Interviewing Fridays for Future: Does Inspiration Really Lead to Change?
Panoramic caught up with prominent Fridays for Future activists across the world. Russia, Uganda, Japan, Nigeria, and Brazil... young people everywhere are outraged and organising for a chance at change, but what do they achieve?
It is the 2019 United Nations Climate Change conference, colloquially known as COP 25. Hilda Flavia Nakabuye stands up to give her speech: “What will I tell the next generation if they ask me where I was and what I did when nature was being destroyed by selfish and greedy individuals?” There is silence in a room full of the world’s most powerful people. Hilda continues, “This is why every Friday we continue to go on to the streets for our future.” Fridays for Future (FFF), the movement originally started by Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, had quickly spread across the globe, something which Hilda, as the founder of the Ugandan branch, stresses to the crowd as necessary: “I do not understand why the most affected countries are always underrepresented [at COP] … voices from the global South deserve to be heard.”
More than two years later, we ask Hilda about COP 25, did it live up to her expectations? She responds with biting clarity: “We expected more countries to turn up and say ‘we have achieved these aims, however, we have had trouble implementing this particular goal.’” However, Hilda found that wasn’t the case. In reality, “it was about lobbying, lobbying, lobbying,” a trend exemplified by the presence of Shell’s CEO. Shell, Hilda notes, alongside 99 other corporations, are responsible for 71% of all carbon emissions. The CEO’s presence at COP seems to confirm suspicions that the UN were beholden to powerful interest groups and subsequently uninterested in seriously promoting environmentalism. Nevertheless, if you search COP 25 on YouTube you will be met with a flood of videos of both Greta Thunberg’s and Hilda’s speeches. The media and international organisations appear quick to collaborate, adopting these activists and profiting from their inspirational rhetoric, but do they take their ideas seriously? Valentina, from Brazil, has doubts: “We are seen as those inspiring kids, they’re like, they’re inspiring, yes, but I won’t let them … actually interfere with my policies…”
This patronising and shallow acceptance, however, is not the only obstacle that these activists face. In authoritarian states, powerful actors prefer to dismiss activists with outright mockery, than to construct even a superficial acceptance. Arshak, from Russia, mentioned state media’s targeted campaigns against figureheads such as Greta Thunberg, ridiculing her to undermine and discredit FFF’s work. Hilda outlined similar tactics being employed by the Ugandan government, where climate activists have been conspiratorially tied to the opposition candidate, Bobi Wine. Exploiting Wine’s popularity with Uganda’s youth, the dictatorial government has wilfully misrepresented the similarly youthful climate movement as politically partisan to justify its suppression. As Hilda recalls, during one strike: “[We were] arrested for 8 hours or more and they [the police] were saying that we belonged to a political party… we tried to explain to them that we are an environmental movement, but they wouldn’t listen.” With the burden of this connotation, Hilda admits that “it is hard for us to sell our message,” without being dismissed as politically motivated troublemakers. What is striking is that in both cases, an authoritarian state is encouraging the mockery and dismissal of its own youth, in attempts to distract from the looming climate crisis.
It is easy to dismiss these activists as naive... But what we find in these interviews are young people with clear understandings of both their personal and contextual limitations.
The disparities between the obstacles faced by these young activists speak to the necessity of a local understanding in environmental advocacy, something often overlooked in discourse that enthusiastically emphasises climate change as a global issue. Arshak explains, “In Europe, you can organise 100,000 people on the streets in a few weeks, in Russia it’s not that easy, many people are afraid…” Not only are they afraid; protest also requires permission from the state. Arshak was not deterred, instead, he redefined protest, engaging in weekly “solitary pickets” - the last legal recourse for public protest in Russia. Along a similar vein, Mei, a member of Fridays for Future Kyoto, explains the importance of the semantics of protest in Japan: “I think if a protest was on the news people would focus more on the negative side of the protest - like it's dangerous… rather than… they are trying to change an important thing.” To avoid the violent connotations protests have accrued, FFF Kyoto have simply renamed them: “We call them marches, not protests.” This need to adapt rhetoric to cater to different audiences is a recurring theme across all our conversations, and it is perhaps this flexibility that has allowed FFF to flourish, not just in western Europe, but across the globe.
Listening to these five impassioned individuals speak, however, we are all struck by the notion that the differing circumstances and subsequently diverse approaches across locations have not diluted the essential unity that underlies the global movement. Take Arshak: in the face of state organised intimidation, he persists, seemingly unfazed by the potential risks. We ask him if he has ever been afraid. He describes his arrest and imprisonment for organising a strike: “The scary thing was waiting for the trial... but it wasn’t so bad, because… I knew a lot of people were striking in different cities in support of me.” In this way, the global climate community provides invaluable security to those risking their freedom in this struggle.
