Lessons of Youth Activism, Climate Change, and Climate Justice – The Jose Vilson

Lessons of Youth Activism, Climate Change, and Climate Justice – The Jose Vilson

“Yeah, so first of all, I just want to give a little context. So Shell and Siccar Point Energy are trying to push a new oil field on the UK Parliament, the Cambo oil field, which is gonna be off the coast of Scotland, which obviously is my home. I just wanna start off by saying you should be absolutely ashamed of yourself …”

With that, climate youth activist Lauren MacDonald named the tension in the room and laid it bare for the watching world. The rumbling I felt behind my row of chairs turned into the youth activists in attendance lining up in solidarity with MacDonald, which turned into chants for us to join them. MacDonald demanded climate justice not just for her hometown of Scotland, but also for the adults to pay close attention to the world they were leaving for future generations. Until that point, many of us in the room knew we were coming to TED Countdown to learn more about the most consequential issue in the world: climate change. But, within the room, we also recognized people came in from all walks of life and potentially different approaches to how we get the planet to net-zero carbon emissions and a global mean temperature of at least 1.5° C.

Some attendees had openly questioned the youth activists’ tactics, wondering if these disruptions were even necessary given the ostensible mission of the summit. (Yes, I’m being generous.) Others hoped she hadn’t walked off stage so Mr. van Beurden wouldn’t be left to drive his own narrative for the remaining part of the conversations. I, on the other hand, wish we didn’t have to have youth activists to begin with.

Too often, whether in the United States or elsewhere, adults, particularly those who lean anywhere left of center, use a common refrain: “The youth will save us.” They shouldn’t have to save us, though. Adults, especially those with power, should learn how to use every lever possible to pull us from the brink of calamity. But we have a plethora of examples over generations of intrepid youth taking time out of their own schedules to push adults to get it together. We can name a cause and you’ll find people younger than 20 saying the things adults should have taken to heart.

So, of course, when I got a chance to speak to MacDonald directly, I said exactly this with the hope and she and others like her didn’t take it to mean that I didn’t appreciate their work. I got the opportunity to tell her and so many others how proud of them I was as someone who also aspired to change the world in my youth. So much of what passes for activism now and “granting voice” is still an exercise in power. Those of us willing to cede the mic – lest the students wrest the mic away – usually don’t have the institutional power to shift organizations towards a better experience for the students involved.

This became even more poignant for me as I considered the context of Scotland, where representatives of countries across the world made the prospect of climate justice seem more likely. To his credit, former US Vice President Al Gore’s speech, which came right after the panel featuring MacDonald, galvanized and recalibrated the energy in the audience after the schism. The energy in this space could have been bottled up and brought over to Glasgow for COP26 with all the inspiration, splendor, and attention to science. But, no matter the messaging, it’s evident that the goals of white nationalists, capitalists, and conservatives have brought the United States closer to its own demise, and The United States’ contributions to climate decay run in opposition to the goals of a shared humanity. As a few advocates mentioned at the summit, our solutions must be borderless, unified, and consistent, but the loud minority in this country drag us further away from all three of these goals.

So when I got to the mic to suggest that climate justice was educational justice, I already understood that hope and realism worked hand in hand for those of us who’ve seen the consequences of governmental failure. For generations, many youth activists have fought for better environments from which to learn, including safe drinking water, better building conditions, and fresh air in the school space. When they don’t receive these essentials, they too get nudged into either despair or advocacy.

The question should rarely be whether our students want to stay in school; it’s whether these environments push them out.

For those that take on the arduous task of activism, it’s critical to name the adults who serve as bystanders, many of whom believe these kids deserve these conditions. Our jobs provide a safety from fully engaging in more critical dialogue. Adults, especially those under the employ of the school, rarely align ourselves with students in their demands, instead preferring to quietly support or acknowledge students’ struggles. While it’s true that youth protests are better served when they speak with their own voices, we lose something when adults won’t offer full-throated and full-hearted support to their concerns with full action.

Which brings me back to the summit. In time, the students had the opportunity to collectively make demands on TED and us, which I appreciated. I also had the opportunity to meet prime ministers, parlimentarians, policymakers, musicians (THE EDGE), filmmakers, and take a tour of The Royal Mile in Edinburgh (highly recommend Invisible Cities). I averaged 14,000 steps a day and still felt I could have done more. I ate plant-based the whole week, which wouldn’t have enticed me until that event. I was fortunate to have attended and am ever thankful to dream with folks who deeply cared about the issue from their vantage points.

But, perhaps most importantly, it made me think that, for better or worse, our youth activists have real moral authority, which should disappoint adults across the board. This is not a messaging problem. This is not a money infusion problem. This is a society, economic, and ethical problem all at once. It will take a multi-generational movement in the millions to force the hands of many including educators, scientists, and a critical mass of people consistently disempowered by our system.

This can’t be “expert” driven, though. The expertise already lies with so many of us.

I don’t know what the engagement in this issue fully looks like for myself, much less each of us individually. But collectively, we have about a decade or less to put the world on the path towards redemption. Ths stakes are high. It’ll be a shame if adults don’t do their/our part.

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