How young people are transforming climate change activism

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Young activists participate in the Global Climate Strike in London on March 15, 2019. Photo by Garry Knight/Public Domain

September 25 is the Global Day of Climate Action. This time last year, marches and demonstrations took place across the world, including in LA. Everything’s more subdued this year because of the pandemic, but that hasn’t diminished the message from teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. She spoke today outside Parliament in Stockholm: “The climate crisis has never once been treated as a crisis. And unless we treat it as a crisis, we won't be able to so-call solve it.”

In LA, many groups are staying on the sidelines today out of respect for the Black Lives Matter movement, not wanting to hijack their stage or overshadow their message during significant racial unrest in this country.

KCRW speaks with two young climate activists:

Chandini Brennan Agarwal, 17, is a junior at New Charter West High School in West LA. She’s also the Communications Director for Youth Climate Strike LA. 

Jesus Villalba Gastelum, 17, just graduated from Southeast High in South Gate, and now attends CSU Stanislaus. He is one of the founders of Youth Climate Strike LA and Youth Climate Strike California.

Lee van der Voo also joins to add context. She’s an investigative journalist and author of the forthcoming book, “As the World Burns: The New Generation of Activists and the Landmark Legal Fight Against Climate Change.” 

KCRW: Chandini, what inspired you to become a climate activist?

Chandini Brennan Agarwal: “About a year and a half ago, on March 15, 2019, there was the first major global youth-led climate strike. And it was just so incredible to me to see people my own age being leaders and taking action and bringing together thousands of young people in the fight for climate justice. And that was so incredibly inspiring for me. And that's how I got involved with climate activism.”

Jesus, you organized that. How did you get involved in this movement?

Jesus Villalba Gastelum: “Yeah. So March 15 was very, very busy. I originally didn't really see myself planning or organizing any kind of protest. … I'm undocumented. And so the previous years, 2016, 2017, and 2018 were very tumultuous years for people in my community. And I was already kind of very frustrated. And so I was very, very angry already. And so I wanted to protest. I just wanted to process everything. 

So 2019 was the year where I was showing up to all of these different kinds of protests. And so when I heard about March 15, I was looking for where to sign up, to show up, just looking for details. And I didn't find any. And so I was kind of like, well, how is Los Angeles going to miss out on something so important? … I put up an Instagram page. And my idea was to get that going so that everyone could meet, and then start organizing.

… And then I ended up helping directly plan March 15. And it was just, I believe four or five of us at that point. And about 1000 people showed up. … It was definitely not something that we expected. 

… From there, everything just kind of picked up. Attendees that were there on March 15 reached out that they wanted to help plan. And that's kind of where I met Chandini. But also … there were so many helpful adults and so many, some of the elders, that were there to guide us through our activism in the first few months. So that's kind of how I got more into the climate space.”

You say that you were angry about what was happening with undocumented people in the United States. So why did you choose this fight instead of spending all your energy on immigration?

Jesus Villalba Gastelum: “Well, I feel like a lot of people think that immigration is so isolated from other issues. But the fact of the matter is that immigration is so tied into everything else. 

My mother has shared with me a story. … She comes from this rural village in Mexico called Tepalcate, and when she was my age, a drought struck our area. … There was this creek running through, and that creek never dried up. And so they would drink water from there, they would bathe with that water. And when the late 90s came, a drought struck, and my mother was forced to wring water out of mud to be able to survive. 

So I feel like there's so many issues like that to a lot of immigrant communities that I feel like a lot of people think that climate is about saving the turtles or the melting ice caps, which is definitely important. But it's very much a human issue of people needing to survive now.”

We're definitely seeing that up close now in California, with the wildfires and people just losing everything and burned out of their communities.”

Lee, these intersections of climate and other issues, does that make this youth-led movement different from previous environmental movements?

Lee van der Voo: “I think so in many ways. Yeah. I mean, we're talking to two young people, we're part of a generation who are, for lack of a better phrase, the affected generation. They're going to grow up and deal with the consequences of inaction on climate change. And that is dovetailing with a lot of other issues in society, the immigration issue, racial justice issues that are so important for young people now.” 

Chandini, you didn’t want to mount a big protest this year because of respect for Black Lives Matter. But why not join forces and have a massive climate strike and make it about racial justice, and include all of these groups together?

Chandini Brennan Agarwal: “Yeah, so that's definitely something that we talked about. And we reached out to Black Lives Matter youth. … They're so so busy right now. And I don't think they have the capacity to work with us right now. And we didn't feel it was respectful or right of us to just do it without them.”


Chandini Brennan Agarwal says she was inspired to become a climate activist after seeing so many people her age participate in the global climate strike in March 2019. Photo courtesy of Chandini Brennan Agarwal

Jesus Villalba Gastelum: “Well, I think something that's important to note about the climate movement in Los Angeles is that since last year, it's been predominantly led by Black and indigenous people of color. So people like myself and Chandini, we’re people of color. And we haven't built this movement in Los Angeles because we have elders that have guided us and that have been doing this for years. But we are definitely a bigger demographic when it comes to organizing for climate justice today. 

