By Angely Mercado
Nakabuye Hilda Flavia watched as her home country of Uganda suffered droughts, torrential rains, and deforestation, and wondered what she could do about it. The nation is particularly vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis due, in part, to their dependance on the agricultural industry, and the university student in Kampala wanted to take action but didn’t know where to start. Then, she heard about Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, whose school boycotts and protests on behalf of climate change at the end of 2018 went viral. Nakabuye was inspired — and felt like she might also be able to make a change, too.
“Seeing Greta striking in front of Parliament motivated me to also strike and to remind [the] government and leaders of their inaction,” she told MTV News.
Young activists have been on the frontlines of the climate movement, and young people of color who live in communities already feeling the effects of global warming have been among the most vocal. Their knowledge of what can happen to the planet is firsthand, a lived truth rather than a hypothetical of the near future. Now as much as ever, they’re building on the awareness afforded by global movements, using social media to broaden their message, empower their communities with the knowledge they need to protect themselves, and fight for the planet.
In January, Nakabuye and other Ugandan students officially formed a local chapter of Fridays for Future, the international coalition of youth activists determined to hold lawmakers and other world leaders accountable to the increasing devastation of the climate crisis. Her first rule of business? Help people understand what the climate crisis is, given that the vast majority of people she met in her hometown didn’t know why they were experiencing such extreme weather — and they certainly weren’t aware that other people, mainly those thousands of miles away, had caused it. The students started by protesting the lack of climate education, which drew attention from curious neighbors. Then, they began speaking to residents who were curious about their protests and explaining how pollution has caused extreme weather events and changed rain patterns.
“It’s not taught in school. People barely know about it,” Nakabuye told MTV News. “So we start from scratch.”
She’s not alone in using education as a tool to combat the crisis. Aaghaz Ahmad, who lives in Mumbai, India, heard about the Fridays for Future movement earlier this year and started searching online to learn more. This March, he found an Instagram page called Fridays for Future India where he learned about the global strike; he joined the local chapter in Mumbai that month.
Ahmad says he’s worried that not enough people in Mumbai understand how dangerous the climate crisis is. (The city was named one of the 14 places most affected by climate change by Conde Nast Traveler.) He’s also seen how mainstream media in his country reports on extreme weather without correlating it to global patterns and industries that contribute to pollution. This leaves the bulk of the information-sharing to young activists, who protest in major transit hubs around Mumbai and try to educate as many people as they can about why the heat waves are getting worse or why the monsoon season started a month late this year.
Activists like Nakabuye and Ahmad face unique challenges when advocating for sustainable environmental practices, given that they live in nations that have contributed the least amount of greenhouse gases but stand to lose the most if the current droughts and erratic weather aren’t addressed, according to Foreign Affairs. In Uganda, more than half of its working people depend on the agricultural industry to get by. Many farmers depend on predictable rain patterns to water their crops, but because of changing weather patterns, predictability is becoming a thing of the past. They’re not alone, either; nearby countries in central Africa are also experiencing drought and food instability.
And while activists want their leaders to make sustainability and education priorities when developing policy, they’re also not waiting for the government to do the work for them. In order to see faster action, Fridays for Future Uganda activists hold community talks about the changing climate, and earlier this spring they reached out to the president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, in hopes he would take action. When Museveni didn’t respond, the group continued to fight for a meeting, and were eventually able to meet the Speaker of the Parliament and advocate for a plan to phase out single-use plastics and spread awareness of climate change.
Nakabuye appreciated the meeting but is still waiting for Uganda’s parliament to discuss climate policy and to teach the public about the climate crisis. “No action is realized here yet,” she said. “We want them to act.”
Compounding all of these efforts is the immediacy of it all: The climate crisis has been here for years, and the world’s poorest communities are the ones most ravaged by such attacks. Janine O’Keeffe, an international organizer in Europe who helped spread awareness of Fridays for Future when it first began in 2018, told MTV News that organizers in wealthier countries should have a sense of responsibility towards their neighbors and allies.
“10 percent of people of the earth [make] 50 percent of emissions,” she said. “The wealthy nations are causing the pain for the other countries. That’s really the key thing to take home.”
Plenty of countries — the U.S. included — seem to have an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality; take, for example, how we outsource our waste to different countries in Asia and have mostly insulated ourselves from extreme weather events with evacuation plans and sound infrastructure. And while many global activists feel frustrated that they are having to deal with the crisis they largely didn’t cause, that hasn’t stopped them from acting.
Like Nakabuye, Ahmad is afraid that local officials aren’t paying enough attention to their efforts. Local officials and businesses want to have trains run through the Aarey Forest, but Ahmad and other young activists are worried that such infrastructures disregard the environment in lieu of development. So far, Fridays for Future Mumbai has protested and pushed back against the plans, but Ahmad feels discouraged that many people in power aren’t considering sustainability as they plan to chop through his city’s “last green lung.”
The groups have the support of O’Keeffe and other European organizers, who try to provide insight and ideas for events and meetings, to chapters in nations with fewer resources. She tells MTV News she was recently on a call with groups from Latin America and knows of other people who have made posters for Fridays for Future chapters in other countries.
O’Keeffe also outlined that while strikers in wealthier nations speak about having only 11 years left before the climate crisis hits the point of irreversible damage, people in other nations don’t have as much time or as many options for dealing with a warming planet. In fact, for many people, that theoretical deadline has already come and gone; experts warn that by 2050, up to one billion people will be forced to migrate from their homes due to environmental reasons. Activists believe one way of creating an intersectional and inclusive climate movement involves those like Thunberg speaking about the responsibility that wealthy nations have to set a standard before pointing fingers at other countries.
“People talk about how there should be fewer children for families, but a person born in a continent like Africa has less impact on the climate than someone born in Sweden,” O’Keeffe pointed out. She’s regularly frustrated by talking points like global population control, which rarely account for the ways in which certain countries are more likely to produce pollution and waste than their counterparts. “It’s based in traditional racism and colonialism,” she added. “It’s not welcome [in the movement] and it doesn’t apply.”
You needn’t look far to find such racism in action: According to an independent study that was released by researchers at Harvard University in 2018, thousands of Puerto Ricans died as a result of delayed hurricane relief from Hurricane Maria, one of the strongest storms on record to hit the U.S. The effects of the storm were made worse from debt that is crippling the island’s economy. Activists have claimed that it was President Trump’s racism and ignorance about his own citizens that motivated the delayed relief efforts. Rising water levels have also affected residents in Louisiana and South Carolina, while flooding in large swaths of the Midwest decimated crops earlier this year. Low-income communities, and Black and Latinx families are more likely to live in areas plagued by air pollution, yet the Trump administration continues to roll back policies that would ostensibly give those communities more of a fighting chance.
Even so, Thunberg herself believes that Trump’s direct antagonism to the climate movement is actually helping the activists’ cause. “He’s so extreme and he says so extreme things, so I think people wake up by that in a way,” she told the AFP, per The Independent. His polarization serves as a hook and an extra incentive to act in opposition to his destructive ways.
It’s also helpful that the local governments of cities like New York City and London have declared a climate emergency; Nakabuye feels hopeful that, if major hubs declare a climate emergency, their own cities or countries will eventually follow suit. Still, activists stress the need for support from the international communities and organizations; both Nakabuye and Ahmad believe it’s up to the wealthy countries to step up and set a strong example on environmental policies.
“I feel more and more responsibility to act and more and more responsibility to do my work and mobilizing and coordinating,” Nakabuye added. “But there’s a lot of work to be done. I can’t do it alone.”