A Rolling Stone Roundtable With the Youth Climate Activists Fighting for Change in Davos

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DAVOS, SWITZERLAND — Hours after President Trump kicked off the 2020 World Economic Forum on Tuesday by bashing climate activists as “prophets of doom,” Greta Thunberg countered with yet another scathing indictment of government and corporate leaders for failing to take meaningful action to combat climate change. “Our house is still on fire,” she said, calling back to her address at the conference last year. “Your inaction is fueling the flames by the hour.”

But the newly anointed Time Person of the Year is only one of several youth climate leaders working to snuff out the blaze in Davos. Thunberg was joined on a panel earlier on Tuesday by activists such as Puerto Rico’s Salvador Gómez-Colón and Canada’s Autumn Peltier, while a separate group of youth activists from around the world set up camp on an alpine ridge overlooking the luxe Swiss resort town that has hosted the WEF since 1970.

The teens and early-twentysomethings who chose to rough it are in Davos on behalf of Arctic Basecamp, an organization aimed at spreading awareness about how the rapidly melting polar ice caps will affect the rest of the world, and the imperative of cutting emissions. “We have only 10 years left if we really want to avoid crossing an irreversible tipping point where we can no longer come back,” Professor Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre said during a press conference at the base camp. “The probability of this is not low; it’s uncomfortably high. Impacts are infinitely high, and time is running out.”

Unfortunately, the burden to overhaul the global economy falls largely on the corporate interests gathered in the ski village down the mountain. This is why hours after Thunberg’s speech, a group of five youth climate activists camping with the Arctic Basecamp participated in a closed-door meeting to discuss how some of these financial interests can weave sustainability into their economic models. After they emerged, Rolling Stone joined them in their base camp tent for a roundtable discussion about the climate crisis from the perspective of those who are going to have to reckon with it.

Rolling Stone: You all traveled a long way to come to Davos this year. What, specifically, are you trying to accomplish during your time at the World Economic Forum?

Vanessa Nakate, 23, Uganda: Sleeping here at the Arctic Basecamp to me is another form of demonstration, and a way to put pressure on government leaders and to tell them that we’ve gone out of our comfort zones to demand climate action, which means they should get out of their comfort zones as well to take the action that will be made for a better future.

Kaime Silvestre, 23, Brazil: I’m from Brazil, and I’m from the Amazon region, but what is happening in the Arctic is affecting all of us. I’m here to put pressure on our global leaders to protect the Arctic.

Brix Whiteman, 15, England: It’s an amazing opportunity to be part of something like this, because as a young teenager you often feel voiceless. You’re not. I don’t think teenagers are voiceless. We have many ways to protest. I think we’ve proven that. But it’s just such a nice feeling being part of something like this. It’s a global issue. We’ve had flooding in my city more than ever before, so it’s affected me personally, and it’s really nice to have an impact.

Eva Jones, 18, United States: I truly believe that science solutions are how we’re going to undo the climate crisis. Technological advances are kind of what got us into this mess, and so I think [we should] use nature-based solutions and really look at how we can bring science to world leaders to compel them to make a change — but also inspire them. I think that’s really been a theme of the 24 hours I’ve been here so far, and there’s quite a bit of optimism in the field when you speak to the experts.

Wenying Zhu, 25, China: I believe that science can provide very good solutions to climate change, but it’s also important to include technology solutions into the policy, into the agenda, and into everyone’s everyday life. I’m here to really try to tell the leaders to make an impact; let them think about how we can make policies to make incentives to use renewable energies and technologies.

There’s been a lot of talk of all of the hypocrisy regarding climate change at Davos, how the rich are coming in on private jets to talk about how to be more sustainable. You just came out of a closed-door meeting with business leaders to discuss how they can adopt more sustainable practices. Do you feel like they’re taking the issue as seriously as they need to be?

Vanessa Nakate, 23, founded the Youth for Future Africa and the Rise Up Movement in Africa. She’s been striking for the climate for more than a year. Arctic Basecamp / Henry Iddon

Kaime Silvestre: I feel like they are pretending to care about the future and about the planet, when the truth is they only care about the money and about the status. So this put me in a bad situation. I feel really sad for this because they got the power. They can make change, big change, but they are not doing that

Vanessa Nakate: I feel like it’s a game of words and speeches and promises, and we’re kind of tired of that. It’s getting frustrating. What they do is speak and promise but they don’t take action.

Eva Jones: I don’t know. I actually was really inspired by the forwardness of the conversations we were having in the closed session. They were very comprehensive, very specific, and people were asking questions like, “OK, but how are we actually going to get this implemented?” I think those ideas are a concern for the greater population of corporations. I thought that this specific session was actually very focused and pretty on it in terms of how we can do this, and we need to get this implemented. We were also with a pretty a small set of people in the room; I think it’s easier to have those conversations when it’s a little bit more protected.

