Young climate activists warn their elders: Stop destroying the planet

MUMBAI, India —

After the cops showed up in an urban forest and detained Manisha Dhinde, one of them asked her: “What is this fashion of protesting for the environment?”

“It isn’t fashion,” Dhinde snapped back on that day two years ago. “It is my duty to save trees.”

She was opposing plans to cut down 2,700 trees in order to build a metro train car shed on tribal land in Mumbai. The petite, deep-voiced woman was moved by that moment and she now wants to work with marginalized communities in Maharashtra to end or at least reverse development projects that could harm the environment.

A construction project in an urban forest in Mumbai, India

A construction project to create an urban forest in Mumbai (India) sparked a young woman’s environmental activism.

(Punit Paranjpe / AFP/Getty Images)

“We don’t respect anyone more than we respect nature,” Dhinde, 22, said of the tribes living on shrinking green space in this traffic-congested, air-polluted city.

Dhinde is part of a surge of young environmentalists determined to stave off climate change by challenging the destructive ways of their elders. A Ugandan climate activist, who used to work in her family’s battery shop, has gained international fame for inviting Africa and the Global South into this conversation. A woman from Scotland quit college to warn about rising temperatures and a worrying carbon footprint. She is now fighting politicians and corporations that she accuses have attempted to distort and co-opt the climate change movement.

Climate activist Manisha Dhinde

” “It is my duty save trees,” Manisha says.

(Amrita Bhattacharjee)

All three are part of the first generation to come of age at a time when the effects of the climate crisis are already being felt — foreshadowing a perilous future. The technology that they have mastered allows them to have unprecedented access to information and one another, even though they are thousands of miles apart. They can also communicate with each other via social media platforms. Some, such as Greta Thunberg (a Swedish activist), have been made into brands, testifying at hearings, and warning bureaucrats and politicians.

The World That They Inherit

The World That They Inherit

This fifth story in a series about the difficulties young people face in a dangerous world. The Pulitzer Center granted funding for reporting.

Their confrontational strategy is reminiscent of the young antiwar and civil rights protesters of the 1960s. But the existential stakes are much higher today. This generation is disillusioned with economic and political plans that favor big business and fossil fuels over the environment. They face the possibility that whole regions of the globe will become uninhabitable. They have a wide range of social media scrolls and TikTok videos that show climate refugees, sinking cities and parched farmlands, as well as endangered wildlife.

“The planet is warming, the animals are disappearing, the rivers are dying, and our plants don’t flower like they did before,” Txai Surui, a 24-year-old Indigenous climate activist from the Brazilian Amazon, told world leaders on the opening day of the United Nations COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland, this week. “The Earth is speaking. She tells us that we have no more time.”

By any measure, the outlook is grim. Oceans are hotter than they’ve ever been and the rate of sea level rise has doubled since 2006. The atmosphere’s carbon dioxide levels haven’t been so high in over 2 million years. Over 1 million species of plants and animals are at risk. No matter what changes are made today, the young will inherit a planet that over the next 30 years will see worsening heat waves, droughts and flooding, according to a recent United Nations report. The effects of greenhouse gas emissions, it said, are “irreversible for centuries to millennia.”

The impact will be most profound for the young in poorer countries. In Africa, where the population is growing at twice the rate as in South Asia or Latin America, and is expected to double by 2050, the number of youths being born into a warming climate is booming. Almost half of the populations of many African countries, including Niger, Mali, Uganda and Congo, are under age 15. The crisis is already affecting the young. Cyclones have ravaged the south, desert locusts have threatened the food supply in east Africa and the Nile River is experiencing a water shortage.

” It’s not the destruction that keeps us fighting. “It’s what we see in the mind — the vision and the hope,” Vanessa Nakate, an activist hailing from Uganda, said. “Because if there’s no hope, what are we to look forward to?”

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Climate activist Vanessa Nakate

” It’s not the destruction that keeps us fighting. “It’s what we see in the mind — the vision and the hope,” Vanessa Nakate, a climate activist, said from Uganda. “Because if there’s no hope, what are we to look forward to?”

(Esther Ruth Mbabazi)

Nakate was having trouble falling asleep in her sweltering attic bedroom in Kampala. It was 2018, and so hot and dry, farmers had noticed their yields were suffering. Then came floods. Nakate watched in horror as rising waters and landslides in eastern Uganda drove 21,000 people from their homes. More than 50 people died, including children buried in the mud of an elementary school. It seemed that extreme weather events were getting more frequent and lasting longer. Charles, her uncle, asked her if she was just imagining it. He said that the world was in danger.

