The Covid-19 pandemic offered young climate activists from Africa, Asia and South America a unique opportunity to network online with their colleagues in the West and to make their voice heard.
But now many fear the pandemic could deter them from attending major climate talks in Glasgow, where they hope to press leaders on issues facing poor countries on the frontline of climate change.
Floods, fires, and extreme heat are just a few of the disasters caused by climate change that experts say will affect communities in low-income countries more if the planet warms steadily.
Activists from these countries fear that their votes will be ignored without their presence at the opening of the COP26 summit on October 31st.
“We’re just being left behind,” said Mitzi Jonelle Tan, climate activist in the Philippines.
â€œWe need leaders who hear our stories. They don’t know what it is like to fear for one’s life because of floods, â€the 23-year-old told AFP from the city of Marikina, which is regularly hit by typhoons that are made worse by rising seas.
Tan is one of several climate activists AFP has been tracking in the run-up to COP26, which is considered humanity’s last chance to avoid catastrophic global warming.
She will go to COP26, but many will not as they will be hampered by lack of access to vaccines, travel restrictions and limited funding.
– ‘Systemic injustices’ –
Like hordes of other activists from the so-called global south – less industrialized, low-income countries – Tan has joined Greta Thunberg’s Fridays For Future movement, which has sparked massive street protests around the world.
But as the pandemic hit the globe, activists were forced off the streets.
They have connected online and created a space for activists from low-income countries to voice their concerns.
“In online spaces, the distances between the global north and the global south are becoming less important,” said Joost de Moor, assistant professor at Sciences Po University in Paris.
Some founded the Most Affected Peoples and Areas (MAPA) group within Fridays For Future, pushing for the climate crisis to be linked to other â€œsystemic injusticesâ€ related to class, gender, race or disability.
“When we started, we just wanted a group chat to talk to each other and feel safe,” Tan said of the group that started on WhatsApp.
It bloomed. About ten two-hour calls were organized between activists from all hemispheres.
They exchanged experiences and viewpoints, an opportunity to talk about the effects of climate change in low-income countries.
“For young environmentalists in the global south, climate change has a direct impact on their quality of life, their housing and their ability to provide for themselves with food,” said Sarah Pickard, researcher for political participation of young people at the University of Paris 3.
– Underrepresented, hardest hit –
Another issue emerged: the procurement of the natural resources necessary for the switch to renewable energies.
The World Bank estimates that more than three billion tons of minerals and metals are needed to harness wind, solar and geothermal energy, which are necessary for the green transition.
But many companies that produce these resources – most of which operate in low-income countries – have been accused of abuse of the law.
â€œIt’s not just about reducing CO2 emissions, it’s also about the way it’s done,â€ Tan said.
With COP26, many hope that these topics will be in the foreground.
But few will get the chance to travel to Glasgow.
“Under-represented groups are left out, but they are the groups that are already hardest hit by the climate crisis,” said Nigerian climate activist Kelo Uchendu of the AFP news agency from the southern city of Enugu.
In the north of his country, drought and desertification have led herdsmen to migrate in search of forage and water to feed their cows, creating conflicts over scarce natural resources.
The 25-year-old mechanical engineering graduate hopes that the head of COP26, Alok Sharma, will be made aware of such topics.
He has helped collect the contributions of activists for local COPs (Conference of the Parties) across Africa to hand over to Sharma at the meeting.
But maybe he’s not the one to do it. He has only secured partial funding for the trip and has not yet received his Covid-19 vaccination.
– ‘Can’t ignore us’ –
Having a global voice goes beyond Kenyan activist Kevin Mtai’s COP26 summit.
Without international support, local projects can be difficult to implement.
â€œYou are alone or maybe with a few volunteers,â€ said the 26-year-old, referring to the gardening project in orphanages and schools he started in Kenya to teach children how to grow vegetables sustainably.
But when he hosts events related to Fridays For Future, organizations often help with funding and media coverage.
Despite growing climate awareness, optimism ahead of COP26 is subdued as many activists are skeptical that the high-level talks will take place.
“We have to pay a lot of attention to what has been said, but most of the work will come from climate activists,” 25-year-old biology teacher Catalina Reyes Vargas told AFP from Colombia.
She will not attend because she did not get a second Covid-19 vaccination and her country is on the UK’s red travel list.
Filipino activist Tan says no matter what, they won’t be silenced.
“The real change comes from the street,” she said.
“We have to be loud enough that they can’t ignore us.”
Â© 2021 AFP