Interview with Youth Climate Activists

By Elly Wolhardt
Published on October 4th, 2020

Today’s activism is often found in colleges and high schools, with students aiming to create change and directly address issues within modern society. The school strike movement started on March 15, 2019, with strikes occurring all around the world, demanding for climate action now.

Youth climate activists from around the world share their thoughts on climate activism, self-care, eco-anxiety, and more.

What is your name, age, and where are you from?

Claire Maria Hedberg, 15, United States

Sona Perry, 14, Chicago

Grace Maddrell, 14, England

Ilana Zeitzer, 23, Pennsylvania

Keyra Juliana Espinoza, 17, New York City/Guayaquil, Ecuador

Ethan Stoehr, 16, Indiana

Sophie Levitt, 17, Chicago

Oliver Aljian, 17, Oregon

Aurora Yuan, 17, New Jersey

How and why did you get into climate activism?

Ilana: I have been interested since elementary school when I learned about animals losing their habitats. Climate activism is important because it impacts everyone and everything. When I was little, I focused on schooling and made a plan to become a scientist. I am still working through this plan today but I have also become involved through advocacy, participation in organizations like PollutersOut, Turning Green, FFF, Sunrise, etc. I also do my own form of striking and communication through art.

How has the climate crisis affected your region?

Keyra: My activism mostly surrounds and highlights the climate problems back home in Ecuador. I do this because there aren't many people back home that are talking, acting on, or educated about the climate crisis. I want my country to wake up and realize the severity of the extractive industry drilling petroleum and palm oil out of indigenous land in the Amazon and in the Afro-Ecuadorian region of Ecuador. Our people’s waters are being contaminated, we are experiencing much more flooding than ever before, our oceans are contaminated and hurting the sea life that lives there, houses in the Andean regions are being collapsed due to mining, our indigenous people are threatened and persecuted for defending their lives and their right to the land that they and their ancestors rightfully have had for decades. Not to mention our government’s false statements of “protecting” these communities and “investing” in hopes to take the country out of poverty. If we continue to depend on the extractive industry to maintain balance in the country, we will not be able to progress socially or economically.

How has the climate crisis affected you personally?

Ilana: When I visited California last year, I returned with smog inhalation issues, which had me relying on two inhalers multiple times a day for nearly two months. That fed both my anxiety and depression due to inaction and my own feelings of not doing enough for the planet.

Sophie: I have asthma so the air quality affects me greatly. In addition to this, our trees are quite integral to my town's identity so their death affects our morale. Sometimes, it gets so hot or cold that I am unable to walk to work or school.

Keyra: As a descendant from the Andes and the Afro Ecuadorian region of Ecuador, Esmeraldas, taking care of nature and letting it take care of you is ingrained into my culture. To me, the climate crisis is erasing my cultural practices and roots. It is erasing my identity and the identity of others around the world who also have this beautiful culture.

Ethan: To be honest, I’m privileged enough that I haven’t been severely affected. I don’t have asthma or diseases like that which are worsened by climate change and pollution. It’s been hotter here than it has been, but I can get through it safely. I partake in climate action for others who are being affected right now and the horrible effects it will bring in only a few decades.

How do you balance activism with schoolwork?

Sona: It’s actually really hard for me to do this because I go to one of the most prestigious schools in the country, and I also dance for 3-4 hours a night. I toned down on the amount of activism that I do by not applying for big positions in the organizations that I work with. However, I’ll be homeschooled next year so I can focus more on ballet and activism.

Aurora: I try the best I can! My parents are pretty strict about schoolwork and getting good grades, and for them that always comes first. So it can be a lot sometimes, especially as a junior in high school, but I take it day by day. I try to schedule my meetings and calls and stay organized, but I'm definitely not perfect! Activism is greatly rewarding for me though and I love it, so it gives me motivation to do well in school so I can spend more time on activism.

What are important factors that contribute to your wellbeing? (ex. sleep, exercise)

Grace: Activism! Theatre. Friendship. Sleep. Reading. Exercise. Good food. Rest. Family time. Time with our hamsters.

Sophie: Sleep affects my productivity but not my mood. I think that the people I'm around heavily influence my wellbeing as it influences how comfortable I am in whatever environment.