Nakate was shy and introverted — nothing like the Greta Thunberg she saw on social media. She was concerned that she might be mistaken as a prostitute if her protest was a one-woman show at a busy Kampala intersection. But compelled to act, she enlisted her siblings and cousins and made posters: Nature is life; climate strike now; thanks for the global warming. She was so nervous that she couldn’t feel her legs and uploaded photos to Twitter of the six-person strike. Thunberg shared them and Nakate’s defiance became viral. A college graduate with a business education, Nakate was a voice for climate change in the chorus of young activists. In early 2020, she was in Davos, Switzerland, sleeping in a tent despite subzero temperatures to prove an energy-efficient point during the World Economic Forum. It was her skin color that made her famous, and not her environmentalism. She was taken out of a photo with four white activists.

Deadly landslide in eastern Uganda.

A landslide in eastern Uganda killed dozens of people in 2010.

(Peter Busomoke / AFP/Getty Images)

“They hadn’t just cropped me out, I realized,” she said. “They’d cropped out a whole continent.”

That moment of humiliation in the Alps steeled her. She was quickly a prominent critic of the unbalanced impact of climate change on the Global South (or poorer regions of the world outside of North America or Europe). She said that the average Ugandan citizen emits less carbon dioxide per year than the average Brit, and they are also the first to suffer severe economic losses and forced migration. The rate of sea level rise is higher than average in countries such as Madagascar. More than half the coasts of Benin and Togo, Ivory Coast, and Senegal are being eroded. Disease-carrying mosquitoes have been able to move up the East African highlands due to extreme heat and flooding. In some regions of Africa, the number of undernourished people has increased by almost 50% in the last decade.

Eroded coastline in Senegal

A boy walks by a destroyed grave in a cemetery along the eroded coastline of Bargny in Senegal.

(John Wessels / AFP/Getty Images )

“For our country, drought means hunger, starvation and death,” Nakate said. “We see it as it is — not what’s coming in the future, but what’s here already, right now.”

During the pandemic, she saw it in real time, as Ugandan households under stay-at-home orders were flooded by the rising waters of Lake Victoria. Nakate’s frustration intensified as government officials urged people to follow science in combating the COVID-19 pandemic but, in her view, weren’t following science on climate change.

Climate activists Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate

Vanessa Nakate is right, being comforted in September by Greta Thunberg, at a climate summit held in Italy.

(Associated Press)

Nakate wears a hoodie, listens to Taylor Swift music and, like others in her generation, has taken much of her advocacy online, communicating through a WhatsApp account tagged with a sunglasses emoji. She believes social media has helped young people all over the globe, including the United States, to understand the urgency of the crisis in their country. Like many of her climate compatriots she has the aura of a tireless prophet, logging thousands of miles to spread her message, most recently traveling to Scotland for the U.N.

She has published a newbook and is keen with a sound bite: “Every activist has a story to tell, every solution to give, every life to change.” She traveled thousands of miles to spread her message, most recently to Scotland for the U.N. summit.

She’s published a new book and is keen with a sound bite: “Every activist has a story to tell, every story has a solution to give, every solution has a life to change.”

At home she knows all activism is local and deeds have quiet power. She is now a solar panel installer in Ugandan schools, and she meets with students. She believes that girls are the “first responders to the climate crisis” and she points out that it’s difficult to contest this view given the current roster.

I would have three children if I didn’t go to school and research the environment,” she stated. “Climate justice and gender equality are intertwined: If half of all the players sit on the sidelines, our entire planet is going to lose.”

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It was the evening before the biggest day of her young life, and Lauren MacDonald was having a panic attack.

Her stomach was turning and her hands were shaking. She was comforted by her friends, who were young climate activists from all over the globe. They stayed up with her till the early hours of the morning, helping her to write and practice the speech that would become a viral sensation.

” I just want to say that you should be ashamed of yourself for all the destruction that you have caused communities all over the globe,” MacDonald stated the next day to one the world’s most influential oil men. He interrupted a otherwise tame panel discussion about climate change by declaring war.

The crowd gasped as Ben van Beurden (the chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell) looked down at them at the TED Countdown Summit. Van Beurden was just about to speak on his company’s pledge to reduce its carbon emissions over the next decades, when MacDonald, an activist that led TED officials into believing she would give a more dignified speech, entered attack mode.

“Every single day that you fail to stop making evil decisions is a day that the death toll from the climate crisis rises,” she said.

MacDonald criticized Shell’s continued exploration for new oil and its history of sowing public doubt about climate science, dismissing the company’s carbon-reduction pledge as nothing more than “greenwashing.” She then unhooked her microphone and left the stage.

Climate activist Lauren MacDonald

” “Every day you fail to make good decisions is a day when the death toll due to the climate crisis rises,” Lauren MacDonald, activist, told an oil executive.

(Alexander Hoyles)

Overnight, MacDonald became another outspoken star of a global movement. While she faced criticism from some corners for not engaging Van Beurden in dialogue at the event last month, many others rejoiced in watching a plucky 21-year-old berate a man whose company is one of the world’s largest producers of CO2 emissions.

