We Are Here to Stay: Youth Climate Movement in Charge of Humanity’s Future

COP26 delegates interview activist Kyle Gracey from the documentary Youth Unstoppable screened at New York Times Climate Hub.

Climate Change Special Edition

By Alice Finno / Matthew staff and COP26 delegate

For this generation, and for the generations that are coming, it is hard not to be an activist because we are essentially fighting not only for a right to speak but to survive.

Slater Jewell-Kemker, young activist and filmmaker at COP26

The Youth Climate Movement has grown significantly in the past years, not only in number but also in importance. At COP26, young activists not only played a crucial role marching in the streets to pressure global leaders engaged in negotiations. Many of them were also invited to speak at conferences or side events. 

Billboards in the streets of Glasgow during COP26  
Photo: Alice Finno 

As JCU delegation, we had the opportunity to attend the events of the New York Times Climate Hub and listen directly to the words of several youth activists.  

One of these events was the screening of the 2020-documentary Youth Unstoppable followed by an interview with the filmmaker Slater Jewell-Kemker, a young climate activist and protagonist of the film

Youth Unstoppable provides an insightful perspective on the Youth Climate Movement because Slater participated in COPs since she was 15 years old and filmed her documentary over 12 years: from 2008 to 2020. This allowed her to truly catch the spirit of the youth climate movement and see how it transitioned from being a grassroots movement to a crucial actor in the climate crisis.  

Slater Jewell-Kemker (on-screen) with activist Mya-Rose Craig, moderator Jason Farago, and a representative from WaterBear.
Photo: Alice Finno

By watching the evolution of the Youth Climate Movement on screen, we could perceive the growing success and impact of young activists, but also how they have been repeatedly disillusioned by the lack of significant action from policymakers.  

The words of the young activist Severn Cullis-Suzuki at the UN Climate Conference held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 sound extremely familiar to the words of today’s young activists, like Greta Thunberg. We watched Suzuki call global leaders to do more, touching upon topics such as the loss of biodiversity, the contamination of air and water, the fear for her future, and the interconnectedness among all human beings.  It is both impactful and disheartening to know that young activists started to fight so long ago for what we are fighting today, but no one listened to them. 


Interview with Kyle Gracey 

After the event, Matthew delegate Julissa Castro-Ruiz and I had the incredible opportunity of interviewing Kyle Gracey, one of the activists in the movie. Kyle has worked in the youth climate movement for several years: he is the co-founder of YOUNGO, the Youth Non-Governmental Organization of the United Nations, and Chair of the Board of Directors of Engineers for a Sustainable World. Below are some excerpts from our interview. 

Are you involved in any other projects right now? 

Yes, a lot of the work that I do right now is basically holding the United States government accountable and talking about the impact of the fossil fuels industry in the United States, so a lot of my work today is in the same vein of what we do here, in the film, but really targeting the United States government and really targeting the fossil fuels companies in the United States because those are two very big lockers of progress and not just in our country but in the world. So yes, I’m continuing to do the same things that you saw here.  

You have been involved in many COPs in the past years: how do you feel about COP26 and what do you expect to see from future COPs? 

I think what we learned is that the future of COPs is very hard to know. What we have seen so far through all of these years is that we are moving in the right direction but not nearly fast enough: that’s the challenge. This is a race, as they say in the film, and we are not running fast enough. That has been a key, repeating element throughout all the COPs that I have been a part of, and the youth movement has been part of. We see these glimmers of hope, we see positive development, we see the growth of civil society, and young people, and old people, and everyone in between fighting for this, but we also continue to see disappointment because we know what we actually need to have happen, and we know that we are not there yet. But my hope for the future, for future COPs, is that we get there on the timeline that we need, and my fear is that we don’t, and we don’t know where, between those extremes, we will actually land.  

Because we are already experiencing the climate crisis, for the people who have already suffered, for the people who have already died, it’s too late. For the people who are coming, for future generations, it’s not too late, there is still that hope and that possibility, so that’s why is difficult because, on the one hand, we are continuously mourning and at the same time we are continuously hoping, and we have something and someone to fight for, so we can’t stop, but we also can’t stop feeling everything that we have gotten through already. 

How do you see your role as a climate advocate developing in the future? 

That’s the one nice thing about being a young person coming into this movement: you have both sort of the responsibility but also the opportunity to fight this fight your whole life, or for a major part of your life. Many of the people that you saw in the film continue to do this work, they moved into “adult roles,” but they are still doing the same kind of work or even more, and that’s the nice thing: just because we stopped being young people it doesn’t mean that anybody has to stop doing this work and stop this fight. 

Actually, what’s great of the youth movement is that it’s creating this whole brand swell of new people to come into the movement, because that’s what we need. When we talk about the movement, we talk about a lot of people, and the best way to bring in a lot of new people is all these young people who enter every day: they are the future fighters, the future advocates, the future protesters, the future government leaders themselves. That’s the other thing: we can move into these positions of power and change things from the inside as well as from the outside, and we see young people doing that.  

I know young people I met in this film who are now actually members of Parliament, they are the civil service, they are making some of these decisions, and their experience is informed by all this, and they are making better decisions than the people who came before them because they saw and they went through this. That’s really exciting: the hope of changing from the inside and the outside and growing into these positions of power, starting from this youth movement. That’s something not a lot of other movements have as a feature of them, and that’s a big sort of hope for me. 

Is there any suggestion you would give to young advocates to not feel so discouraged when approaching the climate crisis? 

The most important advice I would give is to be in a community with other people who are passionate about that. That’s what we tried to do in creating the Youth Climate Movement: to build a network and a community of people because it’s so much easier to do this work when you are with others who feel the same way. So the thing that I tell people is: don’t try to do this alone, find other people, build a network, build a community, not even just of young people but of everyone who is excited about this work because this movement has grown so much: there are so many more people involved, of every age, than there were in the past, so connect with those people. That’s the best way to get involved in a way that doesn’t make you feel powerless and sort of burned out. 

In the interview, Gracey confirmed what had already emerged from the documentary: the coexistence of contrasting feelings within the Youth Climate Movement. There is a lot of hope but also constant disappointment and disenchantment due to the lack of significant progress. This is why being part of a community of climate activists, of the youth climate movement, is so important: feelings of anguish or despair are very likely to emerge when confronting the biggest crisis of our times, but if you are not alone, if you can count on other people who care about the climate crisis as much as you do, hope and action will prevail over despair and inaction. 

In Glasgow, we could experience these mixed feelings first-hand: after some of the panels, we were disappointed because we were expecting more concrete solutions and proposals, while there were a lot of empty words. But on the other hand, being part of the environment of COP26 and of this community of people that share the same interests, and the same purpose, is extremely empowering. It allowed us to feel the incredible energy that drives the Youth Climate Movement, and now that we are back, we are even more motivated to continue this fight and get more people involved.