Climate change activism in America reached a boiling point when 16-year-old Greta Thunberg delivered a heart-wrenching, sobering address at the United Nations Climate Change Summit in September 2019. Arriving in New York via a solar-powered yacht, the Swedish activist confronted political and economic leaders for their inaction regarding the climate change crisis.
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” she said. “And yet, I am one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing.”
Thunberg’s words are true. There are people who are already feeling the adverse effects of their shifting environments. In particular, many low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately affected by climate change. Poorer areas are less likely to readily evacuate during natural disasters, often receive higher levels of pollution and are forced to endure an ever-increasing temperature in homes that, in many cases, go without air conditioning.
Specifically, a Native American community living in Isle de Charles, Louisiana, has continually faced the prospect of relocation since 2016. Rising sea levels and erosion of land by oil companies and loggers have negatively contributed to Isle de Charles’ habitability. Despite the community’s history of sustainable practices, they will pay the price for the indifference of corporate America.
Because climate change is already starting to affect marginalized communities, a need for activism arose long before Greta Thunberg. This begs the question: Why have minority voices been ignored? Or, the very least, why are these voices given much less attention than their white, foreign counterparts?
Nevertheless, young people are standing up and taking incredible strides for their communities. Without discounting the amazing work of Thunberg, it’s important to address the equally amazing work of those less immersed in the public eye.
Also known as “Little Miss Flint,” this adorable 11-year-old girl is bringing awareness to Flint, Michigan. “You have to listen to me because I’m a kid,” said Copeny. She hosts weekly water distribution events, as the town’s drinking water has been non-potable since 2014. Her efforts have acquired an impressive following, attracting global attention and preventing Flint’s problems from falling out of the public eye.
Hailing from Alaska, Chasinghorse advocates for the protection of her indigenous communities as well as the wildlife surrounding them. The area’s typically cooler climate has undergone rapid changes due to climate change, leading to the erosion of land and disruption of communities. “For far too long, women, our indigenous women, our lands and our waters, have been traumatized and victimized,” the 17-year-old said at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention last October.
Since then, Chasinghorse helped the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge gain protection from oil drilling. “[The Refuge] is sacred. It’s our well-being, our way of life, and part of our identity,” she explained.
At 21 years old, Daphne Frias, who lives in West Harlem, is already combating the ways that climate change affects her New York City neighborhood.
“Being Latina,” she told Democracy Now, “the Hispanic community [is] disproportionately [affected] by climate change because of the institutions that are placed in our communities.” Notably, lower-income areas are more likely to be situated near industrial areas, such as fossil fuel and waste plants, both of which worsen the air quality.
Frias also advocates for how the disabled community is adversely impacted. “We don’t have the privilege to be able to up and leave when a natural disaster occurs,” she explained. For Frias specifically, her cerebral palsy has weakened her lungs, rendering the need for good air quality an essential one.
More than anything, she wants her story to be heard and encourages others to share their own. Although Thunberg herself has disabilities, Frias addresses how intersectionality plays a role in being impacted by climate change. “I don’t see many activists out there with physical disabilities. It’s really important that [they] can get involved with climate justice and activism in general … I don’t think the color of my skin should impact the importance of my voice.”
As the daughter of U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar, Isra Hirsi is 16 years old and the co-executive director (and founder) of U.S. Youth Climate Strike. Most recently, Hirsi led a strike on Sept. 20 from her hometown in Minneapolis to the state capitol in St. Paul.
While having taken great strides to rally American youth on a national level, Hirsi is especially concerned with communities of color. Surprisingly, the activist did not always feel so strongly about climate change activism since the issue appeared to not affect her initially.
“Gun control and climate change are [considered] white issues,” Hirsi told Vice. “[They’re] talking about how much they love grass and their lakes — I can’t connect with you on that.”
However, Hirsi changed her mind after learning the extent to which people of color are actually impacted by these issues. Having only been a climate change advocate since January, she’s already leading events (like the Sept. 20 strike) connected on a global level, where the overall turnout leveled out at approximately 4 million protestors.
The national creative director of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike is only 17 years old, a junior in high school and is from Ocala, Florida: His name is Feliquan Charlemagne.
“Climate change has always been an issue that’s personal to me,” says Charlemagne in his professional bio. The activist was born in St. Thomas — in the U.S. Virgin Islands — but his family was forced to immigrate to the U.S. due to an unstable economy caused, in part, by climate change. “From hurricanes to rising tides, the effects of climate change are already all too familiar to me.”
Charlemagne foresees how these effects will rapidly change Florida’s environment. Rising sea levels continue to accelerate; in Florida specifically, this occurs at a rate of one-tenth of an inch per year. This will inevitably lead to flooding and extreme loss of land.
Juwaria Jama is a first-generation American from Minneapolis. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Somalia, escaping droughts that led to food insecurity. Living in a predominantly black neighborhood, the 15-year-old explains that her home, like that of her parents, is also in crisis. “We have a lot of factories situated next to us,” she said. “We get a lot of pollution from fossil fuels.”
Working closely with Isra Hirsi, Jama spoke alongside U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar in September during a climate change event organized by the congresswoman. Relatedly, Jama also organized a rally in St. Paul, Minnesota, urging the passage of a bill that would eliminate carbon emissions completely by 2050.
“We are the forefront generation that is going to be affected by climate change,” Jama said. “We want to make sure we are heard.”