OPINION | The youth must persuade their elders against jumping off the climate change cliff

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Dozens of people protested in Port Elizabeth. (Thamsanqa Mbovane, GroundUp)
Dozens of people protested in Port Elizabeth. (Thamsanqa Mbovane, GroundUp)

Older people need to unlearn what they have learnt if we are going to fight climate change, writes Ayakha Melithafa.


Next week I have the honour of introducing two of my colleagues, Greta Thunberg from Sweden and Vanessa Nakate from Uganda, who are presenting the Annual Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture on climate justice.

This global north/global south collaboration reflects what I regard as my generation's evolving consciousness - of the necessity to collectively confront the challenges we have inherited from our parents and grandparents.

If the threatening clouds of climate change have a silver lining, it is this new consciousness of our global responsibilities, as citizens of a globalised world.

For hundreds of years, the global north has predated on the global south – economically, socially, environmentally and emotionally.

It has created imbalances we already see clearly, such as poverty and under-development in the south, and imbalances we are only beginning to see, such as the disproportionate impact climate change will have on southern nations – which are responsible for just a fraction of the carbon emission mess.

Whereas our elders tend to be invested, voluntarily or involuntarily, in the systemic inequality that defines much of our world, we see things through a different lens. 

Our planet is deteriorating 

Our biggest priority, whether we come from a ghetto in Guatemala or a posh suburb of Paris – or from working-class Eersterivier in Cape Town, as I do – is to persuade our parents and grandparents that our planet is deteriorating because of us, because of them.

It's our fault. We must stand up and convince them to do the right things. In my own experience, there is a way for us to break through to them, but it isn't easy.

People will listen to you and even agree with you, but this doesn't mean they will act on your words. I have found that the way to approach older people is to appeal to the nurturing side they have. They are all mothers and fathers, grandparents, or uncles and aunties – and they care about their children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces.

I feel that a lot of older people have to unlearn a lot of what they have learnt. It almost feels as if the whole system they have participated in all their lives must be scrapped.

They have to get used to a younger generation that is not just going to be sitting down and going with the flow. They are not used to younger people talking back. You have to approach things in the long term, in generational terms, then they understand your perspective as a child.

Because we all have different realities and life experiences, it would be simplistic to expect us all to react in the same way to the common crises that confront us.

For example, many climate activists from northern countries have embraced environmentally sustainable diets, like veganism. You can't however force people in the global south to become vegan because it's too expensive. A vegan salad in Cape Town can cost twice the price of a piece of chicken and chips.

But our collective consciousness unites us.

Young people in the global north are able to see values in the global south that their parents and grandparents overlooked. They can see the value of knowledge in the hands of indigenous leaders in the south, for example.

There is growing appreciation for the fact that we in the global south have grown up around nature, and understand how to treat nature in the same way we'd like nature to treat us back.

Wherever we come from, north or south, we are sensitive to the fact that the south is more vulnerable to climate havoc and destruction, precisely because of the history we have collectively made.

We do things differently but move in the same broad direction with a common goal. That is what the reality of globalisation requires of us. I call it intersectionality.

I don't believe that the world's media gets this new reality yet. It still largely portrays the climate movement as white-led. That doesn't reflect what members of the movement think.

Access to information

People's access, or lack of access, to media, wi-fi and data contributes to imbalances in perceptions and information gaps. Whereas people in the north generally know about climate change, due to their access to information, people in the south are not necessarily empowered to link events, like droughts and heat waves, to climate justice.

I therefore regard climate literacy as a crucial part of my work.

We talk about climate change as a big, abstract thing, when it really isn't. I am determined to show that in my country, we are active, we are woke and we care.

To me, it's important for all young people, no matter who they are, to pursue something they are passionate about, to help heal our societies and world. It could be climate change, it could be gender-based violence, it could be racism or poverty…

Besides my mother, who raised me to be a strong and independent woman, the people I most admire are those such as Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Michelle Obama.

Through them, we learnt that when there is no seat at the table for us, we must bring our own chair.

* Ayakha Melithafa, 17, is a matric student at the Khayelitsha Centre of Science and Technology. She is a member of a growing youth-led global movement for climate justice. She is the spokesperson for the African Climate Alliance.


** The 10th Annual Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture by Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate takes place on the Archbishop's 89th birthday on 7 October. To register for the event, visit: www.bit.ly/tutulecture

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