“This crisis will take away our ability to live unless we do something,” Sabirah Mahmud, a 16-year-old youth climate organizer, told me earlier this month.
I had invited Mahmud — the Pennsylvania director for Youth Climate Strike, a national youth-led organization committed to climate justice for marginalized communities in the U.S. and globally — to share her thoughts on the climate crisis. As we sat together on a shaded patio in West Philadelphia in the muggy September weather, Mahmud turned to me with a look of determination on her face and explained why youth leadership is essential for the climate justice movement.
“We have a right to a future, and now that future is in jeopardy,” she told me. “We have all of these big dreams and we are always being asked: ‘What do you want to do in the future?’ I can’t have a response to that question because of this crisis. I don’t even know if we will have a future or what kind of future that will be.”
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Alongside Mahmud are hundreds of other youth climate organizers in Pennsylvania who are striking from school as part of Fridays for Future, taking to the streets in acts of dissent against the fossil fuel industry, developing protest art, educating the public, and demanding decision-making power in domestic and international deliberations about the fate of the planet.
Reil Abashera, a 16-year-old high school student and resident of Philadelphia, decided to join the struggle when she learned of the scientific reality of the climate crisis and understood the urgency of this moment.
“We don’t have 10 years to turn things around,” Abashera told me. “We have 18 months.”
The fact that these conversations are taking place in Philadelphia is not insignificant. The “City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection” has a long history of environmental racism that goes hand in hand with its history of state violence against Black people, disinvestment in public education, the criminalization of poverty and the segregation of communities of color. According to the Public Interest Law Center, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color in the city have long been disproportionately impacted by air pollution from oil and gas operations. This air pollution has resulted in increased rates of childhood asthma, cancer, depression and schizophrenia for many Philadelphians. As recently as July 2019, Philadelphia’s City Council approved the construction of a $60 million LNG plant in South Philadelphia — a section of the city already heavily impacted by environmental toxins. Mahmud and her peers, along with youth organizers from the Sunrise Movement, were actively involved in the fight against the LNG plant. They took part in street demonstrations, elevated dissenting voices from South Philadelphia, and attended public consultations organized by the city government.
Youth Climate Strike’s platform for climate justice provides an opportunity for young organizers like Mahmud and Abashera to tackle environmental racism in places like Philadelphia, and to begin to address the underlying causes of our current climate crisis more broadly. The list of demands endorsed by the organization are primarily based on the Green New Deal and include the implementation of measures to address environmental disaster for front line communities, the upholding and honoring of treaty rights and sovereignty for Indigenous peoples, long-term investments in housing and education, equitable transition to renewable energy, and the eradication of economic policies and structures that create conditions of massive wealth disparity — “Change the System Not the Climate” many protest banners declare.
Changing the Face of the Movement
Calling for radical changes to the social, political and economic systems that govern the United States, however, is only a partial answer to this multi-layered problem. Who speaks and organizes on behalf of the people and communities most impacted by climate disaster is of paramount concern to these young organizers. Leaders of the movement have the ability to shape the direction and political goals of social transformation.
Using the infrastructure of Youth Climate Strike, Mahmud and Abashera are challenging the problematics of what has been a largely white environmental justice movement. “We don’t see enough Black and Brown faces; it’s mostly white people,” Mahmud said.
These organizers are participating in Youth Climate Strike with the explicit intention of lifting up the leadership, experience and knowledge of Indigenous, Black and Brown communities whose presence is often undermined or erased in public debates about climate justice, even though these communities are facing the everyday realities of climate disaster and fervently advocating for change at the local level. Citing the growing numbers of people displaced by climate change, including those seeking refuge in the United States and confronting violent technologies of border control, Mahmud reinforced how vital it is for youth from immigrant backgrounds to be a strong presence in the movement. This emphasis on internationalizing is also reflected in the national leadership of Youth Climate Strike, largely young people of color. Mahmud hopes this will become a dominant trend across the climate justice movement.
By building a broad base of solidarity and action around climate justice that ties Indigenous efforts like the Red Deal, which identifies the limits of the Green New Deal and extends it even further, to Black, Brown and immigrant communities of color, Mahmud and Abashera are making it clear that the scope of climate justice must be comprehensive.
“Climate change is not a single-issue problem,” Mahmud said. “It is about migration, it is about poverty, it is about capitalism, it is about education, it is about colonialism. It is about health care and all of these things. We need to ask ourselves: What is really driving this problem?”
Climate Justice Must Be an Internationalist Project
Perhaps most striking about the way that Mahmud and Abashera organize for climate justice is the emphasis they place on internationalism. Though they have both grown up in Philadelphia, their interest in climate change transcends the colonial borders of the United States.
Abashera’s parents immigrated to the United States from Sudan, where temperatures continue to rise, water is becoming increasingly scarce, soil fertility is low and severe droughts have become common.
“It’s extremely hot there and it’s gotten to the point where it has become really difficult to find access to clean water, and the water that exists is contaminated,” Abashera told me. “I look at how we are living and consuming in the United States and it is such a privilege and we don’t realize what it means for us to live like this, and what living like this causes in other parts of the world. We need to pay attention to climate change here in Philadelphia, but we need to address it globally.”
For Mahmud, the daughter of immigrants from Bangladesh, the fight for climate justice must be waged with an indictment of the United States and an emphasis on the role the U.S. has played in creating the crisis in the first place.
“I knew these problems of flooding and rising sea levels, cancer rates and displacement existed in Bangladesh, but I never connected the dots,” Mahmud said. “I just thought that was their normal. I didn’t realize that is partly because of climate change and countries like the United States not taking responsibility for their actions. Countries that have little to do with the creation of climate change are being really affected by it. The United States needs to own this.”
The U.S. has contributed more to the problem of excess carbon dioxide than any other country on the planet. According to Worldwatch Institute, “The United States, with less than 5% of the global population, uses about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources — burning up nearly 25% of the coal, 26% of the oil, and 27% of the world’s natural gas.”
While these young climate organizers have been mobilizing protesters in the streets of Philadelphia, they are also operating from a spirit of internationalism — linking struggles for environmental justice in the neighborhoods in which they live with the devastation of climate crisis in the Global South. Their organizing transcends geographical boundaries, demanding that we open our eyes and act on our responsibility to communities domestically and to the rest of the world for a climate catastrophe that is, in fact, “made in America.”
For young leaders who are mobilizing as the world teeters on the edge of climate disaster, the urgency of this moment couldn’t be more apparent. In preparation for the upcoming global youth climate strike on September 20, 2019, Mahmud had this message to send to the politicians in Washington: “We can see you. You are not protected. And we’re coming for you.”
The time to rebel, they say, is right now.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.