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Youth Climate Activists: Our Answer to War Must Be Radical Exit From Fossil Fuel

Rallied by peers in Ukraine, youth climate activists are planning protests for peace around the world.

Climate activist Luisa Neubauer speaks at a demonstration wearing the slogan "Stop the war! #StandWithUkraine" in Berlin, Germany, on February 27, 2022.

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Just before noon on Tuesday, March 1, following a morning of intermittent air-raid sirens, a tweet went live from an account geotagged to Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine. “We are scared,” its author wrote. “We need you to be there for us.”

The tweet, posted to the account of Ukraine’s chapter of Fridays for Future — the youth activist group named after Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s now-iconic weekly protest — ricocheted quickly around online climate communities.

“We are youth climate activists usually fighting a crisis we didn’t cause, now finding ourselves at the front lines of a war we didn’t start,” the thread continued. “We ask for all of our brothers and sisters from Fridays for Future to go on the streets, to demand this war to end, to fight for peace in our name.”

Within a matter of hours, young people around the world had rallied in full force, and are now planning targeted actions for Thursday, March 3, which will mark one week since Russian troops launched their invasion into Ukraine. Youth-led protests are planned in nearly 60 cities, according to organizers, including Lagos, Nigeria; Lisbon, Portugal; and Las Vegas, Nevada.

“We’re seeing that climate justice and the call for peace has never been more intertwined than now, as we’re seeing a war being fought funded by fossil fuel exports taking people’s lives away,” Luisa Neubauer, 25, lead organizer with Fridays for Future Germany, told Truthout. “So for us, we know that there will be no real freedom or sustainable peace anywhere as long as there’s dependency on fossil fuels, and at the same time we need emergency help for Ukrainians,” she said.

Organizers are calling on school districts to let students join midday protests on Thursday, which officials have authorized for the first time in Neubauer’s hometown of Hamburg, Germany. Youth climate activists in the Fridays for Future network have also launched a protest-planning website modeled after the one they used to map and rally support for weekly global climate strikes during the swell of youth climate activism in 2018-2019. “We know how to do it,” Neubauer said.

Worldwide dependence on Russian oil and gas — the backbone of the Russian economy, constituting over 60 percent of Russian exports in 2019 — is one reason why Russian President Vladimir Putin could launch this attack without fearing stronger pushback from other world leaders.

Meanwhile youth activists are quick to point out that goals related to Russia’s fossil fuel exports and control of pipeline routes have driven previous military ventures directed by Putin, including Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, its support for dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria in 2011 and the annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

The Fridays for Future Ukraine’s call to action was not the only antiwar rallying cry in the youth climate community. “We believe that the threat of global war, which can potentially become nuclear, can be diverted if Gazprom, Rosneft and all oil and gas companies that actively cooperate with Putin’s regime, are immediately deprived of financial resources and political influence,” youth activists with Ukraine’s chapter of Extinction Rebellion (XR), another leading international climate activist organization, wrote in a separate emergency call to action. The group characterized Putin’s regime as aiding “in the project of planetary destruction and war against people and nature.” Russia is the third-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

“We are calling for blocking, picketing and climbing over the offices of oil and gas companies of the Russian Federation and all their business partners in the EU, UK and worldwide,” the call said, naming Gazprom, Rosneft, Transneft, Surgutneftegas and LukOil as priority sites for protest.

As of this writing, youth activists Truthout reached out to for comment did not confirm actions in response to XR Ukraine, which could be due to the rise in laws that criminalize protest that occurs within a certain distance of energy infrastructure or that could “hinder business.”

The European Union, which according to reporting by The New York Times, relies on Russia for more than 25 percent of its oil and 40 percent of its gas, is well positioned to accelerate plans to build fleets of renewables, young people say — if they can tap into ample political will.

Leading climate experts agree. “Imagine a Europe that ran on solar and wind power: whose cars ran on locally provided electricity, and whose homes were heated by electric air-source heat pumps. That Europe would not be funding Putin’s Russia, and it would be far less scared of Putin’s Russia,” founder Bill McKibben wrote for The Guardian. “We can do it fast if we want: huge offshore wind farms in Europe have been built inside of 18 months without any wartime pressure.”

Climate scientists and diplomats have similarly reiterated perspectives in line with activists’ calls for building massive renewable energy capacity as a conflict intervention. “Heat pumps for peace!” tweeted Leah Stokes, climate and energy professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, referring to the fossil fuel-free alternative to a furnace for heating and cooling buildings. Stokes’s comment was in direct response to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s post calling for even more rapid decarbonization in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on the heels of the latest, extremely dire, but still hopeful, comprehensive climate report.

Youth climate activists — who research shows have particular sway over the changing opinions on climate of their conservative parents — are in a unique position to heighten awareness of the links between the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and societal dependence on fossil fuels. Their potential to reach wide audiences is also profound: the youth climate movement grew with force in the years just prior to the pandemic, and many youth climate activist groups have digital media followings at their fingertips that rival in size those of established news organizations. According to the organization’s own granular statistics, Fridays for Future has consistently drawn hundreds of millions of people to the streets for its protests since November 2019.

Young people are also urging their elders not to get distracted from working to curb the climate crisis amid the conflict. “It’s not disrespectful for us to keep working and keep advocating for the climate during this crisis,” 16-year-old youth climate activist and founder of Earth Uprising, Alexandria Villaseñor, said on Twitter. “Actually, it’s imperative. Researchers and scholars have told us events such as this and climate collapse are linked. Our work is not a distraction, it’s part of the solution.”

Many activists — particularly those in Russia — are taking on serious risk to partake in the protests. Arshak Makichyan, 27, a member of Fridays for Future Russia, was recently detained with his wife ahead of an action, and both are awaiting trial on a slew of arbitrary charges. Makichyan told Truthout that engaging in activism in Russia is “almost unbearable,” adding that activists are being expelled from universities and workplaces, they are surveilled and blackmailed, and their families are being harassed.

“We are risking our freedom and lives in Russia, people in Ukraine are dying, so world leaders should do something,” Makichyan said. “Everyone should do something.”

Neubauer, the German climate activist, wonders if youth climate activist concerns — which have always been about international peace and well-being — will now, finally, be taken seriously. “For years we have been smiled at when we demand renewables, which are not only the cheapest and greenest energies, but also the most peaceful,” Neubauer posted on Twitter, from a protest in Berlin on February 27. “Autocrats don’t stop being autocrats, the answer to war must be a radical exit from coal, oil and gas.”

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