Ethan: I exercise regularly, eat healthily, and try to sleep at least 8 hours every night, but sometimes 7 is closer to what I get. Occasionally, I meditate. Maintaining strong relationships is also key.

How do you balance activism with your own wellbeing?

Oliver: This has been somewhat of a challenge for me as an introvert. The big thing I have been doing is taking periodic breaks for maybe 2-3 days and then coming back after that fully reinvigorated. I know it's not the most ideal setup, but it's the only way I can think of to balance the activist lifestyle with the reality of that trait.

How do you practice self-care?

Claire: I think this is a bit stereotypical but I love skincare and face masks. Also even watching Netflix while working can help me a lot. I also am trying to eat healthier and enjoy cooking.

Ilana: I make sure to schedule fun activities that are rejuvenating and make sure I get enough sleep. I also try to keep in contact with my friends who are my support system.

Sophie: I try to hang out with people who I know appreciate me and care for me and I make sure to de-stress by just listening to music for a solid hour or so every day.

Can you discuss your experiences with ‘eco-anxiety’?

Sona: When I was in 8th grade, I was so anxious about climate change to the point where I didn’t want to go to college, get married, or have kids because I thought that it would be a complete waste of time and money. I even planned my career as a dancer so that it wouldn’t conflict with my shortened lifespan.

Grace: I sometimes just feel so panicky. I breathe faster, I feel a weight in my chest. I feel trapped and there's nothing I can do. I pace. I try to get up and do something but often I'm in bed or in a public space and there's no activism to be done. It gives me insomnia as well and often, I lie awake feeling a weight in my stomach and pressure on my chest.

What do you think are the root causes of climate anxiety?

Grace: Fears for our lives, futures, children. Fears for others. For family. The fact that the governments are doing next to nothing. And the lack of time we have.

Oliver: I think the root cause is that we grow up in a culture where we're expected to live a full life, yet the reality is that our future will look drastically different from that of every prior generation. The anxiety comes out of a sense of uncertainty in what the future holds mixed with a feeling of helplessness because the people who should be dealing with this (politicians, leaders, etc.) are neglecting to do so.

Are there ways to alleviate its impact on youth, especially youth climate activists?

Keyra: We have to remember we aren’t in this fight alone. Organizations like Polluters Out have alleviated my climate anxiety because I’m surrounded and working along with youth from all over the world. I am constantly reminded that the youth, united together is powerful and more than capable of pushing climate action forward.

Aurora: One way that I have found that helps me is just talking with others about it, especially youth activists. Many youth activists have had similar experiences as me, and it makes me feel so much better that I can talk about what I'm feeling with others! One thing is surround yourself with people you love and those who make you happy, and always take care of yourself first. Only a healthy climate activist can save our world and make it healthy as well!

Why do you think the youth have the power to change the world?

Claire: We are at the forefront of all crises. We know our worth and our power. We are angry and passionate. We aren't letting anyone get in our way. We've got the drive and hunger for justice and that's how we will change the world.

Aurora: People listen to youth and we have the ability to tell moving and powerful stories. We are the ones being most affected by these different crises, and it's our generation and our future generations that we are fighting for.

How can young people get involved in advocacy or activism?

Keyra: Social media is a very powerful tool and easy to use tool to start advocating and acting on climate change. Posting content, following other activists and organizations is such a powerful way to start. Young people can also join these organizations and get engaged through social media!

Oliver: One of the most eye-opening things for me was learning how easy it was to get involved and how welcoming and inclusive these organizations are. Seeing teenage climate activists giving speeches at the United Nations seems so daunting, but they're all just people, extremely competent and active people, granted, but people nonetheless. The community is so much smaller than I initially thought, but it's also very dedicated, and that's how so much gets done.

Any further comments?

Claire: I think we have to recognize all anxiety and especially eco-anxiety as legitimate fears. People tend to dismiss others’ anxieties too often and this is not the way to handle a problem.

Ethan: Honestly, there are so many times when I have biked down to the city and just sat out there for hours with a sign. Sometimes there are others, sometimes not. When I come back, though, I always feel better and more fulfilled than if I had gone to school.

These youth climate activists are all affiliated with Polluters Out, a global youth climate coalition dedicated to kicking the fossil fuel industry out of its sphere of influence.

Subscribe to our newsletter

View our latest posts

Subscribe to our newsletter