This idea that the elites are playing a “game of words” was kind of the theme of Greta’s speech earlier today. She’s obviously done a lot for climate activism, particularly as it relates to your generation. Why do you think she’s been able to resonate with so many people?

Kaime Silvestre: First of all, she’s white and she’s from Europe, so for her it’s more easy to receive attention. But the activists in the global South are suffering from the climate crisis in their lives every day, so I think the media needs to care more about them, and not only Greta.

Brix Whiteman: I think Greta is doing loads and she is doing a lot for the movement. I do think for climate activists globally there was a leadership vacuum that needed to be filled. Greta came along and took the leadership position, which is what we needed. I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about her, but that’s good because that shows that she’s ordinary. And that’s what we need. We need somebody that’s ordinary — not elitist, not out of touch with the reality. She is ordinary like other climate activists.

Eva Jones: I kind of disagree, actually. I think she is extraordinary in her determination. Yes, she was named Time‘s Person of the Year, but when you hear her speak she doesn’t do vanity interviews. It’s never like, “So what do your friends think about this?” She’s like, “No, I don’t want to talk about my friends, I want to talk about the crisis.” She’s absolutely insane about getting reporters and getting politicians and getting whoever’s talking to her back to the subject. She’s just so determined that this is what she’s going to talk about. She’s like, “Nope, nope, nope, nope.” That’s so crazy to me, just because I think there are so many activists out there that can get distracted by—

Brix Whiteman: She’s focused.

Eva Jones: Yeah, she’s so focused. Then you think about how long she striked on her own before she got media attention. Obviously she likes getting attention, but it’s because it’s getting her message out there. She has such a determination inside.

Brix Whiteman: She doesn’t put it nicely, which is good. She doesn’t put the message nicely. She doesn’t sugarcoat it for the media. She says it how it is, and that is very, very helpful.

You mention the need for the media to focus more on the communities that are suffering right now. In what other ways can the media do a better job of covering the climate crisis?

Vanessa Nakate: I think the media is so biased by what they report. For example, in Africa there have been various countries that have been facing daily floods because of torrential rains. These floods have been destroying people since October. We, as activists in Africa, are trying to bring the message out to help these people because many people were displaced and many people lost their loved ones. The media did not really pay much attention to that. I have no problem with them reporting other disasters, but we saw the California fires and they would report about them every day. We’ve seen the Australian fires, and they’ve been reporting about them every day, and donations have been coming out to those kinds of people. It really saddens me because there are people as well in African countries. They may not be as rich as that, but they’re really affected, and the media does not really focus on that and they still don’t understand why. They just give hints about disasters in Africa whereby, on a daily basis, we see them reporting disasters from the Western countries. So it is so frustrating.

Kaime Silvestre: In Brazil, we are in the genocide of the indigenous communities, and there is no social alarm in the media. It’s really bad because there are millions of indigenous people in the Amazon region — that includes eight countries — because there is no protection for them, especially now because Bolsonaro is the president.

Eva Jones: I think it’s more of a problem with how we are reporting news, and everything is measured on clicks and links. It’s about the most outrageous title you can muster to get the most people outraged on something. Unfortunately, that leads to certain countries being left out of the conversation and it leads to disasters not getting the coverage they deserve, but it also leads to a lot of numbness. People don’t even care anymore because they really can’t afford to — [not] when horrific images are being shoved down their throats 24/7. I think it prevents people from getting involved and prevents people from actually putting a stake in the game and saying they care about it. They don’t want to be vulnerable to the kind of pain that they see. The media needs to focus attention on solutions. I want to read more articles like the conversations we were having in that room, more explorative stuff. Just broadcasting the issue just doesn’t help solve the problem, because I think people really do become fed up with it because you can’t afford to care 24 hours a day.

What have you been noticing from other people your age in terms of awareness of the climate crisis and enthusiasm to enact change? Are your friends rallying around this issue, or is there a sense of apathy and/or helplessness?

Eva Jones, 18, is a United Nations Foundation Protector of Progress and youth coordinator of Arctic Basecamp in Davos. Arctic Basecamp / Henry Iddon

Wenying Zhu: I would say it’s still a niche market. I think the most important challenge is how to mainstream it; how to mainstream sustainability. This is one of the most important risks to everyone. I think this is very important to let everyone know it’s of interest.

Eva Jones: I actually think a lot of people do care. I see people getting involved in a ton of different ways. My friends who maybe aren’t as politically active as some of my other friends are just being like, “Hey, bro, we don’t use paper towels.” Just little behavioral changes. But I think what’s preventing everyone from getting involved — because I think everyone sees it as an issue, especially where I live in eastern Oregon, where wildfires and glacier melt and salmon populations are all right in our face — is this constant stream of bad news. Because then you can’t read those more in-depth articles that go into what policy is being presented, or what business solutions are being presented, because you’re maxed-out after scrolling for 10 minutes. You’re just like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m overwhelmed. I need to go think some happy things.” Anything associated with climate change is negative, and they’re not able to get that more helpful, more motivating, more mobilizing information.

