The One Thing Young Climate Activists Say You Must Do To Help Save The Planet

by Jo Yurcaba
Elaine Thompson/AP/Shutterstock

Young people in the U.S. say they don't want to be activists — but they feel like they have to be when the adults in charge of their country have failed to take action to protect the planet. Teens and young adults here and across the globe are founding nonprofits and marching to demand that elected officials support policies that protect the environment, rather than fossil fuel companies. And these teens and young adults aren't just talking the talk. When they're not striking from school, these climate change activists are taking daily actions, big and small, to help save the planet.

Young people led 2,300 school strikes in more than 130 countries worldwide on May 24, according to Vox. They demanded aggressive action from government officials, including more ambitious targets for curbing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Their momentum hasn't slowed down since. From Sept. 20 to 27, young people worldwide will strike again "to demand an end to the age of fossil fuels and climate justice for everyone," according to a website for the event, which is called the Global Climate Strike.

Teens and young adults are also taking daily actions to live greener lives. Here, six young climate activists tell Bustle about the biggest day-to-day changes they've made to help combat climate change. They've all made a few shifts in their daily routines to help reduce their carbon footprint, because individual actions do add up. But the single most important action they say they take, and that they encourage others to join, is advocating for systemic change that holds corporations, the biggest polluters and drivers of climate change, accountable.

Jamie Margolin, 17

Bryant Fisher

Jamie Margolin, who founded the youth climate organization Zero Hour with friend and activist Nadia Nazar when she was 15, tells Bustle the majority of what she does is "system change" advocacy that holds corporations accountable for their environmental impact.

"The majority of what everyone should do is system change, and the little eco-friendly things here and there are the cherry on top," she says.

Margolin points out that just 100 companies, including ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron, have been responsible for 71% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, according to a 2017 report from the Climate Accountability Institute.

"It's very noble, it's very important to reduce your own carbon footprint, do what you can," Margolin says, going on to compare the impact an individual person is having on the planet to lighting a match. "We're all distracted trying to put out our own matches while these big corporations are blowtorching everything."

That's why she considers her advocacy work to be her daily action to reduce climate change. In addition, she says she takes the bus every day, and goes thrift shopping when she needs clothes rather than turning to "fast fashion," which is inexpensive clothing produced and marketed by massive brands — often with little regard for the sustainability of the clothing materials or the impacts of the factories where the clothes are made.

Margolin suggests that people work to not have their leisure activity be "accumulating stuff," and that in addition to taking that step, that they get involved in local efforts in their community to hold companies accountable or help protect the environment.

Aracely Jimenez-Hudis, 22

Aracely Jimenez-Hudis, a member of the leadership team at Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization that advocates for political action on climate change, tells Bustle that she's been a vegetarian for her whole life.

"That has a lot to do with my family, my entire family are vegetarians," she says. "And I do use a reusable water bottle every day. I recently got a metal straw."

Still, Jimenez-Hudis says the biggest change she has made to her daily life to combat climate change is getting involved in advocacy work that aims to change the system and hold corporations and government officials accountable.

"I am trying to do everything that I possibly can, but I will say that the most fulfilling thing that I've done to tackle the climate crisis is definitely to be involved with Sunrise Movement," she says. "And being able to work with other folks my age on a daily basis to tackle the climate crisis on a systemic level."

Jimenez-Hudis says that one of the easiest ways to get involved in that systemic change is by joining millions of others in the Global Climate Strike on Sept. 20.

"I think the biggest thing that folks can do coming up is honestly just get walking out of school, walking out of class, walking out of work, and joining the global climate strikes," she says.

Isra Hirsi, 16

Liv Ferguson

Isra Hirsi, executive director at US Youth Climate Strike, which encourages youth to strike from school, says that she combats climate change in her daily life by bringing it up in conversation regularly.

Hirsi, who is also the daughter of Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, says she doesn't like to think about combating climate change as something that can be helped by a single daily action.

"I as an individual can't solve the climate crisis, and I shouldn't frame my own advocacy and activism toward 'it's my fault,'" she says.

Hirsi says educating others is her form of taking individual, daily action to combat climate change, especially because the climate debate is dominated by white voices.

"I think being a black woman within the space is a form of resistance against all of these ideals and systems that are built against the black and brown body," she says.

Haven Coleman, 13

Haven Coleman, the 13-year-old founder of US Youth Climate Strike, says she first became involved in climate activism because she loved sloths. While researching sloths one day, she found out that they are being killed by deforestation. And after researching deforestation, she found out about climate change. She says she decided she had to take action, because "the adults apparently ruined everything."

So Coleman started going to the state capitol in Denver, Colorado, where she lives, every Friday while striking from school. She's been striking for 38 weeks so far. She attends town hall and city council meetings, and in an effort to be a little more green, she rides her bike to school. She also became vegetarian and mostly vegan, except for ice cream. When her clothing becomes worn, she'll also repurpose it for another use or cut it to rework it into a different piece of clothing.

Just getting involved in activism, generally, is the biggest change Coleman says she's made to help combat climate change. She says her family aren't scientists or politically vocal.

"Me becoming an activist sort of drew everybody in with me," she says. She has convinced her grandparents, who she says are conservative, to start recycling, and says "they're opening up to the idea of climate change." Educating her family has empowered her to speak out on the issue and "do everything that I can and try to fix this crazy messed up world and save it."

Coleman will be joining the Global Climate Strike in New York City on the Sept. 20, and will be attending the UN Climate Summit on Sept. 23.

Ayanna Lee, 17

Ayanna Lee

Ayanna Lee, executive director of the Youth Climate Action Team, a youth-run climate advocacy organization based in Wisconsin, says one of the biggest daily actions she takes to help fight climate change is just bringing it up in conversation while recognizing that people have different experiences.

For example, Lee has taken multiple environmental science classes in high school, which she knows aren't available to a lot of people. So she says she avoids being critical in the conversations she has around climate change, and just tries to figure out how people connect to environmental justice.

It's about "being willing to have a conversation with them, not just talking at them, and hearing them out — figuring out how we can meet in the middle and meet people where they are," she explains.

Alexandria Villaseñor, 14

Eric Wolfe for Earth Uprising

Alexandria Villaseñor, co-founder of US Youth Climate Strike and founder of Earth Uprising, a youth-led climate activist group, says she focuses on advocating for systematic change "because the individual actions that are recommended aren't enough to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions." Villaseñor points out that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2018 report says needs to happen if the United States and other developed nations are to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius when compared to pre-industrial levels.

If the planet warms more than that, it would lead to deadly heat waves, severe droughts, and irreversible impacts for biodiversity and ecosystems, according to NASA.

"When 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from a hundred companies all around the world, the only way we can change that is with students taking to the streets right now because we need change urgently," Villaseñor says.

One of the biggest changes Villaseñor made in her life to help combat climate change is striking every Friday, which she's been doing for the past 40 weeks.

"So that individual action of sitting on a bench outside the United Nations headquarters every Friday in solidarity with Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement," she says. "When it comes to those individual actions that you can take, I really encourage students to educate yourself. Educate yourself on the climate crisis, and educate yourself on why it's important to fight."

Villaseñor encourages young people join the Global Climate Strike on Friday, Sept. 20, or join an organization helping the environment in their community. The United States isn't taking action fast enough to meet the targets set by the IPCC's report, so people need to take to the streets, Villaseñor says: "We need people to urgently act on the climate crisis right now."

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.