‘The unstoppable wave’: how youth climate activists are making a difference
New award aims to inspire more youth to take steps against climate change
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New award aims to inspire more youth to take steps against climate change
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Jordana Pangburn, a first year UVic student, has already been an active participant in the climate movement for half a decade.
When she was in Grade 9, she launched an environmental club at her school, led climate strikes, worked with administrators on climate policies, and helped implement a new waste management system in the school. She attended climate conferences, joined the youth council in her town, and helped write resolutions for the Union of BC Municipalities around plastic use in school vending machines and cafeterias.
As she entered university, she joined Divest UVic—a club advocating for the university to fully divest from fossil fuels—and Save Old Growth (SOG). At the beginning of April, she went on a three-day hunger strike in front of the BC legislature in solidarity with SOG’s indefinite hunger strikers.
She was initially inspired to advocate for the panet after watching a number of environmental documentaries, but her motivation has only grown each year as the province sees the direct effects of climate change on a regular basis: wildfires, more smoky summers, extreme temperatures, and destructive storms.
“It’s our generation that’s going to be feeling more and more of these impacts,” she said. “I think we need to be taking ownership of our future and not just, you know, lean into climate despair, like ‘Oh, I guess there’s nothing we can do.’ No. We need to take ownership of our future and of the planet.”
As BC’s capital city, Victoria is no stranger to environmental protests and activism movements. But young people are increasingly represented at these events, bearing signs and chanting slogans. More than that, youth are making real efforts in their schools and neighbourhoods to protect the planet that they will inherit from their parents’ generation.
Grade 12 student Nadine Gomez has been a part of the Environment Club at Victoria High School for four years. Every other Friday, the club gathers all recycling and compost bins around the school and sorts out the materials into hard plastics, metals, garbage, and returnables.
The club’s advisor, teacher Adrian Herlaar, says everything was going into the garbage before the club revamped the recycling program.
It’s a small thing, but small things matter.
“As a young person, I have a lot more power than people tell me that I have,” Gomez said. “And as an 18 year old, it is quite worrying to see my future being held in the hands of people who won’t necessarily live as long as I will.”
According to an Ipsos study from October 2021, the top two feelings among youth towards climate change were “determined” and “pressured.” They have low satisfaction with what governments have been doing to address climate change, and the vast majority of youth respondents thought their own generation was the most capable of making progress on climate in the next five years. Overall, they had the least faith in their parents’ generation to make the necessary changes.
As the “living faces of the future,” says Bill Carroll, a sociology professor at UVic, young people are becoming more and more concerned about the existential threat because they have their whole life before them. They’re often less tied into established practices and ways of thinking, and are more open to alternatives and radical ideas, Carroll explains.
Those who get involved with movements at a young age are also more likely to stay civically engaged and vote when they’re old enough—things that are extremely important to our democracy. “It’s an entry point into thinking critically about one’s world,” he said.
Greta Thunberg is the perfect example and catalyst of the growing movement. In August 2018, when the activist was 15, she began her Fridays for Future strikes, showing the world the power students have to create change.
Peter Allan, the executive director of the Institute for Sustainability Education & Action (I-SEA), vividly remembers the day that Thunberg visited Vancouver.
On a beautiful sunny day in late October of 2019, Thunberg spoke on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Allan boarded two ferries from his Salt Spring Island home to see her speak. While her words resonated with Allan, the number of children in the crowd affected him deeply.
“I’m standing there and I found myself tearing up as I listened to these kids chanting.” Hearing them protest and seeing their creative posters, he added, “It was all just very moving.”
Allan has two teenage boys of his own and often their conversations at the dinner table turn to climate change. He sees the worry they have about what the planet’s future will look like, but he also sees their desire to do something. Allan began to think about ways to shine a light on what kids are doing, and to inspire and enable them to keep their work going.
This year, I-SEA launched the Youth Environmental Activism Awards on Vancouver Island. Students have been asked to submit a short video or short story about how they’re making a difference for the planet, and each school district on the Island will choose a winner in elementary, middle, and high school. Monetary prizes of up to $1,500 will be awarded.
Allan wanted specifically to draw attention to the work of young change makers. There is much more attention placed on the work of older youth and adults, but school-aged kids can also have an impact.
Local musician Luke Wallace, the spokesperson for the award, has been doing what he calls his “folk musician, climate activism, grassroots organizing thing” for a decade and has had the opportunity to meet and speak with lots of young people who care about the environment and the well-being of the planet.
“They also see how we got to where we are. And they’re very clear about the intersections between colonization and wealth inequality and the imbalance of capitalism and how that’s led us to this, the environmental crises… the biodiversity crises we’re in. They’re all interconnected,” said Wallace.
“It’s been remarkable for me to be in schools over the last decade and to be talking to 11, 12, 13 year olds who can explain this better than I just did and are abundantly clear on what changes are actually required to bring society into a state of harmony and balance with the earth. And I’m always extremely inspired by just the intelligence and clarity of young people these days.”
This is the first award of its kind for young people. Allan said the organization is planning to expand the awards throughout BC and eventually all of Canada.
“That’s the real purpose of the award. It’s not simply to recognize, but it’s to generate stories that we can share downstream,” he said. “Greta talked about youth coming in an unstoppable wave, and our motto has drawn on that. Our motto is nurturing the unstoppable wave.”
It’s a small idea that can have a big impact, he said; just like the work of youth can sometimes seem small but can have a big impact.
Gomez is worried about the planet’s future, but she also knows that her generation has the power to create change. Pangburn agrees. As long as young people are taking action, she has hope for the future.