On Earth Day, young LGBT+ climate activists share how we can make a difference

Millions around the globe have struck from schools, universities and workplaces to demand change to the rigged system that continues to perpetrate the climate crisis. Haritha Olaganathan speaks to young activists involved.

A crowd of marching young people holding signs and inflatables
Image: Clara Bell

Ask any attendee of the international climate strikes to comment on their experience, and almost all will remark on the strikes’ vibrancy. The unity of young and older climate activists from all walks of life, stand unique in an era of hyper-individualism, where we are addicted to our curated and personalised feeds above all else.

As a young person, the act of banding together to fight the establishment is a respite from the meaningless bustle of life. Moreover, the ability to stand in solidarity with the millions of people already suffering the burden of the climate crisis internationally forces us to stop obsessing over ourselves for a few hours, and recognise the larger picture of our planet.

For me, this has been one of the most interesting facets of the climate crisis – the emphasis on the collective over the individual. When faced with any challenge, we have become far too accustomed to look inwards for solutions (that often don’t exist!) rather than reaching out to those around us for support.

This temptation to look inwards is mirrored in our responses to the climate crisis: for many of us, our immediate reaction, if not ignorance, was to scramble in search of the eco-friendly switches we could make in our personal lives. Cycling to work, using bamboo toothbrushes, buying an electric car – all examples of the individualised solutions constantly presented to us by social media, companies, and government bodies.

And whilst our willingness to address the immediacy of the climate crisis in our everyday lives is overwhelmingly positive, young climate activists such as 17 year-old school student from Balbriggan, Sadie Heffernan (she/her), identify that “these alternatives can be expensive, making them even less accessible to working class people”. As a result, large layers of society feel guilty and helpless about the unsustainable choices they make due to their restricted incomes. It is very difficult for ordinary people to make eco-friendly switches unless the underlying systems in society make it easy for us to do so.

Moreover, it is almost impossible to lead a purely sustainable life in a fundamentally unsustainable world. Even individual lifestyle switches on a large scale wouldn’t be sufficient change to mitigate the climate crisis. The 2017 Carbon Majors Report found that 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 – a stark illustration of how centralised the major polluters are. The frontmen of these companies continue to exploit our planet – its resources and its workers – to rig profit, hoarding hundreds of billions of dollars every year. We live under a system that allows such atrocities to be committed due to the unfettered greed of the super-rich, which is forever prioritised over the immediate needs of our planet.

A group of very young schoolchildren holding homemade signs to protest climate change

Oil and gas companies are well aware of the damages they are causing. In fact, scientists at major oil corporation ExxonMobil were amongst the first to link the rigging of oil to a rise in temperatures, sea levels and drought in the early ‘80s. But, rather than diversifying their energy sources, turning to renewables, the most senior members at Exxon responded by denying their very own climate science! They were one of the first people to gain awareness of the catastrophic effects of the activities at Exxon, that would affect their future profits alongside the survival of humanity. But, blinded by their short-term greed, they chose to plant the seed for climate denial, which is exacerbated today by far-right politicians such as Trump and Bolsonaro. So, our main aim should not be to turn everyone vegan, but rather to regulate these corporations, or preferably, bring them into state control. These are the cries of thousands at climate strikes: “System Change, not Climate Change!”

Joining other young climate activists, 18 year-old school student Richard Adebayo (he/him) expands upon the need for system change: “For centuries we have been putting profit before the needs of humanity, before the welfare of our planet, and it’s beginning to bite us back. We need to undergo a revolutionary restructuring of our society and its motives – from endless exploitation and parasitic growth to the mindful distribution of resources on the basis of need.”

A young man in a jacket and tie holding a sign against climate change

Sadie and Richard both agree that the climate crisis is an inherently political issue, not only for establishment politicians, but for everyday people that have the ability to force change in a rigged system. Not only by adopting a vegan diet, or voting for political parties with sufficient demands that tackle the climate crisis, but by building a movement to overturn the power of the super-rich capitalist class that hoard the majority of wealth in society, and cause the majority of emissions. A report published by Oxfam in 2017 found that eight men owned the same amount of wealth as the poorest 50 percent of the world’s population. An economy that perpetrates such disgraceful economic inequality is unfit to deal with the climate crisis.

