in 2019 with a small group of friends and that now counts hundreds of members all over the country.
Thousands of diplomats, policy wonks, scientists and activists from all over the world have flocked to Scotland for the 26th United Nations Conference of the Parties, known as COP26. Some of the most outspoken and visible participants are, like Bonifacio, also among the youngest. On Nov. 5, Bonifacio took the stage alongside Greta Thunberg of Sweden and Vanessa Nakate of Uganda as part of the school strike staged by Fridays for Future outside the COP26 meeting halls.
This year, the pandemic added another layer of inequality to a process that many say already disadvantages developing countries. In order to attend, people had to navigate a maze of travel restrictions, vaccine mandates and sky-high costs. And even after arriving in Glasgow, some attendees have been turned away at the door because of tight Covid rules that limited the venue’s capacity.
Young activists like Bonifacio have had to find other ways to be heard. He and others say they feel that world leaders are not taking the climate crisis seriously enough. They see their role at COP26 as telling the truth about what climate change is doing to their countries, and holding leaders accountable.
About 25,000 people participated in Friday’s strike, according to the organizers. Indigenous women and girls from Latin America led the crowd through the streets of Glasgow, with throngs of local school children joining protestors who had come from afar.
Ahead of the protest, Thunberg, Nakate and two other prominent activists—Dominika Lasota from Poland and Mitzi Tan from the Philippines—had circulated an online petition, signed by 1.8 million people, that outlined their message to world leaders. Their biggest demand was one that governments have already agreed to, in theory: limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures.
The petition urged an end to fossil fuel investments and subsidies and an immediate halt to new fossil fuel projects. The International Energy Agency—whose projections are closely watched by policymakers and are historically conservative in their estimates of renewable energy growth and fossil fuel decline—recently concluded that for the 1.5 degrees goal to stay within reach, the world would have to refrain from developing any new coal mines or oil and gas fields.
Thunberg, Nakate, Lasota and Tan also called for wealthy countries to deliver the $100 billion per year in climate financing they promised to developing countries in 2009. The money is widely regarded as the linchpin holding countries with vastly unequal emissions and resources together in the Paris Agreement. The first $100 billion was due by the end of 2020. Though a complete tally of the money distributed isn’t available yet, experts say it’s unlikely governments have met their commitment.
In Young Climate Activists’ Home Countries, the Stakes are Clear
Many countries already need such financing. In east Africa and other parts of the world, climate change is causing longer droughts punctuated by short but heavy rainstorms that can cause severe flooding. Deforestation and a subsequent decline in soil quality are also contributing to worse floods and landslides in countries that can ill-afford to handle the fallout from weather disasters.
Mulindwa Moses, a 24-year-old who lives in Uganda, started learning about climate change in 2018, after meeting a young girl in the country’s Bududa region who had lost both her parents to floods and landslides there. The girl, who was 15 at the time, was caring for three younger siblings on her own, he said.
After returning home to Kampala, Moses said, he learned more about the effects of climate change. Soon, he started protesting by holding a sign by the side of a road to raise people’s awareness. Despite increasingly extreme weather in the country, many Ugandans still had not heard of climate change, he said, so he encountered some challenges.
“People perhaps think that you’re crazy for holding a plastic card across the road,” Moses said. “I lost some friends who thought I was becoming uncool.”
But he persevered, and eventually founded a climate action network called CYE Believe. The network has organized tree-planting and agroforestry efforts across Uganda and neighboring countries. They’ve also given direct aid to the thousands of Ugandan families living in refugee camps after being displaced by extreme weather.
This month, after a last minute invitation and crowdfunding to pay for travel expenses, Moses arrived at COP26. He feels a responsibility, he said, to represent others from the Global South who couldn’t make it to Glasgow, adding that, by telling their communities’ stories, activists are also presenting solutions that could become part of national policies and global decisions—that is, if leaders listen.
Aisha Akbar, 23, is attending COP26 from Pakistan’s western Balochistan region, where, she said, nobody much listens to climate activists. Akbar said she hopes to bring international attention to the environmental issues confronting her homeland, including a deadly combination of drought and pollution that harms women in particular.
Because of more frequent and prolonged droughts in recent years, Balochistan’s women now travel farther to fetch water for their households. Even then, clean water is difficult to find, Akbar said. Women in the region have also long been exposed to air pollution from using wood fires to cook. And on top of that daily exposure, they now contend with regular dust storms made worse by drought, she said.
Island nations face even more existential threats. The Pacific is one region where everyone, young and old, is acutely aware of climate change. People living on small islands there are eyewitnesses to sea level rise, coral bleaching and more severe tropical storms.
“Every year that the king tides come in, they see it firsthand,” said Makerusa Porotesano, 39, who serves on the council of elders for the Pacific Climate Warriors. Porotesano lives in the mainland United States, but is originally from American Samoa.
