Maverick Citizen


Young people and the climate crisis: the challenge of building an intersectional justice movement

Young people and the climate crisis: the challenge of building an intersectional justice movement
The writers argue that young people need to aim to bring the climate crisis into every space they can. (Photo: Supplied)

Every generation faces a particular defining political crisis. For our parents this crisis was apartheid and the end of white rule in South Africa, for our generation, this crisis takes the form of a more existential threat: a changing climate. 

The climate crisis is arguably the “biggest existential threat” the human race has ever faced, and even though scientists have been warning about it for decades, it seems to be building to a crescendo just as we enter the third decade of the 21st century.

Of course, you knew this, didn’t you? 

By now you’ve probably heard all sorts of news about the climate crisis. It’s almost incessant: the constant media coverage, the neverending social media posts, the weekly protests. All these are indicative of an ever-growing political force aptly named, the Youth Climate Justice Movement.

Picture this: millions of young people all over the world connected through the internet and social media. Millions of young people living in countries marred by severe drought, flooding, and loss of biodiversity. Millions of young people are affected by severe storms and extreme temperatures. 

Millions of young people with a common enemy.

It’s no secret that the youth are underrepresented in government. Even less of a secret is that governments either do not understand or refuse to acknowledge the gravity of the climate crisis. The rise of the social media age coupled with the increase in catastrophic events caused by climate change has led to an increase in anxiety amongst youth, anxious for their future. 

The planet is dying and our future is fading with it. 

The youth climate movement in South Africa 

Across the globe, the youth’s response to the climate crisis has resulted in the creation of a number of prominent climate justice organisations such as the Sunrise Movement (United States) and most notably, Fridays For Future (International). 

Many would say South Africa’s youth climate movement arrived late to the party; after months of global climate action, it wasn’t until June of  2019 when our very own Youth Climate Movement saw a substantial gain in coverage as well as a drastic increase in participation. The movement has since grown steadily larger with planned protests in September 2019 producing an exceptionally large youth turnout in the cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg.

All over South Africa, young people share in the fight for climate justice. As history dictates, South African youth have always been a force to be reckoned with and have always had the ability to steadily propel a movement forward. Prominent youth South African climate activists like Ayakha Melithafa and Raeesah Noor-Mahomed have been instrumental in highlighting South Africa’s major climate issues. However, everything hasn’t been rosy every step of the way.

The downfalls of the movement

The climate change debate has its origins in the mid-20th century when the greenhouse theory, a set of scientific findings that theorised that industrialisation was leading to climate change, first became widely accepted. Throughout the decades that followed, the focus would then shift away from a conservation-orientated discussion, to a more people-orientated one.

The problem with the people-oriented approach, however, arose when the media began to white-wash facts around climate change and reduced the climate movement to the few Western nations which they deemed would make the climate issue more marketable. The result of this is that poorer nations around the world, specifically those in the global South, who are most affected by climate change and climate-related disasters, have had their activism and campaigns pushed to the sidelines, never to receive the media attention they deserve.

This side-lining of non-Western climate activism became apparent in January of 2020 when Vanessa Nakate, a well respected Ugandan climate activist posed for a picture alongside the famed Greta Thunberg and a number of other young activists in Davos. When the famous image was published by the Associated Press, Vanessa had been cropped out of the photograph. 

This led to a massive uproar across social media drawing attention to the way in which activists from the global South/activists of colour have been subjugated by Western media houses.

Even when activists from the global South are included in media stories, they are often tokenised. 

One of the many stories that arose from this debacle is that of Karin Louise Hermes who wrote the article, “Why I Quit Being a Climate Activist” for Vice. Hermes expresses her frustration about being a Filipino activist living in Germany and writes: 

“I realised I would only be called upon when climate organisations needed an inspiring story or a ‘diverse’ voice”. These are not isolated incidents but rather examples of a global media trend.

The South African climate movement has also been criticised for being exclusionary, inaccessible, and filled with jargon that turns people from the movement’s doorstep. This lack of accessibility leads to some worrying statistics. 

In a survey we sent out, 96.8% of the participants agreed that the South African government should declare a climate emergency. However, only about 40% knew about the term, ‘Just Transition’  — a crucial concept in climate justice. For the average young person, the climate justice space can be very daunting. This is a significant hurdle because it means there are fewer people who can get involved and thus mass mobilisation — something that is vital if we want to achieve the future we want — becomes increasingly less likely.

The problem of the climate justice movement being inaccessible increases when we analyse the interviews of youth from environmental clubs in schools across the country. These can be viewed in the video attached to the article. 

