Meet the next generation of global climate activists

February 16, 2021, 10:08 AM UTC

This article is part of Fortune’Blueprint for a climate breakthrough package, guest edited by Bill Gates.

Perhaps more than any other movement, the fight to protect the environment has been led by young activists. Sweden’s Greta Thunberg may be the first who comes to mind. In reality, she is part of a larger movement, one that includes both the organization she founded—Fridays for Future—and dozens of other youth-led groups, including Zero Hour, SustainUS, and Future Coalition.

And as the generation who will inherit the vast problems of climate change, these activists have a unique claim to the issue. To better understand the goals of young people on the front lines of this crisis, Fortune spoke to five climate activists from four countries about what action they want to see this year. These organizers, all involved in the Fridays for Future movement, explained what countries from Uganda to Scotland need to accomplish in 2021.

Holly Gillibrand, 15

Organizer, Fridays for Future Scotland
Fort William, Scotland

I’ve always loved nature—we would always be out walking, or I’d climb trees and play with animals. My interest in climate activism started with that interest in nature and ended up with wanting to protect it. Then, about two years ago, I watched Greta Thunberg speak at the UN. I could really relate to what she was saying and how she was feeling. When she mentioned the school strikes, I thought that was something I could get involved in. It was new, and it was quite radical in a way other protests hadn’t been.

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The first time I striked for an hour in the morning, my mum came along, and my friend joined me. Then, more and more people started joining me. Before the COVID lockdowns started, we’d have about eight or 10 people every week. Other people in school were a bit confused why I was doing it. They didn’t understand why I’d want to strike from school. But my parents supported me, and teachers—they couldn’t say they supported a student striking from school, but I thought they were supportive.

Striking showed that we were serious about this. It sends a message that this is such a big deal that we’re willing to sacrifice our school time for this. People in power—I think they heard us, but I don’t know if they’re listening to us. Politicians say we need to look toward a greener Scotland, but they’re not taking action. In 2021, we can’t just set one goal. We need a just transition away from fossil fuels, so workers won’t be sacrificed. We’re thinking about the Scottish elections in May. But you can’t just say electric cars are the solution, or recycling is a solution. This is a crisis. We have to start treating this like an emergency.

Joe Hobbs, 18

Organizer, Fridays for Future USA; Director of Operations, Climate Cardinals
Columbia, Maryland

Photo Illustration by Fortune; Background by Getty Images; Photograph Courtesy of Joe Hobbs

I joined the climate movement when I was 16. I’d always thought about recycling or composting, but when I went to my first climate strike, I realized how much of an effect you could have—how many people you can reach, how you can really make a change. As I thought about how big an issue this is—by the time I’m in my sixties or seventies the climate could reach a point of no return—I realized that if no one’s going to take action, I have to take action myself.

I was really involved in the U.S. presidential election, but I was still 17 on Election Day so I wasn’t allowed to vote. Now, I’m glad to see President Biden rejoin the Paris climate accord, but I’m interested to see his actual climate plan. After the Trump administration, the U.S. is behind on climate. Biden needs to take us forward, not just one or two steps, but 20 or 30.

Our biggest goal for 2021 is to influence the Biden administration and Congress to make big changes. We need more incentives for electric cars. We need a carbon tax. We need to create more solar panels. We need to restrict the amount of pollution companies can create. Companies need to start spending more money on being sustainable. Compared to activists’ focus on lawmakers and government regulation in Europe, in the U.S., a lot of the biggest changes we can make will have to do with businesses.

Asheer and Asees Kandhari, 17

Organizers, Fridays for Future India
New Delhi, India

Photo illustration by Fortune; Background by Getty Images; Photograph Courtesy of of Asheer Kandhari
Asees Kandhari
Photo illustration by Fortune; Background by Getty Images; Photograph Courtesy of Asees Kandhari

Our mom is an environmentalist, and from when we were young, she’s always fought against air pollution. It’s a huge problem in India—we step outside, and we feel it. We’d get coughs and headaches. We’re both national-level basketball players, and our tournaments are always canceled because of air pollution. Not being able to pursue something we love drove us to learn more about the problem and how it affects climate change.

We started protesting and organizing in 2018. We’re fighting hard against deforestation. The only natural way to combat air pollution is through trees, and we’re trying to show authorities that they’re prioritizing development over our lives. We’re trying to start with local politicians. We got a reply from our chief minister last year on a petition to demand separate walkways for cyclists and walkers, but it was just a reply—he didn’t make any promises.

There are so many countries, especially European countries, where you don’t see the impact of the climate crisis or the people who are already suffering from it. But to us, there’s no question of the crisis. Even when we were kids, it was always there.

And in India, awareness is a huge problem. A lot of people are not aware of the causes of these problems, even though they’re the ones who are being affected. We both have an air-conditioned home, and we can buy masks and air purifiers when pollution is at its peak. Some people who don’t have those privileges can feel the polluted air, but they don’t know it’s connected to the climate crisis.

When we go to university, we’re both interested in studying economics and environmental studies. We have to understand both; people are cutting down trees in the name of creating jobs. These decisions are being made right now. If we don’t raise our voice for ourselves, for future generations, and for our fellow generations, we don’t know what’s going to happen.

Nirere Sadrach, 26

Coordinator, Fridays for Future Uganda; Founder, End Plastic Pollution
Kampala, Uganda

Photo Illustration by Fortune; Background by Getty Images; Photograph Courtesy of Nirere Sadrach

I come from Kiboga, where we are farmers. In the farming districts, you’re exposed to the breakdown of the climate firsthand. I grew up seeing how our water is diminishing, seeing failing crops. As a kid, I didn’t know what to do. But when I went to university, I learned about climate change and about what I can do to fight it.

In our community, the biggest problem is water shortages and having clean, safe water. We are still surviving on water streams that draw water from swamps. Some of those places are being encroached on, and now there’s even less water than before. People have to move three villages to find water. We’ve had floods in one region that killed people, and heavy rains destroy crops in another. In a country that’s small like ours, we are facing the real effects of the climate crisis.

Adults here are leading organizations, sitting in fancy offices, doing literally nothing—nothing. Ministers are dozing in the Parliament, sleeping in sessions discussing climate solutions. And we have not been taken seriously by these people, who still think we are joking. Whenever we’re out for climate strikes, they deny us permission. They say we’re a political movement. No, we’re an environmental movement.

We want to see serious solutions—like an increase in the government’s budget to respond to climate change. We want to see more mitigation and adaptation solutions, so if a farmer’s facing a water shortage problem, we can help. Businesses, if they agree to new climate standards in the U.K., where there are stronger monitoring standards, why are they failing to implement them in Uganda?

People in power, they don’t know that whenever they keep quiet and silent, they are undermining a lot of people’s voices.

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