Brix Whiteman: I’m 15, and I’ve noticed that there’s a severe lack of action and enthusiasm about doing something about climate change. Everybody’s like, “Yeah, we don’t really care about it.” They’re very relaxed. I just think we just need to wake up and start taking action. When anyone does take action, people are like, “Why are they doing that?” It’s not even a severe issue.

Vanessa Nakate: The main challenges that we face is information and the fear of the government and police. In my country, it’s illegal to protest for anything because we do not have freedom of speech. It affects many people’s decisions. Many people would love to join the activism, but they’re afraid of being arrested, or having to face tear gas and all that.

The other thing is that many people are not informed about the climate crisis. I had to teach myself about it and get to know the facts about climate change, but not everyone is ready to take that initiative. So they need to be informed in one way or another. One thing I’ve learned is that people listen to media a lot. So if the media reports something and relates it to climate change, it can actually educate someone. I agree that it’s good to report solutions, but there’s some communities where people are less informed, and the media needs to step in and to report the disasters that those people are facing and relate them to climate change so that they can know and understand what they are.

Eva Jones: When we’re really looking at where the responsibility lies, media is a business and businesses are supposed to make a profit. And so I think that idea about uneducated communities really comes down to educational systems and governments that need to step up the game in terms of getting data to those places. Because it’s hard to expect a Western newspaper company to just start sending information there, because in the current state of how we run business, that doesn’t seem viable.

Kaime Silvestre: I’m always trying to engage young people, especially my friends, about the movement, and I truly believe it’s on our generation to make the change happen. If each one of us makes some contribution to the planet, I think we can make a revolution happen. It’s happened in Hong Kong. The young people are going in the streets because they really, really want to make change. If the whole world did the same thing, we’d have a better world. I’m hoping for this, one day.

Combating the climate crisis is a monumental uphill battle, and in a lot of ways the emission numbers we need to hit seem out of reach. You mention the Hong Kong protesters as a source of inspiration. What else gives you hope that we can overcome this? How do you stay optimistic in the face of all the forces working against the movement?

Kaime Silvestre: I can see the mobilizations and more people going to the streets. We can see in social media a lot of movement for the climate and for the planet, so I’m an optimist.

Vanessa Nakate: We all have dreams, and these dreams keep us positive about the future because if we really want to achieve the dreams that we have and the hopes that we have, that means we have to get fighting for the future. So that’s one of my biggest motivations to keep fighting.

Brix Whiteman: I stay optimistic about climate change — even though it’s a dangerous catastrophe not far ahead of us — because there are new movements. Of course Greta, she is quite recent, and of course the Arctic Basecamp is getting bigger and bigger. It’s on its fourth year. Media are giving climate change more attention, and I do think that we will step up, and gradually more and more people will step up, and we’ll have a revolution.

Eva Jones: I honestly just have to, like, close my eyes and believe it’s going to be all OK. We got ourselves into this mess. We can work our way out. Knowing that there is the technology, that there is the money, and that we know what the problem is — if I can believe for long enough, I can start to get excited about the idea of how epic it’s going to be if it all turns around. If you walk around pretending like you’ve already achieved your goals, your brain will start to associate ways that you can see it. Like when you learn a new word and then, all of a sudden, that word is everywhere. If you put yourself in that mindset, then all of a sudden you’re going to be like, “Hey, there’s another avenue to get to my goal.” I just kind of have to hold on until I can find that excitement for what our future will hold.

Wenying Zhu: Honestly, I’m really not optimistic. Like Vanessa said, we talk a lot, but we act very little. For example, I work with the United Nations, and currently I’m doing research on sustainable finance data and the land-use sector. Lots of companies, lots of banks, and lots of institutional investors made commitments. By 2020, which is this year, they said their portfolios would be 100 percent deforestation-free, or that their portfolios would be 100 percent sustainable. But none of them are achieving this, and only a few of them are reporting how close they are. So very little are on the track. I’m also looking at how much people are investing in sustainable finance, but actually it’s only 10 percent or 5 percent of the whole portfolio, and there’s still a lot of money going to the fossil-fuel sector.

Eva Jones: But think about the 5 and 10 percent that probably wasn’t there 15 years ago.

Wenying Zhu: At least now we know how much is missing and where we are, and we can see how much we can do in the future. So it’s already one step forward, as you said. We knew nothing. We knew nothing about climate change and how bad we were behaving, so it’s progress. But still, we have lots to do in the future.

This roundtable discussion has been condensed and edited for clarity.