New piece in The Nation on what it’s like to grow up with the climate crisis.
My generation will be the first to have lived an entire lifetime in a climate changed world. We witnessed the first climate impacts. We will experience the worst. We were born into this crisis and did nothing to cause it. Everything that we know and love—from our backyards to the existence of Planet Earth—is threatened.
This is a generation unlike any other.
What is it like to grow up with this new climate reality? I spoke to six young people who have been working on climate change from a young age and know what it’s like to grow up with this crisis. Their ages range from 13 to 29. Each confronts a different face of the crisis, from the coal mines of West Virginia to the drought-stricken plains of Kenya. Their words offer a glimpse into the challenges, heartaches, opportunities, and hope of growing up with climate change.
There is one key theme that unites these young people: the commitment to self-determination. Each has crisis thrust upon them. They know that climate change will inevitably impact their futures, homes, families, communities. There is a sense of doom, of unavoidable catastrophe. They could be passive victims, absorbing the consequences of a warmed world. They could allow climate change to dictate their destiny.
Not these brave champions. They refuse to be defined by the world they inherited. Instead, they define climate change as the opportunity to create a different world. They choose to protect what they love, to create the kind of life that they want, to fight with all their souls for a better future. They define their own fates. They declare that agency, power, and possibility can exist amid crisis.
The courage of youth in the age of climate crisis is to stand up for what is loved rather than to ignore what is feared. It is this courage that will save our world. As J.R.R. Tolkein so famously wrote:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
“MY PEOPLE ARE AN ENDANGERED SPECIES.”
Ekai Nabenyo. 23 years old. Active since age 19.
Founder and Chair, Locodein Community Based Organization
Ekai works to build climate resilience in Turkana, Kenya. He started an advocacy organization to engage his community around climate change and the impacts of local oil and gas companies. He also spearheaded a project to build a school in his town. More information here.
I began working with my community for a clean and safe environment after learning about climate change and understanding its impact on my home, Turkana, Kenya—the poorest and driest county in Kenya.
I was born and raised in a pastoralist community that was majorly pegged on nomadism. I experienced the tough realities of climate change in my community. I served as a herds-boy, taking care of my grandfather’s livestock and moving from place to place looking for green pastures and water. I saw a beautiful Turkana that was green and cool. The immediate environment in Turkana was our only source of food. Wild fruits were readily available while in transit with our goats and sheep. Our animals were so healthy and well-fed that we would get enough milk and blood at any time. Droughts and famines were rare. They would come once a year, last for one or two months, then rains would come. The soil and the people were happy.
More than 15 years later, I now see a Turkana that is dry, hot, and arid. The temperatures are increasingly rising. The water levels of Lake Turkana, our only lake, are dropping due to massive water evaporation from the scorching sun. Our pasturelands are drying up, and the greener pastures that I used to know are no longer available. Droughts have taken over, and the entire community is extremely worried. That is the reality of climate change in my place. By God’s grace, however, my people have managed to survive despite the harsh climatic conditions.
As a Turkana person, climate change directly affects my life. It affects nomadism, our main source of livelihood, and affects our way of life generally. It defines me, it determines what quality of life we live, and commands the way in which we carry out some of our cultural practices. I am worried about my future as an individual and our future as a pastoralist community. If not collectively tackled by this generation, Turkana people face the imminent threat of being wiped off the face of the planet Earth by the changing climate. The increasing aridity and harsh climatic conditions mean that my people are an endangered species, and we are concerned about the future now more than ever. We are a very worried population.
“IF I’M NOT GOING TO DO THIS, WHO ELSE IS GOING TO?”
Junior Walk. 26 years old. Active since age 18.
Outreach Coordinator, Coal River Mountain Watch
Coal River, West Virginia
Junior was born and raised in West Virginia and dedicates his life to fighting the coal mines that threaten his home. He currently works for Coal River Mountain Watch. For more information, visit http://crmw.net/.
My grandfather was a union coal miner. I grew up in a coal camp. My water was poisoned growing up. It came out of my tap red for years. My elementary school was situated next to a coal prep plant. Coal truck and trucks rumbled by my house every day. It’s been pretty well instilled in me at a young age that the coal company was not my friend.
When I was 17, I wanted nothing more than to go to college and actually make some something of myself. I quickly realized that you need money to go to college. I was the first person in my family to graduate high school, let alone have any inking of a clue about scholarships. I went to to work for a coal company. I was 17 when I started and 18 when I quit. I felt like I had blood on my hands. I was just continuing that cycle of poisoning people. I went to work as a security guard at a strip mine. After work one day, I stopped in at the Coal River Mountain Watch office. Since then, I’ve been working to stop the coal industry.
We might get the mines shut down, we may not. They’re very powerful. The coal industry owns this state lock, stock, and barrel. The best that we can hope to do is test the water, turn that data into the DEP, keep on the DEP, and get coal companies to pay a fine. Every penny that we cost them is a penny that they can’t use to blow up that mountain and get at that coal.
I’ve had opportunities to leave here and do other things with my life and do things that no one in my family has had the privilege to do. I’ve turned them all down. If I’m not going to do this, who else is going to? Here, living on the front lines, my day to day is all about getting those coal mines shut down. I want the beauty of my home to exist next year. That’s my main driving motivation.
“BREAK THE WALL”
Carter Ries. 15 years old. Active since age 8.
Olivia Ries. 13 years old. Active since age 7.
