Intersectionality and Climate Activism

It is arguably the actions of Greta Thunberg that have pushed youth climate activism to the forefront of public interest. She was a mere fifteen years old when she began protesting outside Swedish Parliament and solidified the importance of youth in contributing to the conversation about climate change. Yes, Greta has made tremendous steps towards climate change being taken seriously. But she alone cannot talk for our world. Greta is not the only young climate activist out there. But why has she got the most recognition? If we want to understand how diversity, identity, and activism entangle, we can consider these phenomena in relation to intersectionality.

Intersectionality refers to how an individual's identity is formed through multiple categories of experience such as race, gender, age and all the other subtleties that make us who we are. When recognising identities as intersectional, we expose how aspects of an individual's identity interact and can create experiences of privilege or oppression. It is fitting that we view intersectionality in relation to how age intersects with other aspects of our identity. We are young. We run the risk of not being taken seriously but when we do speak, it is with the voices of the future. We need more diverse people at the table to bring their views and create change in policy that is truly global, that provides a plan that fits the needs and priorities of different countries. Yes, Greta may be young, but she is also white, financially supported, and from Sweden in the Global North, all of which grant her a measure of privilege.

Meanwhile, Ugandan youth activist Vanessa Nakate made headlines in early 2020, not for her participation in the World Economic Forum alongside activists such as Thunberg, but for how a media agency cropped her out of a picture taken during the event. Was this an accident? Or was this another example of how the conversation around climate change is still erasing people of colour? Nakate proclaims a message that needs to be heard. She passionately acknowledges how although Africa contributes far less carbon emissions than other geographical regions, her continent is suffering disproportionately with extreme weather events and agricultural losses in an already arid climate.

This controversy provokes an interesting conversation about how climate activism is carried out. Not only do we need young voices but we need diverse voices too. It is developed countries in the West that contribute significantly higher levels of carbon emissions than developing countries. Yet it is developing countries who often suffer the worst consequences of climate change, from flooding in Bangladesh to drought in South Africa. Climate change needs to be tackled with recognition of the common but differential responsibilities of countries, while everywhere needs to work towards reducing environmental impacts. If developed countries are causing more degradation they should also take more action to mitigate this damage.

It is encouraging to note that there is already action being taken to diversify climate activism and recognise the importance of differential responsibility. Thunberg's protests led to the creation of the Friday for Future network connecting activists and climate protest around the world. Within this global community are young activists who place themselves and the countries they campaign in within the Most Affected People and Areas (MAPA) group. These encompass countries with histories of colonialism or exploitation who suffer the worst effects of climate change while being the least responsible in contributing to environmental damage. By drawing attention to the messages of the marginalised, we detach from Eurocentric ways of thinking and open up the future to truly global change.

We need to elevate our diverse youth voices for climate activism by giving them a platform and concentrating media attention. It is only when activists from around the world can bring their own concerns to the table and help direct our world that we can move towards climate change solutions tailored to specific countries but working towards a common global goal. Our diversity is a strength. It is this meeting of wonderfully different experiences and identities that should make our world a greener one.

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