Photo Courtesy of Greta Thunberg / Twitter

The Unspoken Heroes of Climate Activism

On Sept. 23, 2019, a 16-year-old girl stood in front of world leaders at the UN Climate Action Center in New York City, her small shoulders holding steady under the gravity of her speech.

“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction,” she warned in a voice shaking with anger, “and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” Greta Thunberg’s words reverberated across the country, inspiring millions of supporters, as well as a large crowd of haters.

It seems to be a growing trend among certain Americans to mock and belittle children who speak up politically in an attempt to save their own lives. March for Our Lives activists David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, and Cameron Kasky saw this for themselves after they organized demonstrations in favor of stricter gun laws to prevent mass shootings. The hate has now extended to young Greta Thunberg, who has been lambasted for her outspoken views. For example, conservative commentator Michael Knowles attacked Greta for her views regarding climate change, referring to Ms. Thunberg as “a mentally ill Swedish child” in a Fox News segment— a crude reference to Ms. Thunberg’s Asperger’s diagnosis.

Both the abuse and the adoration that Greta Thunberg faces point to larger problems festering on all ends of the political spectrum. On the right, the insensitive remarks, accusations, and outright hate directed at Ms. Thunberg seem to suggest that some conservatives are so focused on representing their political party that they will bully a child rather than suffer through her right to free speech in respectful silence. Their attitudes towards her reflect not only a stubborn refusal to believe in science, but also a startling lack of empathy. How polarized is our two-party system, that the right resorts to dehumanizing the left by harassing a 16-year-old girl?

The left’s open-armed welcome of Ms. Thunberg is indicative of a different kind of problem—not because Ms. Thunberg isn’t deserving of the praise, but because many others like her have gone unnoticed. Before Greta, there was Mari, Xiye, Isra, and Kevin. 

Mari Copeny, also known as “Little Miss Flint,” is an 11-year-old from Flint, Michigan, who has worked since 2016 to raise awareness for the water crisis in her city. At only eight years old, she wrote a letter to then-President Obama, inviting him to see the conditions in Flint for himself. Ever since the president took her up on her offer, she has raised over $500,000 to support children in Flint.

Xiye Bastida is a native of San Pedro, Tultepec, Mexico, and has witnessed the effects of climate change firsthand in the flooding and droughts that afflicted her hometown. She got involved in the environmental movement as soon as her family moved to New York, and has been lobbying lawmakers for action. She also advocates for indigenous people to ensure that they have a voice in the climate change conversation.

Isra Hirsi is a 16-year-old from Minneapolis, and the daughter of Representative Ilhan Omar. She has continuously argued for the need to create “more space” in the climate activism movement for people of color, emphasizing that this is an issue that affects everyone.

Kevin J. Patel, 18, grew up in a particularly polluted neighborhood in Los Angeles and was diagnosed with heart problems resulting from pollution at 14. He now organizes strikes for climate action and speaks on how climate change disproportionally affects underprivileged communities.

There are plenty of young people of color fighting for action to save their planet. Their exclusion from the narrative of climate activism is a sad commentary on how many Americans prefer to promote a white representative of the movement over a black or brown one. 

This is not to say that Greta Thunberg should be cast aside and replaced. She does remarkable work, and her bravery should be admired. But if we uplift her, we must also uplift all of the other young activists pushing for change. Children fighting for their futures should always be uplifted, no matter what color they are. After all, climate change will ultimately affect everyone, so everyone deserves an equal voice in trying to stop it.

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