By Evie Taylor
The start of the 2020s provided an opportunity for newly invigorated efforts to combat the climate crisis. The 2015 Paris Agreement, borne out of COP21, highlighted the years preceding 2030 as a vital period for environmental protection, signalling this time as the last opportunity to prevent the planet from reaching a number of tipping points that would cause irreparable environmental damage. The annual COP meetings have facilitated the platform for a united global response to climate change, giving political leaders no excuse to avoid collaborative action.
Yet the political response to this global emergency to date has been characterised by greenwashing, empty promises and insufficient targets. The first three years of this decade have starkly exposed that those figureheads around the world who possess the greatest power to influence climate policy are determined to avoid accountability: either denying the gravity of the crisis as explained by scientists, or concerning themselves only with performative action, to give the public impression that they care, without actually having to make the sacrifices necessary to protect the planet.
The greenwashing at COP27 proved that the greatest shared concern amongst those with the most power to introduce change (specifically political leaders of Global North countries and the bosses of companies emitting the highest levels of pollution) is avoiding accountability, rather than actually working towards constructive change. If we look at those people in positions with the most power to incite environmental policy changes, there is little hope for 2023 to be the year in which the world rallies together to take urgent action.
But, fortunately, beyond the people in power who are burying their heads in the sand as we rocket towards climate disaster, there is a rapidly growing movement of people turning their climate anxiety into climate action. When we look outside of the sphere of political inaction, we find real evidence of community networks being forged around the world, rallying together to combat the climate crisis.
Whilst these communities are composed of people from all generations, they are overwhelmingly being led by young activists, who are recognising and exposing the insufficient action that is being taken on a governmental level. Gen-Z are taking on the responsibility of spearheading campaigns for change and their efforts are quickly gaining momentum. Based on the environmental track record of this generation to date, we can anticipate that 2023 will see an inspiring surge in youth-led climate activism.
It should come as no great surprise that many Gen-Z youth are feeling overwhelming anxiety about the environment, as the climate crisis has rapidly accelerated during their lifetimes. They have not grown up with the privilege that older generations have had of being able to exploit the planet, burning through fossil fuels, and accumulating masses of non-recyclable waste, without worrying about how this will impact their futures. People born in the late 1990s and 2000s are becoming acutely aware that global leaders are underdelivering on already lacklustre climate goals, knowing that it is not our current political leaders and big-business CEOs who will bear the brunt of the climate crisis.
Younger generations are already experiencing the worst effects of the climate crisis because of the uncertainty it casts over their futures. There is little to no support for young people, to help them manage this anxiety, with school curriculums still tending to only offer a brief address of the topic in geography or science class. According to a 2021 investigation into climate anxiety, published in The Lancet Planetary Health journal, 75% of young people in the US identify their worry about climate change as between moderate to extreme. Meanwhile a 2019 poll by the Washington Post found that just 14% of teenagers reported being given the chance to learn about climate solutions in school. Similarly, in the UK, Save the Children reported that 70% of children feel anxiety about environmental damage.
The rise of social media in the 2010s, combined with the lack of education in schools, gave way to what has become commonly known as ‘climate doomism’, as the sharing of an overwhelming amount of information on what is a pretty bleak reality gave young people little reason for hope for the future. However, recent years have seen an increasing level of self-awareness amongst young people that this doomism is not constructive, and thus a shift towards taking to social media to self-educate and empower themselves by sharing information that can help to inspire action. University of Bath environmental psychologist, Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh has identified a link between climate concerns and taking effective action, highlighting that angst and uncertainty is being channelled into an innovative force for good.
Californian Gen-Z climate activist, Zahra Biabani, who uses her online platform to spread climate optimist content that bridges the doomist “gap between education and action” explains that “climate education can be debilitating without a form of encouragement to act, especially when we see what’s going on in the world, and how it’s going to get worse”. Zahra claims that many young people are motivated to work to save the planet, not accept its demise. Young environmental leaders like Zahra are forging a new and empowering path for Gen-Z to follow, recognising the reality of the crisis but also looking for hope, to inspire change.
Aside from using their voices to protest against government inaction and expose the political and business leaders who are fueling greenwashing, reports show that Gen-Z are also making lifestyle changes more rapidly than other age demographics, like turning plant-based at a rate that is faster than any other generation.
Whilst change could be actioned much more easily by those in positions of economic and political power, positions which are overwhelmingly made up of a much older demographic, the reality is clear that this simply is not happening. Gen-Z are learning that festering in the anxiety caused by this inaction does not change anything. They are actioning a bottom-up response to a global issue, taking responsibility for an issue created by the generations that preceded them.
Greta Thunberg arguably represents the figurehead for Gen-Z climate action, after her ‘School Strikes for Climate’, which she began undertaking in 2018, aged just 15, gained global traction. Thunberg founded Fridays for Future, moving her individual school strike into a worldwide endeavour. By November of 2019, over 17,000 students from 24 different countries had participated in school strikes for climate. She famously addressed world leaders at the United Nations, giving a damning speech about their present inaction, really highlighting that today’s youth are shouldering the burden of the climate crisis.
Thunberg has made no secret of her fear and anxiety surrounding the climate crisis. But rather than let herself become paralysed by that fear, she has drawn global attention to the realities that politicians around the world have consistently tried to underplay. This global attention has both held leaders to account and inspired other young people to make their own environmental initiatives. 12 year old Lilly, who spoke to BBC Newsround, described being inspired to start Lilly’s Plastic Pickup after watching a video of one of Greta Thunberg’s speeches. Lilly said: “I realised we can’t just keep on naming dates when we can stop it. No, we have to stop it now”. The ripple effect of Greta Thunberg’s activism is being felt among young people like Lilly, who are not just taking onboard her speeches but actually using this information to enact changes in their own circles.
Gen-Z activism has also emphasised the reality that current leaders in the Global North do not want to confront: the climate crisis is not just a future issue, it is causing devastation right now, which is overwhelmingly impacting people who have been historically exploited by groups who hold more power than them. This is due to an array of different identity factors, but primarily race, nationality and socio-economic status.
The term ‘intersectionality’ is becoming a buzz-word for younger generations, used to understand and explain how the interaction of different identity factors culminates to dictate a person’s privilege. Gen-Z climate activism has not just focused on the concerns of those in privileged positions, whose voices are typically the most likely to be heard.
As we move into a new year, we confront the reality that the time left to change the course of the climate crisis is rapidly dwindling away. But where there is fear, there is also hope. Younger generations are stepping up to the plate and undertaking the work that politicians are refusing to do. Knowing that their future depends on climate action, Gen-Z are not going down without a fight.