Indian-origin climate change activists in list of '60 Inspiring Young People Saving Our World'

Updated: 25 October, 2020 09:47 IST | Prutha Bhosle | Mumbai

A new collection of first-person accounts of 60 young climate leaders from across the world sees names of Indian-origin warriors who say they don't want to fight against climate change, they just have to.

Sixteen-year-old Theresa Rose Sebastian at a rally as the students walked around Cork city in Ireland chanting slogans on September 20
Sixteen-year-old Theresa Rose Sebastian at a rally as the students walked around Cork city in Ireland chanting slogans on September 20

During the 2016 US presidential elections, Akshat Rathi shifted from being a science reporter to a climate journalist. Donald Trump had made a bunch of campaign promises on "clean coal" to revive the coal industry and Rathi's editor at Quartz wanted him to dig in and find out if the technology was viable. "Until then, I had avoided doing climate stories, only because they can get quite depressing," London-based Rathi remembers. Little did he know that he'd spend a whole year on this long-term climate change series. "If Trump was going to push for it, we needed more information and understanding on what's happening with the technology right now. I wrote about how a carbon capture technology was hitting zero carbon emissions in Sweden, among many other disparate subjects related to environment together in a package." It turned out that he had struck gold. "Most of us believe that the problem of climate change is without a solution. During this project, I realised there are numerous solutions to every environmental problem. My goal since then has been to change mindsets," adds Rathi, who has a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Oxford, and a BTech in chemical engineering from the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai.

Taking his expertise in the field to the next level, Rathi has now edited a book of essays from young climate leaders settled across the world. Titled, United We Are Unstoppable: 60 Inspiring Young People Saving Our World (John Murray/Hachette), the book is an ode to the young voices echoing the earth's call for help. "On Monday, 20 August 2018, fifteen-year-old Greta Thunberg sat down outside the Swedish parliament with only an armful of flyers and a wooden sign that read Skolstrejk för klimatet (School Strike for Climate)…On Friday, 15 March 2019, a global school strike was called," writes Rathi in the book's introduction. "Thousands of climate warriors have arrived, done an incredible job, and left, in the last few centuries. But she [Greta] has done quite well. The attention has been significantly greater on her than any other activists we have seen to date. So this was my way to try and acknowledge that fact as well as her efforts in the book's introduction," Rathi tells us.

In 2020, Akshat Rathi was awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award by the Institute of Chemical Technology. In 2019, he was shortlisted by the British Journalism Awards for the best science journalism category
In 2020, Akshat Rathi was awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award by the Institute of Chemical Technology. In 2019, he was shortlisted by the British Journalism Awards for the best science journalism category

Had we acted in the '90s when the first UN Summit was held, we may not have been facing the kind of environmental impacts around the world today, he thinks. "And if we fail to act even today, the repercussions are clearly stated in the UN report of 2018. It said that this decade is going to be crucial for setting the tone for what our climate could look like. I think the statement is finally starting to make an impact on people."

The stories in this book are devastating, defiant, inspiring and moving—but, above all, they are of hope. "Greta often says that her story has been told several times, but there are many young warriors whose are not. We have, thus, included lesser-known yet powerful teenage climate activists in the book, in an effort to let their movements be known. Most of these had participated in the Green Ticket programme organised by the United Nations in September 2019. We want to show how people of different backgrounds are marching against climate change for different reasons."

'Want government that works to save earth'

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Theresa Rose Sebastian, 16
Kerala, India
Activist since: 2018
Motivation: Torrential rains in Kerala that destroyed 20,000 homes and killed nearly 480 people

When growing up, the most that Sebastian had heard about greenhouse gas emissions was in the geography textbook. It was never a concern raised at the dinner table with family. The year 2018, however, changed things.

A student of Mount Mercy College in Cork, Ireland, Sebastian was visiting a small town called Pala in Kottayam district of Kerala for a cousin's wedding. "Heavy rain was expected in the state, but the rain that arrived was nothing like I had seen. The first flood came when I had stepped out to visit my uncle. When I returned four hours later, the water had risen up so high, our car couldn't enter the compound," she recalls.

