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Too young to understand climate action? Actually, young people are leading the way

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Theo Cullen-Mouze, a young climate activist from Ireland, argues that the COVID-19 response shows the capacity of the world to collaborate, mobilise vast resources and take radical action in times of crisis. He calls for intersectional climate justice to ensure that we shape a liveable future for our planet.

This blog is the first in our intergenerational series "It will take all of us: never too young to lead on the climate crisis" and features an introduction by Mary Robinson:

"I have met Theo on a couple of occasions, he is as engaging and articulate in person as he is in this blog written for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Theo once told me that he became so involved in climate action because he is alarmed by the evidence of climate change all around him. It is young people like him that have really raised the collective awareness of the acute intergenerational injustice of this climate emergency. As Theo says in this blog, during this COVID-19 pandemic we are seeing the potential for the world to come together on shared challenges. I urge world leaders to take heed of his words - there is much work to be done."

Growing up on an offshore island, close to the land and to the sea has afforded me a distinct perspective on the climate and ecological crises. Like many young people today I harbour fear and uncertainty regarding my future, and have definitely witnessed climate breakdown unfolding over my short life. But this has only strengthened my resolve to affect change. 

It seems to me that solutions must come not only from the scientists but also from ourselves. The key lies in understanding that climate underlies everything. In addressing the scientific and societal challenges from this climate perspective, the injustices of the modern world will be addressed. When we realise that the quality of our lives will improve, that a juster and kinder world is possible, real change is inevitable.

As a young climate activist, I’m often told, ‘you’re too young to understand’, that I’m hopelessly idealistic and naive. I laugh at the irony – we school strikers have had no choice but to grow up, and fast. I’ve learned to face hard facts that adults seem incapable of accepting.

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Case in point: during Ireland’s recent general election, the school strikers felt confident that climate would be put front and centre. It wasn’t. Yet, another growing up moment for me. Even after tens of thousands had taken to the streets in Ireland just a few months before, the climate crisis was still regarded as a niche issue, only mentioned after “real”, grown-up problems such as jobs, housing and health had been addressed.

But of course, this flies in the face of everything the science tells us and everything I know to be true. We need to reconnect the pieces into one whole, this planet of ours, rather than treating them as disparate entities. It’s not whether housing or health are more important than climate – action on climate is action on housing and health, and this follows for all aspects of society.

When we view climate change solely through the lens of excess carbon emissions, we are focusing on the symptoms and ignoring the disease, that of neoliberal hyper-capitalism that has caused inordinate inequities across the globe.

On the island I live on, the very ground beneath my feet is living memory of a 19th century human and environmental disaster. Everywhere there are the protruding, skeletal ribs of long abandoned potato beds, iomaire dhá ghrua, which permitted a population more than ten times the size it is today (1600 vs 150) – until they didn’t. By the turn of the century, two thirds of the island’s population had died or emigrated following the failure of the potato crop caused by the previously unknown disease, Phytophthora infestans. But even as the Irish people starved, millions of bushels of grain, thousands of live animals and millions of gallons of butter and grain-derived alcohol were being shipped to England. It was the greed of British merchants and landlords, as much as it was Phytophthora infestan, that shaped the course of the suffering.

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While the circumstances are different, the thinking is the same: Since the signing of the Paris agreement, $700 billion has been invested in fossil fuels. When the economy trumps the value of people’s lives, the results are always catastrophic.

Yet, as we grapple with COVID-19, a deadly pandemic which targets the most vulnerable in society, solidarity, unity and compassion have won out.  Political and economic cant has been exposed for what it is: when necessary, we can mobilise vast resources, and can steer a radical new course.

We must bring this counter-paradigm to bear on the climate crisis. Only when intersectional climate justice is applied to every aspect of society, ensuring equity and improving people’s lives, can we shape a liveable future for our planet.

Theo Cullen-Mouze is a 17-year-old school striker, climate activist and writer from an offshore island off the West coast of Ireland called Clare Island. Theo is a founding member of School Strikes 4 Climate Ireland, and addressed attendees of COP25 at an intergenerational panel event in Madrid alongside Mary Robinson.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation

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