Maeve McTaggart sits down with Lilya Iman Chala, fifteen-year-old founder of Extinction Rebellion Youth Cork and one of the group’s members, seventeen-year-old Clodagh Perrott, to discuss youth climate activism and the adults who resist it.
In a pantomime of politeness to children, older generations regularly stoop to the three-foot eye-level of a child and ask the playful “and what do you want to be when you grow up?” They fondly assume the answer to be ‘princess’ or ‘policeman’, ‘doctor’ or ‘dentist’, not to be rebuked with “what future?” in return. For young climate activists in 2019, its harder to answer questions about the future with fantasy once you begin to understand reality, once Fridays are spent striking from school to force climate action and ensure you even have a future to begin with. As I sat down with fifteen-year-old Lilya Iman Chala and seventeen-year-old Clodagh Perrott from Extinction Rebellion Youth Cork, at first I found myself assuming the same position of this baby-boomer pantomime – ready to hear some fantastical stories of climate action and not well-reasoned existential dread. From Greta Thunberg to Lilya and Clodagh, why is the world waiting for them to grow up before it can be saved?
Greta Thunberg went from motivating to malicious in the eyes of many pundits, politicians and people when she criticised older generations at the UN Climate Summit. With a lump in her throat she exhorted that “I shouldn’t be standing here, I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean, yet you all come to me for hope? How dare you!” The pill that admits responsibility for climate catastrophe is one which is hard to swallow. Becoming lodged somewhere between indignancy and panic, it is easier to be angry at the adamance for change you found adorable until it became your problem too.
Following Greta Thunberg’s speech to the UN Climate Summit at the end of September, even Late Late Show host Ryan Tubridy recommended a “little return to the simple things” for the sixteen-year-old activist after her tearful condemnation of world leaders. Michael Knowles of FOX News referred to Thunberg as “a mentally ill Swedish child,” Andrew Bolt quaked at the “freakish influence” of the “deeply disturbed” activist, while the darkest corners of Twitter rallied around the idea that Greta Thunberg could be used in Nazi propaganda. The Asperger’s which she has long-referred to as her ‘superpower’ has become ammunition for adults hidden behind keyboards and irresponsibly-written op-eds, distorting their intolerance into some impersonation of concern.
In conversation about Greta Thunberg, many have seemed to resurrect the old English proverb that “children should be seen and not heard” – the notion that young climate activists are inspirational until they are inconvenient. “I’ve seen people say abysmal things about her,” Clodagh replies when I ask if the backlash is disheartening, “but I almost feel pity for those people. You can see how terrified they are [in] their willingness to jump to conclusions to make her not matter so that they don’t have to face this looming problem.”
In talking to Lilya and Clodagh, you are struck with the notion that the problem of climate change became theirs before it had to be. Lilya explains how it is not unusual for meetings to be accompanied by overwhelmed tears of teens who inherited the problem but not the means for a solution. Neither girl is old enough to vote yet (by three years for Lilya, just one for Clodagh), both may miss the opportunity to cast their ballot in the next general elections, and yet they emphasise the need for legislative change which will make Ireland greener. “It’s just not right that kids are worrying about their futures,” Lilya states, brought into climate action herself after attending the first Extinction Rebellion Youth meeting in Dublin a few months before she founded XR Youth Cork. She was inspired by the passion of fellow climate activists and the feeling of “needing to do something,” now supported by the group in Cork which is currently over 40 members strong. Armed with a plan and a determination for substantial and sustainable change, it is difficult to understand why some adults refuse to share the problem that young climate activists so desperately need halved.
Verity Johnson of Stuff provides the argument that parts of an older generation may dislike young climate activists “because it makes them feel obsolete.” Change seems radical when old ways have for so long been the only way. Plastic-free feels demagogic and zero-waste is debaucherous when extracted fuel and infinite new Penney’s lines are just so much easier. Clodagh and Lilya are understanding but unimpressed, their XR Youth Cork origin story as Gen-Z as it can get. “Well, it started kind of the only way I knew how,” Lilya laughs, “I set up an Instagram account and from there it got spread around. That’s the good thing about being a youth organization, it’s really easy to get people involved via social media.” Youth climate activism is new and practically instantaneous, scary to those who have had such an adverse reaction to it. Activism can be exercised in posting, not petitioning. “You can still make little changes such as resharing posts on your Instagram,” she continues, “little things like that do more than you realise, don’t get disheartened by the fact it’s such a massive issue.”
The inconvenience of climate action is enough to make anyone feign ignorance but, for young people like Lilya and Clodagh, they don’t have that luxury. “I didn’t view climate change as a huge problem until I started learning more about the climate emergency,” Clodagh admitted, “I didn’t realise that the effects were going to be felt so soon. I think it was kind of blissful ignorance.”
Clodagh continues that, for her, hope was something she did not realise she needed before she learned the realities of climate change, it was something for the future, for an older version of her to have to face – not the seventeen-year-old. “It kind of fills me with sadness when I see that when the government says that they will take action to help prevent what is basically mass extinction but then take none,” she sighs. “When they make all these empty promises it does fill me with dread.” She is referring wordlessly to the recent declaration of a Climate Emergency by the Irish Government. The second nation to declare a climate emergency, Ireland was lauded in the international media despite only six TDs turning up to the vote – climate change seems to be a problem mostly uptaken by a few who can make the difference, never the many.
It seems ironic to call climate activists younger than me inspirational, as if I am beginning to perform the pantomime all over again, but there are few other words which could so succinctly articulate the movement that young people – globally – are starting. While Lilya says that sometimes “it feels that we’re just shouting and no one is hearing us,” Clodagh interjects that “it almost makes you feel more passionate to raise even more awareness so that even those people realise what a problem climate change is.”
A movement begun by and filled with children has made many adults uncomfortable. From Trump to Tubridy, grown-ups are having the mirrors held up by young people and getting so offended that they miss the point. The options are system change or climate change, and young people have made their choice – what now?