Updated: Mar 11
By Lamisa H.
This piece is dedicated to the youth that are passionately fighting for climate justice. The Pvblication have had the pleasure of interviewing six climate activists from across Australia who have worked tirelessly alongside thousands of others to rally, protest, strike and meet with politicians to have their voices heard. Here, they break down what it means to be an activist and exactly what they desire from us.
WE DEMAND CHANGE
What does the label ‘activist’ mean to you?
AISHEEYA HUQ: At the beginning, especially, being called an activist gives you a sort of agency when it’s in regard to something you’re passionate about. You have a role to play. What you’re doing isn’t seen as insignificant.
ANICA RENNER: I think that as an activist who is putting a lot of their mental energy into changing things in the world, it’s important to acknowledge where you put your efforts. Sometimes you can’t change things as much, and you need to invest your energy where it’s going to be most impactful.
TOBY THORPE: Activism comes in so many ways. From saying no to plastic straws to protesting, you can be an activist in any way you're comfortable. You’re not just caring about the environment. You’re caring about your future and learning from valuable experiences.
Why are you striking?
AISHEEYA HUQ: Politics is basically there to take care of us and ensure our democracy is secure and that our futures are sustainable. What’s at the forefront in politics is at the forefront in society. So yeah, we are trying to bring the issue of climate change to the forefront of politics. Make it something that our politicians, voters and everyone in society puts first.
The issue of climate has turned into a leftist issue rather than a human issue.
I remember after the first strike ScoMo said, ‘We don’t want activism in schools’ or something like that. And that kind of blew up at the time. I think they do see us as a threat. But there needs to be a sense of respect in terms of truly taking in what others have to say. It doesn’t just go for young people, but everyone who has that concern for climate.
TOBY THORPE: We are taking our learning into our own hands, deciding what we want to learn and how we want to learn and sometimes that's through activism. When it comes to the question of “should there be activism in schools” - there is no activism in schools.
There's activism in the youth movement.
It’s in the streets, and what students are doing is they are creating their own school, creating their own education system. Young people have an incredible power to connect and we are stronger than ever. That means we can fight against these huge companies, and these huge issues together. Not only are we marching together on the streets, but we are connected emotionally and we support each other through that.
How could your schools make positive changes?
ANICA RENNER: Private schools have autonomy over their own facilities and should be working off 100% renewable energy. We know it's cheaper, we know it's more economically viable, so I don’t see a logical reason as to why they shouldn’t be doing that, I think they should also be really mindful in their waste. But the biggest thing is working off 100% renewable energy. Whether its solar, hydro or wind power - it doesn’t matter.
For public schools, I think the government should be taking action. The state government should invest in renewable energy in schools and households because that’s what’s going to get us there. Fossil fuels are the leading cause of climate change.
We need to make sure there is a just transition towards renewable energy so that we can have a safe climate future and that nobody gets left behind in that transition.
LET’S GET PERSONAL
How have you personally grown from this experience?
AISHEEYA HUQ: I feel like I’m completely different as a person. I actually realised I have this power to do something, power to create actual social change and political change through my actions, and through my activism. It made politics and politicians much more approachable because it is easy to say that they’re just people but oftentimes, especially as a young person, you don’t feel that it's accessible. You don’t feel like you have the value that they do and therefore cannot impact their decisions, their policy-making and their agendas. But my view has changed 180 on that.
In general, I value myself and my ability to create change more now. It's been a really empowering time. I would have a lot to say, and I would be really opinionated. Not always about the environment, in fact, I did not care about the environment before my involvement with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. But I would be very passionate about things, and be very vocal. A lot of people don’t know that they have political power.
This entire movement has taught me that I can practice what I preach.
MILOU ALBRECHT: I’ve grown up in a house where we are always talking about the climate impact and how we can solve them, and how we can cope with climate grief and anxiety because my mum is a psychologist, and she specialises in coping with climate grief and anxiety, and raising kids in a climate altered world.
That is the mindset I have grown up with. I have always been going to protests. I have always understood what is going on. When Greta starting striking, me and some other families could just see the benefits of it. So we talked to our community, and AYCC helped us organise a video to let people know about the strike.
TOBY THORPE: For me, it's been the biggest learning experience. From the time I earned an international award to now, even though I dropped out of school, I still classify myself as a student because my activist journey takes me on all these learning experiences, and I’ve gained so much experience that you can’t get from a classroom.
How do you deal with cynicism or indifference?
AISHEEYA HUQ: One politician tweeted at us and said that these kids are gonna end up on the dole. But I think adults would be surprised to hear that many of the cynics were young people. A lot of my friends questioned “you know, you’re ideals are great and all. The morality of it, yeah I understand that. That’s a good thing, but like what will striking do?” I can’t look at it any other way now, I really do believe in radical action.
Rather than criticising someone about their initiative, join them and actually be a part of the movement.
I understand that people do have that perspective. But you need to do something directly. You can be cynical, but that’s not going to help anything. It starts with individuals holding themselves accountable, and having them recognise that their impact is real and this flows through the rest of the community.
ANICA RENNER: You ultimately can’t make everybody care about the same issues, some people care strongly about different issues that aren’t necessarily just climate change. I think that it’s important in our fight to people who do care to frame things in the interests of the general public whether or not they care about it.