Speaking over a video chat a few days later, MacDonald was dazed. She said, “Being elevated on a global stage is very new,” from her bedroom in Glasgow. Once a major shipbuilding city with heavy smoke-heavy skies, she felt both extremely blessed and overwhelmed. “I feel really blessed, but also very overwhelmed.”

Born in a working-class family, she first learned about climate change in high school when a friend explained why she was vegan. Soon MacDonald was giving up animal products and spending her time organizing climate strikes. After a few semesters she decided activism was more important than her studies and dropped out of university.

She’s faced powerful leaders in the past, including Nicola Sturgeon from the Scottish government.

Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon

Nicola Sturgeon was confronted in a heated exchange with Lauren MacDonald, a climate activist.

(Jane Barlow / AFP/Getty Images )

“I worry every day,” she told Sturgeon in video that went viral, demanding that she commit to opposing Cambo, a new oil field off Scotland’s coast. “I have genuine existential crises when I think about my future.”

Sturgeon appeared moved by the emotional plea. She said, “I hear what your say, and it’s very comforting.” She eventually opted to ignore the question of the oil fields.

MacDonald says her mental health has suffered — both from anguish about the irreversibly changing world and the feeling that she must carry more of that weight as others look away.

” We need more people to take on this burden and share it among people,” MacDonald stated.

While people call her brave for challenging Van Beurden’s authority, she says the confrontation was difficult. “The work I do, and so many others are doing, is difficult. She said it was heartbreaking.

She works hard for her little sister. She said, “I want to do all I can to minimize the devastation that has been caused by this pandemic for those I love.” “I think that it’s so important to have the audacity to keep trying.”

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The protest that led to Manisha Dhinde’s arrest in Mumbai just before the pandemic was to oppose a construction project in the Aarey Colony, an urban forest of some 32,000 acres. It is home to vulnerable species — leopards, sambar deer, dozens of types of butterflies — and consists of 27 tribal hamlets, or forest-dwelling communities, including her own. She said that the authorities keep tribals “in the dark” about the state’s plans to build a metro train car shed. “We weren’t even asked or considered, even though we live here.”

Even after her arrest — on the way to her school exams — she and others kept at it, attending public hearings and forming blockade chains until the project fell through. This was her first encounter in environmental activism. But the protest to save the forest in Aarey Colony introduced her to other environmental problems in India, a country of 1.4 billion people where some regions have seen temperatures of more than 123 degrees Fahrenheit in recent years.

Climate activist Manisha Dhinde

India’s government officials keep tribal communities “in darkness,” Manisha Dahinde claims. “We weren’t even asked or considered, even though we live here.”

(Amrita Bhattacharjee)

One of those problems is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plan to connect the capitals of Maharashtra and his home state of Gujarat with a bullet train. It is supposed to run through the tribal district of Palghar — about 75 miles north of Mumbai — and displace 41 villages. As they do in many other countries, development projects impact the poor in adisproportionate way. They also destroy forests that clean carbon from the air and leave the land to those who depend on it.

Dhinde says that no matter how much the tribal communities resist, they are eventually coaxed into submission. She says that tribal communities are not able to benefit from these projects. “It is always the large corporations and the state.”

Dhinde is fierce and direct, if not exactly imposing. She is thin, with a deep voice. She sees the link between climate change and razing trees. Eccentric weather patterns in India mean consistent losses to agriculture and farmers, on whom India’s rural economy depends, or nearly 70% of the country’s population. Dhinde is an expert on the subject. She works day and night on the three-acre family farm where they grow rice and vegetables.

Dhinde is part of the Tribal Rights Protection Committee in the Aarey Colony, where she and others research and share the potential consequences of construction projects, ensuring that “every tribal here gets the information that the authorities are trying to hide.” She is also pursuing a degree in social work, confident it will help fight for the most marginalized.

Young environmental activists in India

Young environmental activists demonstrate in India.

(Ndranil Mukherjee / AFP/Getty Images)

As the coronavirus continues circulating, the group meets in person only when necessary. Dhinde maintains communication by taking pictures for the group’s Twitter account @ConserveAarey and Instagram account @AareyForest to share information about Indian tribal communities to ensure that their voices are heard.

“Times have changed,” she says of social media. “You realize you are not alone.”

Dhinde, like her counterparts in Uganda and Scotland, knows that, even if the razing halted and carbon emissions ceased today, the effects of past warming would still be felt for decades. She is not fighting against a distant idea, but an altered world whose climate threats will remain with her until the end.

Parth M.N. Special correspondent. This is the fifth in a series of occasional stories about the challenges the young face in an increasingly perilous world. Reporting for the series was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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