His group is affiliated with 350.org, and the warriors are young Pacific islanders who came together in 2014 to travel to Australia with traditional canoes and block a massive coal port. A few of them are attending COP26. In the Pacific, Porotesano said, governments are going all-in to try and avert a crisis, but their countries are responsible for only a tiny portion of greenhouse gas emissions. They need support from major emitters, they argue, to address the impacts of climate change.
A Sense of Extreme Urgency
This push and pull between rich and poor countries, between large and small, extractive economies and the rest, has been a hallmark of each COP negotiation to date. But youth in bigger and more polluting countries are acutely aware of the consequences, and many feel a visceral urgency to halt the climate crisis.
“This could truly be our best last chance,” said Ema Govea, who marked her 18th birthday in late October in Washington by beginning a hunger strike in front of the White House. She was one of five young Americans who decided climate change warranted such an extreme form of protest.
The strikers had wanted President Biden to pressure Democrats in Congress to pass the full scope of his climate agenda. The U.S. government owes strong climate action not just to Americans but to the world, Govea said. The countries gathered for COP26 are well aware that the United States is the largest historic emitter of greenhouse gases.
The hunger strike itself was a lot harder than anticipated, she said on her fifth day without food. Later on, three of her fellow protesters were hospitalized, and one had to end his strike early because of an abnormally slow heart rate. Govea ended her strike last Tuesday after 14 days, the same day Biden spoke at COP26.
That Friday, Congress passed a pared-down infrastructure bill that includes some funding for climate resilience and emissions reduction efforts. It remains to be seen what happens with the reconciliation bill, which addresses many more of the climate policies that Biden promised to include.
The Most Polluting Countries Still Aren’t Stepping Up
Valentina Ruas, 18, of Brazil, helped organize the Fridays for Future strike in Glasgow, but said she wasn’t expecting big results from the official negotiations. Still, she said, she hoped civil society would draw international attention to the scale of the climate crisis, while holding leaders accountable. Without protesters like her there, Ruas said, she thinks everyone would just listen to politicians and negotiators saying they’re implementing ambitious plans with no pushback.
“They can’t hear that, because that’s not the truth,” she said. While most countries’ greenhouse gas emissions fell in 2020 due to the pandemic, Brazil’s emissions rose by more than 9 percent because of deforestation. Ruas sees targets like net-zero by 2050 as “comfortable” promises for politicians to make, without real plans supporting them.
“The truth is coming from the people that are suffering from the climate crisis,” she said, adding that Brazil’s Indigenous peoples are among the most affected. They are on the front lines of protecting the Amazon rainforest, in a political environment that’s openly hostile to their land rights. In 2020, at least 20 people were killed in Brazil for trying to defend the Amazon and other natural ecosystems against industries like logging and mining. Besides participating in larger Fridays for Future events, Ruas said Brazilian youth at COP26 would hold demonstrations protesting the destruction of these ecosystems.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro declined to attend the conference, as did Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Like Ruas, Russian activist Arshak Makichyan, 27, said the international community should be skeptical of what his country’s official delegation says at COP26. While Putin recently pledged that Russia would become carbon-neutral by 2060, he has famously joked about the benefits that climate change could bring to his country, and until very recently dismissed basic science underpinning the problem. Russia is the world’s second largest natural gas producer after the United States, and the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases overall.
The carbon-neutral goal is “a step in the right direction,” Makichyan said. With visibly melting permafrost and massive wildfires across Siberia, ordinary Russians are becoming more aware of climate change as a serious problem, he said, adding, “It’s impossible not to notice the crisis.”
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But newly aware citizens will have a hard time expressing any opinions about Russia’s climate policy—the government infamously quashes dissent. While individual people are legally allowed to demonstrate in public, officials rarely give out permits for mass protests. Makichyan and his fellow climate activists have resorted to lining up and waiting to hold signs in turn, so technically only one person is demonstrating at a time. Even with these tactics, they’ve run into trouble. In 2019, Makichyan was arrested and jailed for six days when he returned to Moscow after attending the previous COP in Madrid.
Still, he said, he thinks it’s important to represent Russia’s civil society to the world, as well as to the Russian government and people back home. Putin’s government is more inclined to listen to activists who are backed by international support, Makichyan said. And, he added, “people in Russia need some hope that the world cares about what is happening in Russia, and the world needs some hope that Russia will change.”
Young climate activists say their youth and their independence allow them to talk more freely than politicians, official negotiators and employees of NGOs can—particularly about areas where climate change intersects with human rights. But for Makichyan, taking on this role has come with a cost. Before becoming an activist, he was a violinist who had graduated from the Moscow Conservatory and planned to continue his education and musical career in Europe.
“I was thinking that I will go to a better country where people have more rights and things and everything will be happy. Then I understood that you cannot fly away from the climate crisis, because it’s happening everywhere,” he said.
Now, Makichyan has become the public face of the climate movement in Russia, and feels a responsibility to keep going. “I don’t have a real choice not to do it,” he said.