“WHAT DO WE WANT?” Megaphone in hand, perched atop the steps, I shouted loudly as thousands of voices thundered back, “Climate Justice!” I felt empowered. My voice had been heard. People listened and responded to my plea. They, too, cherished our land along with the plants, animals, and humans that live on it. This is about infinitely more than saving polar bears, I told them. Across the world humans are breathing in toxic chemicals or searching for shelter after catastrophic storms. It is extremely frustrating to see intense flooding outside my window coinciding with the rejection of multiple environmental bills, I yelled.
As I marched in September 2019 with more than 8,000 environmental activists, I had the honor to lead our chants. I experienced a deep sense of unity and a common desire for meaningful change: not only that we need it, but that we are capable of making this change happen. [Yet Americans are] falling behind. We stay silent, viewing the climate crisis as a distant problem.
We witness people in communities next to power plants, trash incinerators, and refineries breathing polluted air and suffering the health consequences. We witness inaction and fighting in legislatures and Congress. We read the newest reports from scientists about the worsening of climate change, and understand we are running out of time.
No matter who we are: Black, white, or brown; they, he, or she; rich or poor; living in the city or the country; nine years old or ninety-nine, we are all witnesses.
In 2017, I stumbled upon a YouTube video titled “Four Years of Trash: One Jar,” which featured Lauren Singer and her four years’ worth of trash in a 16-ounce mason jar. I was completely taken aback and wondered how this was possible. I found out that Lauren lives a zero-waste lifestyle, a philosophy that encourages reuse of almost everything, with a goal of sending no waste to landfills.
I watched all her videos, which showed zero-waste alternatives to products people use every day that create massive amounts of waste. I was inspired. I never realized how unsustainably we live our lives, and how easy it is to make a few changes that greatly reduce the amount of trash we make.
I decided to try living zero-waste myself. Many people, including my family at first, were skeptical and told me the things I was doing were only a drop in the bucket. But it didn’t feel like that to me. Every step I took gave me confidence.
When I did something out of the ordinary, I got interesting looks or questions about why, for example, I dry my hands with a reusable cloth instead of paper towels. I would tell people who asked that I was trying to live more sustainably and reduce my waste.
One thing I have learned is that most people are willing to do the right thing, but often don’t realize how they are being impacted by climate change and that there are things we can do.
I had never really thought about climate change before. It seemed like a big task — something to leave up to politicians. I was only a teenager.
I visited my family in Ethiopia and Somalia during the summer of my freshman year in high school. It didn’t click for me that my family struggled financially, not having enough money to buy food or clothing for themselves. My aunt would slaughter goats and sheep and make celebratory meals for us that were only for special occasions. Despite having very little, my family was still very grateful for all that they had.
Two years after my visit, a drought hit Somalia. More than 2.9 million people have been affected by the drought since 2017. There was famine, killing most livestock, including all of my family’s animals. There was nothing to eat, only unclean water to drink, and diseases like measles and cholera began to spread. My people were dying.
I can’t say absolutely that this drought was due to climate change. But I know that climate change has played an influential role in making weather more extreme. Because of our fossil fuel society, there will be more droughts, more floods, more hurricanes — not just in other places around the world, but in Minnesota, too.
I realized that the little things I do matter, like talking to my friends about climate change. I can do big things, too. In 2018, I helped to organize a summit of 100 youth to meet with the Governor and lawmakers, to urge them to fight for climate justice.
Climate change is significant in our lives, whether we realize it or not. It is time that we open our eyes to the suffering of others and understand the weight of the reality that we all face. It is not enough to have compassion; there must also be action.
I am 16 years old. I live in Duluth, and I am disabled.
With the climate crisis, it is my generation’s future that is at stake. My generation will have to deal with the gases and pollution pumped into the atmosphere and destroying the Earth. Global warming is increasing the frequency and severity of natural disasters, and these disasters disproportionately harm people with disabilities.
Climate crisis movements must be intersectional. Too often, people with disabilities are left out. We have become what one writer calls “expected casualties” or “unpreventable losses,” with even the people fighting the crisis frequently failing to remember us. We have become background characters in a movement that will leave us especially vulnerable.
Minnesota, and especially my hometown of Duluth, is already being touted as a center for environmental refugees. People are going to move here, and some of these people are going to have disabilities.
Is our federal government, which has done so little to mitigate the crisis, going to aid them? The government already falls short in the aid it provides people with disabilities. It must start planning for how it can best provide assistance now. But it doesn’t need to start from scratch. The government can turn to excellent work already done by organizations such as the World Institute on Disability.
During Hurricane Katrina, a woman drowned in her home because she couldn’t walk away to escape. An intersectional movement must include those who are disabled, and the government must provide assistance. Too often we are ignored or marginalized.
We will not be silent. I will not be silent.
My grandfather, Wolde Tensae, passed away when I was 19 years old, only five years after I met him. He was an Eritrean citizen from the region of Keren. A year later, Eritrea was at war—a conflict that began as a minor border dispute.
The implications of war are many. During those years severe drought resulted in famine, particularly because most government funds were spent on weapons and other instruments of war.
There are many things war takes away from us. The loss of connection to the land, and of so many cherished lives, is the currency of war. I don’t
know what my grandpa would say if he were alive today. I don’t think he would connect the crisis of the climate to warfare. But I can see that warfare is a symptom of climate change. Even here in the United States, our military has said that climate change exacerbates conflict.
My relationship with the natural world was always transactional until I moved to Minnesota, where water and other natural beings are abundant. I saw no famine, no sanitation problems, and no shortage of firewood. Amid this abundance, I was able to see the privilege I possess — a privilege so great it has left me with the responsibility of trying to inspire other people’s kinship with the Earth.
These excerpts are from “Eyewitness: Minnesota Voices on Climate Change,” a book produced by Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy. Details at ClimateGen.org. © 2020. Used by permission of the publisher.