So what’s next for the movement to mitigate the climate crisis? Sadie attends “as many [climate] protests as possible” and even organised one in her own town, encouraging young climate activists and students from neighbouring schools to walk out. She also speaks “at meetings aimed at school students on how they can organise in their own schools” – a brilliant example of how a young person can make a difference.

She remarks that: “We should keep organising amongst our peers and in our schools and when we protest we should do so with clear demands that show enough is enough. Young climate activists should also encourage teachers and other adults to support and join these strikes.”

A crowd of marching young people holding signs and inflatable

Richard, a member of Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion Youth and the Socialist Party, emphasises the last point further: “While the climate strikes are inspiring, the world is run by the workers, and it is the workers that operate the factories and the machines that have been driving this disaster. Young people need to connect the climate movement to the trade unions and build the school strikes into a broad general strike for climate. When the workers stop working, the world stops working, and we can finally begin to rebuild on the basis of social and environmental justice. Our futures hang in the balance.”

Strike has historically proven to be a successful tactic to force change in society, and this can be reflected in the climate movement. Although it is likely a fleeting proclamation, the monumental work of Greta Thunberg and millions of fellow young climate activists certainly pushed the European Parliament to declare a ‘climate emergency’ late last year. Similarly, the Strike 4 Repeal on International Women’s Day 2017 proved to be a vital display of the necessity of reproductive rights for pregnant people in Ireland.

Sadie comments that “the huge gains that our LGBT+ siblings have won throughout the years with the Stonewall riots resulting in the first ever Pride show us that political action works”. Queer people have historically been at the forefront of struggles against the conservative establishment that stripped us of our right to marry who we love, forces everyone to conform to strict gender binaries, and restricts us from making important physical transitions. It is the same establishment that perpetrates the climate crisis. Climate change will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in society, and thus the queer youth battling homelessness and the families struggling sustain themselves financially will face the weight of the consequences of the climate crisis the heaviest.

A crowd of marching young people holding signs and inflatables

Climate action should not deliver the minimum amount of change required to mitigate the climate crisis, but rather reflect the wider changes needed in society. Reforms to the economy to deal with the climate crisis should not discriminate against the most vulnerable in society; they should come hand in hand with reforms in healthcare and housing, especially to ease the burden on struggling LGBT+ people. Policies like nationalisation and the investment into a free, green and frequent public transport system will positively impact everyone whilst protecting the environment. However, to see the implementation of these policies, our government must stop mollycoddling multinationals with myriad tax breaks, and introduce a proper corporation tax that will allow us to transition to a green economy.

Simply put, the climate crisis should not be an obstacle to the evils of capitalism, but rather a catalyst to change them. It is the capitalist mode of production, that overproduces and overconsumes, that sparked the climate crisis, and it cannot be simply patched up with minor regulations. Richard discusses the effects of materialism today: “Every significant cause of global heating can be traced back to one thing: overconsumption. We live in a world consumed by greed, always needing more, and even now our economies are built upon the capitalist model of infinite growth on a finite planet.”

Without a doubt, the fight to save our burning planet can be a draining process; the sheer level of change required can be extremely overwhelming, especially when faced with the stark reality of the current position of humanity. Feelings of eco-anxiety have become prevalent amongst young climate activists, and indeed most young people, who genuinely fear for their futures. Richard reflects on his own experience with eco-anxiety: “Activism is great for alleviating eco-anxiety, trying to effect change brings massive positive emotions to my day-to-day life, but it is also important to disconnect, to take time to heal after the draining effects of living and working in a society that functions only to take and never to give.”

The LGBT+ community has fought many battles over the last few hundred years, so let the climate crisis be another one. Go ahead and ease your conscience with that metal straw, but also join a trade union, set up a strike action committee in your school, community or workplace (even if you face friction with authority!), and hit the streets! Join the struggle against a system that has historically betrayed the interests of the majority! As Sadie puts succinctly: “Real change must come from below.”

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