It takes a few people to start, to get the cogs turning, to get the ball rolling but we need a cascade of change, and if people have the mindset that “oh it’s just me, I can't do much, it’s not my responsibility” then that mentality won’t change things. What will change things is if people look at the issue in the eyes of the whole. So while you might not feel like you’re making a big difference as an individual.
In the swell of change, little changes will shift things faster: if people vote in favour of climate action, if people consume in favour of climate justice. Things will change.
MILOU ALBRECHT: This is an existential threat. Everyone is going to be affected by this, you are not going to miss out. You just have to connect with them on a personal level. Talk to them, and ask them, “What are their favourite things to do?” and how that will be affected. “Who are their loved ones? And how that will be affected. That’s how I would approach it.
TOBY THORPE: Whenever I hear cynical people, I say to myself, they are scared of change. They don’t understand that the world is changing, and if they do they are scared of how it is not going to benefit them. You learn to care for the environment, but you also learn some valuable experiences.
For me, I've learned how to raise money, how to engage young people and public speaking skills, how to write a speech and how to write an article, which school is supposed to teach you, but it doesn’t. Cynical people should be appreciative that activism is bringing better and more equipped leaders into society.
VARSHA YAJMAN: When people are overwhelmed, it's easier to deal with, because you can turn that into action. When people are indifferent, it's so frustrating because they tend to think that we need to go to school, and we need to have an education, then when it comes to actually taking care of our futures, they tend to be so indifferent about it which is just so contradictory.
How have your communities reacted to your activism?
AISHEEYA HUQ: To this day, my community - the Bengali community - have a lot of scepticism. There is a lot of questioning the legitimacy of our movement, of my participation in the movement, but there is a newfound respect for what I’m doing. The scale of the movement is so big and seeing a person that they know quite well being heavily involved makes them think, “Oh, look this is a person in our community, maybe we should consider this as something we should care about as well.”
The domino effect is so clearly a part of everything in this movement. But it’s also worth recognising that there are a lot of Australians who won’t experience the impacts of climate change as fast as these Desi families will. If they are from Bangladesh, for example, it’s going to be one of the first countries affected by the climate crisis. I’m sure that will heavily impact their understanding of climate change and the respect for movements that push for climate action and for climate justice.
POLITICS OF PROTEST
Do you think school strike for climate is working?
TOBY THORPE: When you go to conferences in Chile (COP 25), and then come home, and Adani is still happening, it feels like we aren’t being heard. Well, being heard, but not being listened to. They hear what we are marching for [in terms of climate change], but they’re not listening to our demands.
VARSHA YAJMAN: We haven’t seen too much change to be honest. It’s definitely on the news everyday though. That makes a really big difference to how important we perceive the issue to be. It’s becoming really obvious that more and more people are caring about the climate crisis. In that sense, it’s had a great impact. We want to make sure we are getting action at the end, because right now we haven’t seen too much at all.
For us, it’s not just about having the strikes but making sure that it is a sustainable movement.
Is the climate justice movement as inclusive as possible?
AISHEEYA HUQ: I could talk so much about this. AYCC has been trying so hard, it's so awesome that we have these adults who empowered us through every step of the way because there is just not enough focus, not enough action, movement happening in that massive section of [Western] Sydney.
People just don’t understand that because of the history of climate activism has always been portrayed through the face of a white, privileged, high socio-economic person’s face, and through their actions in their localities, because of that commonality, there isn’t much coverage on what goes on in low socio-economic areas.
Before this, I didn’t think it was normal to be very involved in politics, and they seemed distant or this radical action and impactful. I am 100% sure that even if I look at my school setting everything seems so far away and seem so irrelevant to the young people that reside in Western Sydney. Politically, behind the scenes, Western Sydney is a major area, but in terms of the movement, there is not much light shed on them.
We had a wide variety of people, and that was the intention. There is definitely potential for the movement to change and adapt, and it is for sure like I don’t think people like myself and my friends who are like key organisers of these strikes, I don’t think we would exist as part of the movement if it wasn’t in that position.
What is your hope for the future ?
I really hope climate change isn’t a barrier for anyone, that it doesn’t limit people regardless of where they were born because climate change amplifies existing vulnerabilities.
I hope climate change doesn’t mean people have to be displaced and leave their homes. I hope that governments and corporations listen to what the future is saying. Listen to what is the most economically viable option, and the safest option and the best for people and make that transition so that young people, old people, middle aged people, people of all backgrounds and experiences and ways of life can live fairly.
For me, my hope is to go from respect to action.
The leader of Canada attended the Strike which is cool because he is showing support, but also silly because he could implement change. So the main goal, and what I hope to see in the future, is primarily climate action but with a forefront of justice, which means that when approaching climate change we also prioritise First Nation people. So it’s done according to the wishes of the rightful owners of the land, and for that to happen globally in a lot of colonised land.
We would like to thank Aisheeya Huq, Anica Renner, Milou Albrecht, Nyah Shahab, Toby Thorpe and Varsha Yajman for sharing their incredible insights and for their tireless work in fighting for a more just future.
* The interviews have been condensed for clarity.
Lead Editor: Tahmina R.