So what people forget is that it takes a lot for marginalized communities to get out and even have the time to organize. So for me, 2020 started off very rough immediately, because in January, my community was sprayed with jet fuel. And so that led to a lot of respiratory and a lot of issues across my body that I didn't even know could happen when being exposed to jet fuel. And so this was in southeast LA, where so many Black and Brown communities live. 

And just to go from there, the pandemic has hit undocumented communities especially hard. I mean, today, I'm in the single bedroom of five people living in the quarters. And I'm working 40 hours a week just to be able to help sustain my family and my family back home. So it's definitely a very difficult situation for a lot of people of color. Because not only do we not have the privilege of being able to take time off to organize in the first place, but now we also have the odds stacked against us even more, because of all of these different issues coming to a head this year.”

Lee, older generations of environmental activists, are they helping this group with some of these problems that Jesus just raised?

Lee van der Voo: “Yeah, absolutely. I think at least on the climate front, one thing that I hear from young organizers is that there is a lot of overlap, as we've discussed between climate activism and other types of activism. One being gun reform. And when I've talked to folks who were really involved in that movement post-Parkland, what they say is one of the major challenges they had was that they didn't have this existing established infrastructure to help them carry the movement forward. They had to build a lot of it. And it lost momentum at a point. 

I think what you see in the climate movement is you see a lot of established groups that have been here for a while, and activists who have been active for many years, kind of reaching down into the next generation and really pulling people up into this work. And I think it's sustaining in that way.”

Chandini, do you want to work with older climate activists? Or do you want to forge your own path?

Chandini Brennan Agarwal: “It's a balance. … There's definitely a lot of older climate activists who have been like mentors to us and helped guide us through our activism. And I'm definitely so appreciative of those people. 

But at the same time, I think that … the youth climate movement is slightly different from older climate movements in the way that I feel like the youth climate movement is much more intersectional with its work. And that's definitely something that's so important to a lot of youth activists. And that's definitely something we want to keep within movement.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to ban the sale of new gas-powered vehicles in 15 years. He also wants to ban fracking in California. What is your reaction to that announcement? 

Jesus Villalba Gastelum: “I'm trying to be as positive as possible without being cynical because of the way that our government has reacted to our demands in the past. 

We've had the campaign going called California Youth Versus Big Oil. And we've been demanding that the governor stop, among other things, allowing permits for fracking. But there are so many issues where our government is being so two-faced. Like I believe earlier this year, Los Angeles released this Green New Deal, and it failed to mention oil anywhere in it, despite the fact that oil is being extracted in our communities. Like there could be a little girl playing in her bedroom, and literally on the other side of the wall, there's this oil rig. 

And so I feel like it's very performative the way that our governor and our local governments are acting in the face of climate change, especially the the ban on gas-powered vehicles in the few years. 

And so I definitely feel like any kind of action is appreciated, but at the same time, we know that they can be doing a lot more and doing it a lot more effectively. And so when I see the governor calling for the ban to fracking, when he can immediately do it himself, my first reaction is to just laugh and shake my head.”

Chandini, what do you think of the governor's proposals and what's happening in California with efforts to reduce greenhouse gases?

Chandini Brennan Agarwal: “Yeah, I definitely agree with a lot of what Jesus said. Because I feel like the governor, to avoid having to do it actually himself, he says things like, ‘Oh, well, we'll do more studies, we'll get more data.’ But we have the data, we have the studies. It's him that needs to act. And just the way that he's talking about it … kind of takes the pressure away from him, and puts on someone else to act, even though it's his job to do that.”

Lee, is this a new era in terms of attitude about climate change? Where will young activists lead us? How are they positioned to make this a more urgent fight and convince more people that big action needs to be taken?

Lee van der Voo: “I think young people have the moral voice on climate change. They're the people who will be most affected by what is happening in the world. And they get to be the voice of reason here. I think anything that they might step up and say, we should be listening. 

And the fact that we're talking to folks today who are so well versed in these issues, and yet can't vote yet, really speaks to the reasons why the adult population really needs to be listening closely. Because this is a tremendous issue for young people, and yet, they don't have the avenues that we have to really express their views and make change. They can't vote yet. They're not going to be able to be as effective lobbying. The courts are not hearing them. So really all they can do is get in the streets, as we're seeing so many young people today do.” 

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Credits

Guests:
Chandini Brennan Agarwal - climate activist from LA, junior at New Charter West High School, Jesus Villalba Gastelum - organizer with Youth Climate Strike LA, Lee van der Voo - investigative journalist and author of the forthcoming book “As the World Burns: The New Generation of Activists and the Landmark Legal Fight Against Climate Change”

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Angie Perrin