The day her flight back to Ireland was booked, the water had cleared. But when she arrived home in Cork, nobody knew what had happened in Kerala. "The torrential rain had killed 480 people, thousands of houses were destroyed, leaving families homeless. But no one knew about it. It angered me."

Later that year, a friend, who had been reading Sebastian's constant feeds on the Kerala floods, invited her to participate in a climate movement. She was game. "It was an adventure that struck home. My first-ever strike happened on March 15, 2019. I have organised every strike in Cork after that."

Sebastian sees a lot of similarities between climate issues in Kerala and Cork. "Since they are on the coast, floods, storms and heatwaves are common problems. But things are getting worse a lot quicker in Kerala."

One of her most known demands during the strikes is to reduce the voting age. "When you are voting, your political education, not age, should come into consideration. There is no reason why young people cannot vote. We want to be able to choose a government that works to save the earth. I often get asked—why do you do this? I tell them, I am not doing this because I want to, I am doing it because I have to."

Sebastian hopes to become a barrister and set up an indigenous council that has a fair role in decision making around the environment. "It is their [indigenous people's] land we are using, and we need to learn to respect their viewpoint before we take it from them for sustainable development projects."

'Refuse what you cannot reuse'

Aditya Mukarji is an intern at the Plastic Waste Management Project, UNDP India
Aditya Mukarji is an intern at the Plastic Waste Management Project, UNDP India

Aditya Mukarji, 16
Gurugram, India
Activist since: 2018
Motivation: Unhealthy lifestyles of garbage pickers working in landfills, where NCR region dumps its single-use plastic waste

Mukarji's parents have been more environmentally conscious than their peers. "As a family, we always consumed less food, never engaged in impulsive buying, and avoided wastage. At a very young age, a pro-environment aspect was instilled in me," says Mukarji, a student of Gurugram's The Shri Ram School.

It was only when he began volunteering with Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group that he was exposed to the landfills in NCR region. "All single-use plastic items, such as straws, bottles, wrappers, sachets, and other packaging material, are made from polypropylene, a material that can neither be degraded nor recycled easily. They keep piling up and have irreversible damaging effects on the environment. Among all these, plastic straws are most common in landfills. I had to do something about it," he recollects about the time he was 14.

He embarked on a door-to-door campaign in and around NCR to spread awareness and offer eco-friendly alternatives. In two years, he has been able to avert the use of more than 28 million plastic objects, including straws. He achieved this by persuading around 150 different commercial establishments to go plastic-free. "When I started this project, my goal was small—to leave the world better than how I found it. When I approached establishments in the hospitality sector, I wanted to eliminate 50,000 single-use plastic items every year. But the first owner who agreed to do it ended up eliminating two-and-a-half lakh plastic straws itself."

Maintaining a balance between activism and academics is not too difficult for him. From Class VI onwards, Mukarji has maintained over 95 per cent aggregate in all subjects. So obviously, when he said he wanted to take a hiatus in Class X to focus on his campaign, his parents trusted his instinct.

"I always send a presentation with facts to establishments before I meet them personally. I ask them— 'do we need a straw? Why can't we just sip from glasses?' I offer alternatives like paper or bamboo straws or takeaway boxes made up of cornstarch or sugar bagasse. When I approached The Oberoi, they said they want an alternative. So I helped them source thick paper boxes for takeaway service. That is the thing—there is always a sustainable solution to every environment problem."

Mukarji feels the last two generations used so much plastic that they have brought the world to the brink of disaster. "Conversations about climate change are more common among the youth now. I think we are taking it upon ourselves to protect our own future and the future of our kids."

A nine-year-old climate warrior

Climate change activist Licypriya Kangujam and 12-year-old Aarav Seth were detained by Delhi Police outside Parliament House last week for protesting against air pollution in Delhi. According to Kangujam's Twitter account, which is managed by her guardians, the police detained them for 40 minutes and also called in Central Industrial Security Force personnel to take the protesters. Kangujam said that the police gave her a warning and told her that she would be arrested the next time she held demonstrations there.

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First Published: 25 October, 2020 07:14 IST

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