Indigenous peoples and people of color are disproportionately affected by our global climate crisis. But in the mainstream green movement and in the media, they are often forgotten or excluded. This is Tipping Point, a new VICE series that covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.
In the age of social media and celebrity complexes, it’s easy to reduce movements to singular players. But the reality is that movements for justice have always had many leaders. We see this on immigration (DACA movement), gun control (March for Our Lives), racial justice (Black Lives Matter), and Indigenous rights (Standing Rock), to name a few.
The same can be said about the growing movement of young people who are striking for the climate and an end to the era of fossil fuels. While respect of course goes to Thunberg for initiating the first school climate strikes, there’s also a much larger story to be told about people of color from front-line communities who have paved the way for the climate movement to grow. These youth leaders are building an intersectional movement for climate justice—to not only save the planet but fight to end systems of oppression that enable climate change.
Their demands are many and nuanced. They include calling for the protection of Indigenous lands and Indigenous sovereignty, support for climate refugees and priority for those who have historically faced environmental racism, a Green New Deal, and the end to fossil fuel extraction that works for all.
VICE spoke with some of these incredible young leaders, most of whom have been born into this movement to protect their lands and communities from climate disaster and corporate abuse.
Photo courtesy of Quannah Chasinghorse
Quannah Chasinghorse hails from the Han Gwich’in and Lakota Sioux Nations and recently helped win protections for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the Trump administration had opened to oil drilling. The wildlife refuge is known as “the place where life begins” to the Gwich’in Nation. “It’s sacred. It’s our well-being, our way of life, and part of our identity,” Chasinghorse said.
On top of industry threats, Arctic communities are disproportionately affected by rising temperatures. “A lot of our communities and villages on the coast, because of erosion, are literally falling apart,” Chasinghorse said. “Communities are being evacuated from their own homes and ancestral lands because of climate change.”
A response to climate emergency needs to build up connection between people and the land, according to Chasinghorse. “Being out there on the land is what connects us to each other. It is healing for us is when we all go out together on the land. It’s what grounds us and connects us, knowing that generations of our ancestors have walked across those lands.”
Kulsum Rifa, 19, New York City
Photo courtesy of Carolina Santamaria
Kulsum Rifa arrived in the U.S. from Bangladesh at age 10, after grieving the death of her 3-year-old niece Shefa, who drowned in a monsoon season flood. “Losing Shefa, I knew I needed to share stories like hers so people could understand,” she said.
Rifa is representing the youth-led social justice group SustainUS as part of this year’s UN youth climate delegation in New York, where she is speaking up about climate refugees. “By 2050, parts of Bangladesh will be underwater,” she said. “Just the thought of [my family] not having a place to live breaks my heart. If we take action now on climate change, they won’t have to become refugees.”
Juwaria Jama, 15, Minneapolis
A daughter to Somali immigrants, Jurwaria Jama has spoken alongside U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar at a recent climate rally. Jawa will be 25 when the UN panel on climate change (IPCC) says the world will surpass a critical emissions turning point in 2030, but she says her community is already feeling effects now.
“I live in north Minneapolis which is predominantly an African American community; we have a lot of factories situated next to us so we get a lot of pollution from fossil fuels,” she said. “Climate change has affected my parents’ home in Somalia because of droughts and food shortages there; this work I’m doing relates to them as well. Something that gives me a lot of hope is seeing so many different people fighting for this common issue and realizing that I am not alone.”
Like thousands of other young people, Helena Gualinga went to New York City last month to march for climate justice and Indigenous self-determination. She is from a small community in Ecuador called Sarayuku in the Amazon rainforest, which she says will grow increasingly prone to wildfire as climate change advances. “I grew up with a constant fear that when I would go home my community wouldn’t exist anymore,” she said. “This year’s fires are a sign that this has gone too far.”
Gualinga says Indigenous people need to be respected in their territories. “In my territory, we protect the global climate from destruction and that’s why Indigenous peoples’ rights to their territory go hand in hand with climate justice,” she said. “That is why I feel I have to do this, for my people and for the world.”
Photo courtesy of Daphne Frias
Daphne Frias says she saw the unequal ways environmental degradation affected her home in West Harlem. “There is a waste treatment plant that has been creating pollution in my community for a long time. I didn’t realize that wasn’t normal until I went to a predominantly affluent neighborhood and saw that they don’t have that,” Frias said. “Just because we are poor doesn’t mean we deserve to have our environment destroyed in our community.”
Frias has cerebral palsy, and over time her lungs and respiratory system have weakened to the point that she gets pneumonia every year, making her susceptible to bad air quality. For her, intersectionality means making more space for the disabled community. “I don’t see many activists out there with physical disabilities. It’s really important that people with physical disabilities can get involved with climate justice and activism in general. I hope that I can inspire them. I don’t think the color of my skin should impact the importance of my voice.”
Makaśa Looking Horse, 22, Six Nations of the Grand River, Ontario, Canada
Makaśa Looking Horse, from Mohawk Wolf Clan and Lakota, is a water activist in Six Nations of the Grand River, Ontario, Canada. Her community is fighting the food giant Nestlé, which pumps millions of liters of water out of the local aquifer per day, while most of Six Nations goes without clean water. “Only 9 percent of our community has access to safe drinking water,” she said. “The rest of the community has to get water trucked in.”