On the other hand, Valentina discusses a more localised solidarity, citing the importance of her recent campaign SOS Amazonia that sought to protect indigenous people within the Amazon Rainforest, in spite of Bolsonaro’s belligerently anti-environmental administration. Yet, a quick search of the campaign brings up a host of posts by activists across the world, rallying around this Brazilian effort. Contextual considerations, it seems, never become a pretext for fatalistic despair; rather they fuel localized resistance, which is in turn supported by a far-reaching FFF community.
This is not to say that regional circumstances have not forcibly curbed the ambitions of several activists. During our interviews, we ask each of these activists to specify ideal policy prescriptions, and their reticence is telling. Though comfortable to discuss the issue in generalities, few are willing to offer up practical solutions. In this respect, Adenike is an outlier, providing tangible suggestions. She describes how in Nigeria, for many people, “there is no connection between the [famine] and the climate crisis,” explaining that climate does not feature much in the national curriculum. Her solution is simple: education. This has the dual goal of increasing understanding of climate change and increasing employability for those who are otherwise vulnerable to poverty and the enticing extremism of Boko Haram, two issues she believes to be exacerbated by Nigeria’s environmental problems. For her, if Nigeria can redistribute the 35% of jobs which rely on agriculture, then the exacerbation of natural disasters, caused by climate change, will have less of an impact on people’s livelihoods. To this, she adds “ecofeminism” - an intersectional and grassroots approach whereby women, as the first victims of the poverty and violence exacerbated by climate change, “can also be the [starting point] for a solution.”
In contrast, others were simply happy to defer to experts, scientists, or well-meaning politicians. Though initially puzzling to us, this silence does start to make sense, when contextualised with the dismissal and intimidation we have seen that they face. Some simply do not have the luxury to indulge in policy reform agendas; what is assumed to be essential in a liberal context becomes a utopian fantasy under repression. As Arshak emphasises: “If we want to change climate policy in Russia we need to do something to change our system to a more democratic one… we need to do something about terrible corruption.” Thus, democracy, something seemingly peripheral to the climate movement, becomes the central focus, a prerequisite for further and more precise action. Valentina similarly struggles under Bolsonaro, adding that she, at the very least, wants the Brazilian government to “stop committing environmental crimes … [and] voluntarily making things worse.” Whether it is the destructive will of Bolsonaro’s government, or the strict authoritarianism of the Russian and Ugandan states, the looming barrier of a single obstacle is such that it would be unrealistic for activists to conceive of future plans beyond a liberation from the constrictions of the status quo.
Yet it is not only those advocating for change under repression whose ideals are arrested by circumstances. Although Mei and the other members of FFF Kyoto frequently meet to read and take a position on government policy, her own vision is tempered by Japan’s economic reality. “Ideally for me, we would go back to how we lived before… but many in the cities would disagree” she comments. Mei is aware that Japan, as the world’s 5th largest carbon emitter, would be unlikely to rescind its high living standards and long life expectancy to “return to nature.” Therefore, her expectations remain contextually realistic, with an emphasis on green technology, and adopting a decentralised approach by encouraging competition within Japan’s local government system.
It is easy to dismiss these activists as naive, citing FFF’s absence of a universally applicable agenda as proof. This is what powerful actors do, both when they superficially celebrate activists to greenwash limited action, or even more detrimentally, when they mock them to distract from destruction; they fail to listen. But what we find in these interviews are young people with clear understandings of both their personal and contextual limitations. The idea that one has to be an expert to realise action on climate change ought to occur is a deflection on the part of those that have the power and expertise to make changes. For those who have neither political power nor academic expertise, is it really so wrong to very broadly prioritise doing the right thing over precise political actions? These activists focus on what is within their control: climate awareness and how to achieve it within their national context. They occupy a uniquely valuable position, straddling the divide between global concerns and local needs, generating culturally conscious conversations across the world. Our interviews show that climate change, though often discussed in terms of humanity collectively, cannot be tackled with a one-size-fits-all approach. Listening to the diversity of concerns and aims, across several nations, it is hard to perceive a unifying principle beyond the most generic sense of environmental consciousness. Democratic reform for Arshak and ecofeminism for Adenike are fundamental to their activism in a way that is not necessarily congruent with the experiences and needs of other nations. But this is precisely why Hilda is right to demand a greater diversity of voices on climate issues, because without the groundwork of these young activists, from all parts of the world, the international community is both woefully unwilling and organisationally unprepared to tackle climate change.