Young climate activists from across the globe have descended on Glasgow, Scotland since COP26, the United Nations climate conference, got underway — their rallying cries for urgent action outside the doors of the summit often underscoring a generational divide with the world leaders and advocates negotiating inside.
The gathering has been called the “last, best hope” to prevent climate catastrophe. The goal set in the 2015 Paris Accords of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels is slipping out of reach. This time around, promises have been made to cut emissions of methane and halt deforestation. But some young people say those pledges do not go far enough — and those heading the discussions are still working out a final agreement that would keep emissions from exceeding the thresholds previously set.
Several of those activists who packed their bags and headed to Glasgow shared the motivations that drove them to become involved with the movement — and what they want to see from leaders as the climate summit enters a critical final stage of negotiations. Here are some of their stories.
Gillingham grew up off-the-grid on a small farm in the Catskill Mountains of New York, and as a young child, her community experienced three “devastating” floods that posed a threat to her family’s livelihood. The last one, which happened when she was was six-years-old, was such a “blow to the field in the valley” that they had to stop growing organic vegetables — the topsoil having been washed away, and their equipment and greenhouses submerged “underwater.” It wasn’t long after that landmen began entering her town with the intention of fracking for natural gas.
“I was raised with the philosophy that everything is connected,” she said. From an early age, the activist and farmer began participating in local initiatives and tagging along with her dad to town meetings to stave off the extraction efforts.
Now a college senior working to attain a degree in human ecology at the College of the Atlantic in Maine, Gillingham has already joined up with a number of environmental organizations – from Zero Hour to the Catskill Mountainkeeper. Because one of her professors is an advisor on the issue of loss and damage at the conference, her school is able to send a delegation each year. Gillingham applied and was among those selected to attend. She was given a badge allowing her access into the Blue Zone — a space managed by the United Nations where the talks take place. “I’ve come a long way because this is a time that is vital for change,” she said.
She’s looking for three specific outcomes by week’s end: a binding agreement from the richest countries to set aside funds for those more vulnerable to help them adapt to climate change and mitigate its effects; a commitment from leaders to end fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions that they must follow through on; and the creation of policies, budgets, and support systems — for areas including agriculture — that can be implemented on a local level.
“Young people bring hope and young people bring change,” Gillingham said. While in Glasgow, she has engaged in several demonstrations, including one that called on President Biden to stop the approval of fossil fuel projects and declare a climate emergency. “On a global scale, young people are not waiting for leaders to take action.”
A descendant of the Chorotega and Huetar Indigenous groups in Costa Rica, Soto said he grew up with a keen awareness of the harms wrought by human-caused climate change. Over history, he said non-native people have invaded Indigenous territories for “self-exploitation.” The construction of infrastructure like hotels and the development of plantations — for agricultural exports including pineapples, coffee, and bananas — led to deforestation, the pollution of water due to pesticides, and the “internal displacement” of Indigenous Peoples, Soto said.
He was raised in the city of Puntarenas and first became heavily involved with climate activism in 2014 after enrolling at a high school in Germany where sustainability plays a central role in the curriculum. Since then, Soto has alternated time between his homeland and Chicago, where he is getting a master’s degree. He now advocates for the rights of Indigenous Peoples — and primarily the “land back” movement.
For Soto, the campaign is not just about land being physically returned to Indigenous Peoples but also about centering their voices at the table when it comes to making crucial decisions on social investment and infrastructure, as well as on public policy. He traveled to Glasgow alongside other members of Earth Guardians — an intergenerational organization that places youth at the forefront of environmental and social justice movements — “to give Indigenous Peoples a platform.”
Although he was not given access into the conference, Soto has been a part of several protests — including the boisterous and rain-soaked march on Saturday, which he led with other Indigenous Peoples — and has spoken on panels outside the conference about the “forced acculturation and assimilation that Indigenous Peoples are subjected to.”
Out of the discussions, Soto said he is looking for “drastic” and “radical” actions, like holding some of the wealthier countries and biggest carbon emitters accountable, including the United States, China, Russia, and Britain. He’s also arguing for reparations to be given to countries like Costa Rica that have historically not been the largest polluters but are nonetheless being battered by climate change.
When Baines is asked how she first got her start in pressing for action against climate change, she typically begins by weaving together three different anecdotes. As a child, she was drawn to creating stories through finger painting and writing on her chalkboard. She soon began to see a similar ability to connect with others through nature. Then she moved to Boulder, Colo., around the time she was in fourth grade, and her mom started to become involved in the anti-fracking movement — bringing Baines along to numerous talks and documentary showings.
But it didn’t click that climate change was not just glaciers melting and polar bears losing their homes until a few years later when a disastorous flood struck Colorado in 2013 — an area in the part of the country that is used to droughts. The week of rain, which left nine people dead and resulted in almost $4 billion in damages, has been deemed one of the state’s worst natural disasters.
Baines went up to Standing Rock to support the “water protectors” with their stand against the Dakota Access pipeline in 2016, and out of that “formative experience,” she recognized two actualities: her privilege in being able to just go home afterward, and the collective power of people united. She joined Earth Guardians shortly after — and has also organized strikes across Colorado and attended the United Nations Youth Climate Summit in September 2019.
Over the past weekend, Baines took part in the “mobilizations of people power” on the streets of Glasgow, actions she said are pushing world leaders to see firsthand how important the issue is to average people. She is looking to those at the negotiating table to pledge for an end to further fossil fuel projects and subsidies — and to make the transition to “renewable energy and a clean economy.”
“If one community — and this is something that I think that Standing Rock left a huge impression on me was — if one community is impacted, so are the rest,” Baines said. “Therefore, what we do to the earth, we do to the rest of humanity and ourselves.”