Looking Horse is now a youth coordinator for Ohneganos Ohnegahdeę:gyo, “Water is Life,” but her front-line work started a decade ago. “Since I was 12, I’ve known that it is my inherent responsibility to my people to protect them and look out for the next seven generations,” she said. “I don’t want my babies to worry about clean water.”
Looking Horse says climate justice and Indigenous rights are deeply connected. “When we have rights to care for the land, the land thrives. With capitalism, the land is seen just as a money maker and a resource and not as a source of life. This is why Indigenous rights matter.”
Aryaana Khan, 18, New York City
Photo courtesy of Aryaana Khan
When Aryaana Khan moved with her family from Bangladesh to New York City, she thought she was escaping the kind of intense storms that closed schools in her home country. Then Hurricane Sandy happened, and she was immediately pulled into climate activism in her new home. “I started working on a bill that would mandate climate change education in NYC,” she said. “It didn’t get passed, but after that experience I felt empowered to take action.”
Though she’s lived through the kinds of lethal storms described in scientific models on two continents, Khan says she wants to amplify the voices that don’t get to negotiate with global leaders. “Youth of color and people living in front-line communities are being left out of the climate narrative. We are then tokenized for our stories and traumas about climate change but we don’t get a seat at the table for making policy decisions,” she said. “We need to elevate voices from people in the front-line communities and youth who have been organizing for years.”
Feliquan Charlemagne, 17, Ocala, Florida
Feliquan Charlemagne was born on St. Thomas, a small island in the Caribbean that has been rocked by the climate crisis, whether through hurricanes or rising tides. “My parents told me once that during a hurricane, they literally were holding the roof down of our home so it wouldn’t fly away,” he said. “I was displaced from the Caribbean; the fossil fuel industry took my home away from me. Not only do the economic impacts linger but so does the trauma.”
Charlemagne is now the national creative director of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, ensuring that voices like his are taken into account. “This is not some abstract future issue; this is something that’s happening in peoples’ lives every single day,” he said. “Solutions have much more depth [when] Black and brown voices are centered.”
Photo courtesy of Aneesa Khan
Aneesa Khan has been organizing for climate justice since she was 16—for “survival for me and my family and those who have done little to cause the climate crisis.” While growing up in Oman where drilling for oil was cheaper than providing drinking water, she saw droughts and floods devastate her family’s home on the South Indian coast. “Climate change isn’t something in the future. That narrative is fundamentally flawed because there are millions impacted and so many displaced already. That is the new inconvenient truth that no one wants to hear,” she said.
As the executive coordinator of SustainUS, Khan’s working to change that narrative. “Since 2014 I have been attending the UN climate conferences and every year I see the same thing, countries in the global north not wanting to pay reparations to countries in the global south impacted by the climate crisis,” she said. “The fossil fuel industry has had a stranglehold on our climate making policy for longer than I have been alive. Why does a corporation get to have a seat at the table in crafting my future and I don’t?”
Khan recently moved from Chennai to London to start graduate school. She says we have the opportunity to create the world that we want to see possible, by pushing for “policies that bring together our movements for Indigenous rights, gender justice, jobs, and welfare.”
Vic Barrett, 20, White Plains, New York
Photo courtesy of Robin Loznak / Our Children’s Trust
Vic Barrett is one of 21 young people suing the executive branch of the U.S. government for failing to respond to the global climate crisis. At a speech in New York last week, Barrett said, “I am Garifuna. My people are an Afro-Indigenous community from the island of Saint Vincent in the Caribbean. We are being pushed from the lands that my family has inhabited for generations. That land will be underwater in a few decades if we continue on the path we are on.”
Barrett was 11 when Hurricane Sandy battered his upstate New York hometown. He says he can’t recall a world before climate change, which he sees is interconnected with police violence, inhumane migrant treatment, and Indigenous land dispossession. “We’re here to write a new story, a story in which our country is doing everything in its power to address not only the climate crisis, but the systemic injustices at its roots, a story in which our constitutional right to a safe climate is recognized by the highest courts,” he said.
Photo courtesy of Amira Odeh-Quiñones
Amira Odeh Quiñones is from Puerto Rico and has been involved in environmental activism ever since she can remember. “When I was 6, I used to snorkel in a coral reef here and then it no longer existed when I was 12,” she said. She’s currently an organizer at the international climate organization 350.org.
When Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, she witnessed the devastation firsthand. “I saw all of the destruction and how much we depended on imports because when the ports closed for some days we would run out of food,” she said. “The streets I walked all my life were unrecognizable. It was scary to see that after each day that passed nothing got better.”
Now a regional organizer for 350.org, Odeh Quiñones is focused on recovery and justice in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and making sure the local communities’ needs are heard. “The coastal communities or mountain towns still have thousands of homes destroyed. Not only is there still broken infrastructure but also broken families. There is a collective PTSD—the recovery of the minds and hearts haven’t happened at all. “[Frontline] communities should be in this conversation because whatever policy is decided will be key for us to be able to survive,” she said.
Thanu Yakupitiyage is an activist and artist, and the U.S. Communications Director at 350.org.