Our Burning Planet

CLIMATE ACTIVISTS

EcoMavericks: Gabriel Klaasen raising the alarm on the future of young people

Intersectional youth climate activist Gabriel Klaasen has been at the forefront of raising their voice for climate action. The 22-year-old works with people of different backgrounds, trying to get them to care about the effects of the climate crisis to encourage intersectional transformation.(Photo: Project 90 by 2030)

Young activists have been an inspiration to the world in raising their voices about the climate crisis and its effect on their future. Gabriel Klaasen has been at the forefront of climate activism and justice among South Africa’s young people, taking an intersectional approach and hoping the older generation will be inspired to take inclusive climate action.

Young climate activists have been at the forefront of calling for climate action, and Gabriel Klaasen has been one of the loudest voices in climate activism in Cape Town and the country.

Klaasen (22) told Daily Maverick he identifies as an intersectional youth climate activist. He works at socio-environmental justice organisations African Climate Alliance (ACA) as a youth coordinator, and at Project 90 by 2030 as a communications officer. 

The activist said they highlight how various areas of society intersect through action, education and advocacy; showing the links between social, economic and environmental justice. He also persuades individuals from communities he works with about why they should care, and how acting along intersectional lines can bring transformative change. 

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Youth climate activists stand before parliamentary gates stating their demands to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy. One of these includes an end to the approval of new coal-powered plants. (Photo: Project 90 by 2030)

“Through my work as a youth coordinator and a communications person I have the tricky yet important responsibility of showing that nothing is done and can be managed in silos,” Klaasen said. “Everything is interconnected, and the sooner we view it that way we can take action to address the issues at hand. I continue to be an activist because I know what’s at stake if I don’t.”

Sarah Robyn Farrell, an ACA coordinator and colleague of Klaasen, told Daily Maverick the activist had an aptitude for running projects, interacting with young people from various backgrounds, and being consistent and dedicated in showing up for climate justice:

“It is not that hard to find people who care about climate justice or who want to be part of the movement, but it is a rare thing to find someone who is willing and dedicated to reliably show up as a movement builder and not just a participator. 

“… movements need builders to grow and progress and Gabriel is just that — a movement builder — and that has been evident every step of the way.” 

One of Klaasen’s highlights in activism include being one of the key conveners and organisers for the 2020 and 2021 Global Strikes, the second of which took place at the gates of Parliament in Cape Town, under the banner of intersectional climate justice and tying together the work that Klaasen does. 

The activist has gained recognition for their work as one of the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans 2021. Being a queer, non-binary person of colour, as well as representing both communities well, has also been a highlight of his career. 

Before making the Mail & Guardian list, Klaasen’s interest in environmentalism was fostered through their school’s eco club. Here, he found a more intense and broader world view of environmental activism. 

His broader perception coupled with climate justice action has seen the activist participate in panels alongside some of the people they look up to in the activism space. Klaasen recently participated in a panel representing the voice of young South Africans before the Global Strikes. They shared the digital floor with young global climate activists including Swede Greta Thunberg and Uganda’s Vannessa Nakate, who Klaasen looks up to, alongside local activist Ayakha Melithafa and millions of activists globally.

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Climate activist Gabriel Klaasen uses a megaphone to communicate to a small crowd during the Global Climate Strikes of 2020, that climate action is needed, and needed now. (Photo: Project 90 by 2030)

“I find myself first and foremost looking to the movement here in South Africa. There is not a day that goes by when I am not either exhausted on the behalf of many of the activists or utterly awe-inspired by the work and effort that this growing intergenerational and cross-cutting civil society movement does,” Klaasen added. 

The 22-year-old’s efforts haven’t been without challenges. Tokenism, gatekeeping and condescension have been among the leading challenges when confronting leaders about climate action. 

“These are all methods and techniques used to try and keep us as young people far from the decision-making table. Told that we are valued only to completely turn us away, make decisions for us and for our future. These actions all negatively affect our mental, emotional and physical health drastically,” Klaasen said.

The gatekeeping, according to the activist, has been a stumbling block to young climate activists building a future they hope for. 

Local protests in support of the Global Strikes called for transformation in the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, where mainly young people called for an end to fossil fuel power generation to save their future and present. Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe is adamant that South Africa’s future energy supply is a combination of coal, nuclear and gas, with little enthusiasm for a complete transition to renewables.

Eskom has recently been named the world’s largest polluter in its field with the highest sulphur dioxide levels and an estimated 2,200 deaths from the harmful emissions. South Africa also holds the title of biggest polluter on the continent and 12th in the world. 

Farrell said Klaasen’s work was not only essential for the progress, transformation and ongoing work of the ACA, but was also a key voice for climate justice in South Africa in light of the country’s emissions status. 

“Our dependence on coal is having devastating impacts on the livelihoods of many people in our country and climate change will affect everyone, especially those in poor communities. This is why the work that activists like Gabriel are doing is so incredibly important. Gabriel also ensures that the focus of the work done around climate and environmental justice always aims to include those who are most affected by climate, environmental and economic impacts,” the coordinator said. 

Klaasen also enjoys singing and was part of a classical choir as a teenager — something his late grandmother encouraged, alongside other art forms. This is a skill he hopes to bring into activism… or rather, artivism. 

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Sarah Robyn Farrell calls for transformation at the #UprootTheDMRE protest, which was part of the Global Strikes. Farrell is a coordinator at the African Climate Alliance, working on climate action and a number of projects. (Photo: Project 90 by 2030)

Although activism takes up much of Klaasen’s time, they can be found enjoying parts of the planet they are fighting for through hiking. 

“Growing up on the Cape Flats you have very few chances to experience adventure outside of your community,” they said. “The escape that it provides became clearer to me after school when I became a youth mentor for Project 90 by 2030. Watching young people from the Cape Flats (neighbouring communities and my own) complain and laugh and sing as they made their way up let me see myself for a moment.”

To continue to be the inspiration that the world looks up to in young climate activists, Klaasen said they would like support in educating schools and communities about the climate and ecological crisis. He called on older persons to be more inclusive in climate action decision-making. 

“We need the older generations to realise that we can only continue to be this inspiration for the future and actually take action if we understand things and are included in the decisions,” Klaasen said. DM/OBP

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