Youth activist Greta Thunberg is hopping on a carbon-free racing boat to make the United Nations Climate Summit in New York on September 23. The Swedish founder of Fridays for Future—a now-global effort where youth skip school on Fridays to protest in the name of climate change and their future—figured out how to make it to the United States without destroying the planet.
She’s headed to New York, which is cool. But what about other youth activists, especially those in the Global South? Thunberg’s success—while rightly deserved—is also a reminder of how our efforts to stop climate change continue to ignore the voices of those most affected by the crisis while uplifting more privileged, white voices.
Thunberg has sworn off flying because of its impact on the climate. And look, flying is bad for the climate. Air travel accounts for 3 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and 2 percent of emissions globally. And carbon emissions tied to air travel could triple over the next three decades. A simple way individuals can reduce their carbon footprint is by reducing—or cutting off altogether—their air travel.
So major kudos to Thunberg for finding an alternative, though it’s one that’d be tough for others to score. The ship she plans to hop on is the Malizia II, a four-year-old racing sailboat pimped out with solar panels and underwater turbines to power the ship according to the ship’s owners. Boris Herrmann, the ship’s skipper, and Malizia team founder Pierre Casiraghi will be donating their time and resources to captain the ship during the two-week journey in mid-August.
Thunberg’s activism has been inspiring to millions around the world, spurring students to take to the streets. The challenges climate change poses for young people has become more evident under her leadership and adults in power have taken greater notice. So I welcome Thunberg to my city. She’s a G, for real, for real.
“Greta is a true leader of a generation,” said Leah Namugerwa, a 14-year-old climate activist in Uganda, to Earther in a Twitter message. “Many people are preaching what they don’t do. She is not that kind. Her decision to sail to the U.S. reaffirms her commitment to save the only planet we call home. She’s reducing carbon footprint in all possible ways. Many people get excited to fly, but Greta gets excited to cut carbon emissions. I applaud her for that.”
However, part of me can’t help but wonder how many other 16-year-old climate activists have been invited to speak at the United Nations and can commandeer a free ride across an entire ocean. I imagine that if most other kids her age—especially any in the developing world—refused to fly to such a summit, they simply wouldn’t be able to go. Namugerwa, for instance, told Earther she’s never been to the U.S. and would “surely” want to be here, especially on a sailboat “if it’s for the good of my planet.”
This isn’t to shit on Thunberg; this isn’t her doing. She’s a single person in a space that undervalues the voices of people of color. The movement has—for far too long—failed to put underrepresented voices at its center and offer them the same level of opportunity that has come Thunberg’s way.
To be fair, the United Nations (UN) knows this and it’s taking action to start to address historic injustices. It’s bringing more than 100 climate activists from the Global South to the climate summit through “Green Tickets,” which will cover air travel for those are chosen. What’s more, the UN is calling the travel “carbon neutral” though it offers no clarification on what that means—but it definitely isn’t enough for Thunberg. However, they’ll be attending the Youth Climate Summit, a related but separate event from the greater UN Climate Summit.
The UN is keeping the details of the Youth Climate Summit under wraps, and Earther has reached out for clarity on what role the youth summit will play and if other young adults have been invited to speak before the main climate summit as Thunberg is.
When it comes to issues around the environment, institutions are getting better at being more inclusive, especially of people in the Global South who are feeling climate change’s wrath more dramatically. But there’s still a long way to go.
We need to shine the spotlight on the people with Thunberg’s passion, but who don’t necessarily look like her. The youth of Uganda who have been striking from school in the name of the planet deserve to see their names in headlines, too. Colombian youth who took their country to court over the Amazon deserve to tell their story directly to world leaders. They and many other faces of varying shades share Thunberg’s desire for a habitable future. Where’s their free sailboat to the UN Climate Summit?