While the dedication and loyalty the teens have to environmental protection must be admired, their extreme focus on individual change needs to be questioned. Kevin Anderson (not the South African tennis player, but a leading climate scientist from the UK) wrote an article for the The Guardian. In the article, he expressed his frustration that other UK-based climate scientists had been dodging the fact that while all humans have contributed to the climate crisis, not all humans have contributed equally. Calling for individual changes is definitely needed to combat climate change however according to the Carbon Majors Report, since 1988 only 100 companies are responsible for 71% of the world’s total emissions, “the wealthiest 10% are responsible for half of all emissions”, says Anderson. 

We do not have the time nor is it fair to expect drastic changes from every single person on the planet. We urgently need to demand a systemic change that will force those responsible for the climate crisis to change immediately. The climate justice movement is calling for that systemic change, but as yet we have not been effective enough in educating people about how desperate we are for systemic change. 


Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw provides a solution to these problems via her theory of intersectionality. The theory of intersectionality suggests that no justice, regardless of the context, can exist in isolation. This is because as human beings, we are multifaceted, and can thus be oppressed or marginalised in multiple different ways at once. Justice must be addressed in totality. For example, a black lesbian women is oppressed because of her race, gender and sexuality and thus feminism must be inclusive of both anti-racism and the promotion of the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.

What relevance does this have to the youth in South Africa with regards to the issue of climate change? 

The first wave of feminism was not intersectional. It existed primarily for white cis-heterosexual women. In response, the second and third wave of feminism prompted more intersectional afro-feminism. In the same way, the youth must, and is responding to the current climate justice movement, by promoting the inclusion of the Afro-feminism and Pride movements, and becoming increasingly Pro-Black as well as making the space easier to access. 

A part of intersectionality is also to focus on the struggles of the working class in South Africa, who are least responsible for the climate crisis but whose lives generally depend on the industries that are at fault for it. 

How do we hope to achieve intersectionality? 

The Collective Movement is taking the first steps by educating the South African youth about what climate change realistically means for them and their communities. Collaboration with various organisations, schools and unions has always been key in keeping the momentum of the movement, especially throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, where massive economic failures have made the lives of many struggling people much worse. 

For example, the climate crisis will disproportionately negatively affect women in developing countries/rural communities. The climate justice movement must actively promote the voices of women from difficult backgrounds and promote solutions that cater to their upliftment and the conservation of the planet.

As the youth, we all actively need to take up the call to action. We need to aim to bring climate change into every space we can. Educating ourselves and others about what the climate crisis will mean for South Africa. 

Social media is the youth’s prime platform to share knowledge and create awareness, let us utilise this and grow the climate justice movement in South Africa. At the same time, we must remember the shortfalls of social media-based activism and bring our activism to the real world by supporting already existing actions and creating our own civil disobedience.  

Everyone needs to promote intersectionality for the climate justice movement. Thus the youth can feel not only included in the movement but also actively empower themselves to lead and take action, promoting climate justice by broadening its reach and making its solutions more effective. Climate justice is not climate justice if it is not pro-black, feminist, pro-working class or doesn’t promote the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. 

Climate justice is not climate justice if it is not social justice. 

Our future 

The youth are the future, but they also hold much power in the present. How do we feel about our own future? 

In the survey, we sent out, when asked about hopes for the future about 45% of the responses were negative. These young people do not believe that the climate crisis can or will be adequately mitigated. One participant wrote: “to even have hopes to be alive in the future is affected by the climate crisis. The world’s population will soon die out with irreversible effects. I think the climate crisis will destroy the Earth’s inhabitants.”

While at times things can look grim, we need to remember that there are valid solutions to the climate crisis. We just need the passion to push them forward. 

About 34% of the responses were extremely optimistic, characterised by the belief that the crisis will be solved. We need this optimism, as one response reads: “Our futures can sometimes feel dooming but our generation is different, we are here to stand up against injustice and create change. We are the ones that will be affected by this unless governmental and legislative change is made. We are fighting for the right of our future.” 

The climate justice movement will continue through the lives of the youth working in the present to compel a genuine and adequate change in South Africa. However, the youth cannot simply be praised for speaking out and creating conversation, and it is clear that concrete political change needs to happen in order for the fight for climate justice to be fruitful. DM/MC

The writers are all members of The Collective Movement, an intersectional youth-based organisation focused on creating awareness among youth about the climate crisis. Yakhani Charlotte Mjiyakho, is an 18-year-old scholar based in Johannesburg. Les, a 20-year-old Comm. Design and Photography student and climate activist from Pretoria. Natalie Kapsosideris, an 18-year-old intersectional climate activist studying microbiology in Pretoria. Sera Farista, a 17-year-old intersectional environmental activist and scholar from Johannesburg. Skylar Thornton, a 19-year-old environmental activist studying earth sciences in Stellenbosch and Tariro Banganayi a 19-year-old climate activist currently studying Biology in Cape Town.

Find The Collective Movement on Instagram @thecollectivemvmt and Twitter @CollectiveMVT

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