Co-Founders, One More Generation
Olivia and Carter founded One More Generation, a non-profit dedicated to raising awareness about endangered species. Their goal is to ensure that all animals last for one more generation. More information here.
Growing up knowing that the earth was slowly dying because of humans was horrific. As kids, we did not know what to do. Instead of waiting, we educated ourselves about projects being done to reduce climate change.
Climate change has made a huge impact on what we do in our everyday lives. We feel like it confines us. It may sound silly, but—at first—we felt like we were trapped inside a wall that kept growing, and every time we tried to break it down, it kept growing. The increase of height is due to the fact that not enough people know about the problem. It gets very frustrating that only a small percent of people actually care about our world and what we are doing to it. The more that we ignore our planet crying for help, the more it will continue to die. But, if you can educate people about the issue, then you will have more force, tools, and power to break down the wall. That is what we are trying to do: break the wall.
Climate change defines everyone who interacts, thinks, or takes action upon it. We have gained a great sense of knowledge and leadership from it, and we are grateful for that. Right now, this generation and generations to come have really got to step in, and say enough is enough. If we don’t, then everything will suffer. My kids, your kids, animals, parents, friends will all suffer from the consequences of the actions that we could have taken yesterday. We pushed it off until today, and now it is too late. But, at the same time, we know that education can empower people around the world to stand up and make change.
“REALITY IS NOT YET SET IN STONE”
Victoria Barrett. 17 years old. Active since age 14.
Plaintiff, US Youth vs. United States Government White Plains, New York
Victoria is an Action Fellow with the Alliance for Climate Education. She was instrumental in an effort to mandate climate education in New York City. She is also one of 21 youth plaintiffs suing the US government over the climate crisis. For more information, visit https://acespace.org/fellowship/victoria-barrett.
It’s hard to condense all the feelings, thoughts, and experiences that come with living as a young person facing the harsh reality of climate change. There are moments of hope and confidence. There are also days and experiences that make you wonder if the fight for a sustainable future is even worth it.
Every time I see an ad for BP or get an emergency drill test for Indian Point Power Plant on my television, I’m suspended in this moment of disbelief—disbelief that not everyone can care as much as I do about the planet that we live on and the people who will inherit it. These moments in which I lack confidence are always refuted by a text from a friend that I made on this activism journey, or an update on the lawsuit, or even just a text from a school friend.
Little everyday things are a reminder of what youth activists are fighting for. They’re not a break from the current climate reality but instead a reminder that the reality is malleable. Reality is not yet set in stone. Despite the harsh facts of climate change and the implications they carry, I have hope knowing that my generation is fully capable and ready to alter the future that has been determined for us.
“THE TASK OF OUR GENERATION”
Alec Loorz. 21 years old. Active since age 12.
Alec founded iMatter, an organization that empowers young people to address the climate crisis. iMatter has rallied thousands of youth across the nation to demand climate action in their communities. More information here.
When I saw Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth at age 12, I felt that I was called to be a part of the movement to end the climate crisis. I started giving speeches and presentations about the issue when I was 13. I spoke to hundreds of thousands of people, organized marches, wrote articles, met with leaders, and became known as a voice for my generation.
Climate change has come to utterly define me. And even though I am grateful that this work has given me some amazing opportunities and shaped me into the person I am today, this crisis is a heavy burden to carry.
Earth is suffering deeply. I am often overtaken by the grief for all that has already been lost and the fear for what the future will bring. What we are doing to our living world is deeply disturbing, and I feel angry and ashamed to be a part of a culture that feels entitled to manipulate and destroy all who we see as “other,” just for the sake of money, power, and perpetual human progress. I, like many others, feel trapped in bondage to this system, a system that no longer serves us, and wreaks absolute havoc on the living world.
We are ready for something new. And after years of struggling with a deeply numbing depression, I am ready to play my part in bringing our people through the transition to a regenerative world. I am working now on a campaign called Circle of Fire, which aims to bring together visionaries and leaders to articulate the emerging story of our time and to enact the systemic shift to a world that fulfills us and connects us again with our landscapes and communities. This shift will not be easy, and there is surely more grief and turmoil to come. But I am confident that we can bring this transformation about. I believe that this is the task of our generation.
“IT IS UNFAIR. BUT YOU ARE CAPABLE.”
Shadia Fayne Wood. 29 years old. Active since age 7.
Co-Coordinator, Survival Media Agency
Shadia is Co-Coordinator of the Survival Media Agency, which documents the climate movement through media stories. She also founded Project Survival Media, a “global youth media network” that produces documentaries about the climate movement. More information here.
My earliest memory of climate change is from 6th grade. My science textbook called it a ‘theory.” I thought: that’s crazy because climate change is real.
When I was 18 months old, my community was cited for a landfill and an incinerator. My whole family rallied to make sure that that wasn’t a reality that we would have to live with. There was already an inactive toxic waste site nearby. I learned that communities like ours didn’t have to be bombarded by pollution from other places. I knew that it could make people sick.
I think that it’s important for children to understand the world that they grow up in. I definitely remembering having times when I felt overwhelmed and had stress headaches because of my climate work. I remember talking with my mom and grappling with the future and the world and my place in it all. Everything is so much bigger than I will ever be. That’s a really hard thing to grapple with. For children, they need to understand that they didn’t create this problem, but they have to deal with it. It is unfair. But you are capable, you are empowered, you have agency, and there are so many beautiful amazing people around you to help you do your part.