How young people are responding to the raging climate crisis

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What you need to know:

  • I got interested to advocate for climate change through an opportunity to serve as a corporate social responsibility manager in 2015.
  • By then, I was first year student pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in environmental resource conservation at Kenyatta University," Mercy Wanjiku

Nancy Wanjiku, 56, a grandmother of six, sits pensively outside her two-room mud house in Kiambu County. She reckons that about two decades ago, on an October day like this, she was at her shamba weeding. The rain patterns were predictable and the harvest plentiful. Now, even the stream that once cut across her small farm long dried up. The temperatures have also risen. She asks, “Is it raining in Nairobi?”

Older generations might be easier to talk to about climate change because they account for more emissions due to their long standing social and economic activities, and received the first warning from scientists in the 1980s.

In the words of Ugandan youth climate activist Vanessa Nakate during the 2021 Youth4Climate Summit in Milan, “It is time. The intergenerational tension today is qualitatively different from the past because the consequences of adult failure will be felt long after the adults are gone. Youth are rightfully angry, partly because they feel they have little say in their future.

When myNetwork asked dozens of Gen Zs if they have been directly affected by climate change, all manner of responses came through. While some of them bear witness to the effects of the climate crisis, others are oblivious to the happenings. However, they are all aware that they are at the centre of a catastrophe that continues to negatively impact their present and future lives.

A 2021 survey led by Bath University in collaboration with five other universities shows that nearly 60 percent of the 10,000 people interviewed expressed worry. Three-quarters say that they thought the future was frightening and more than half think that the world is doomed.

The respondents were drawn from 10 countries, and all were between the ages of 16 and 25. The prevailing response could be summed up in two words: Incredibly worried. And the respondents say governments aren’t doing enough to combat climate change.

There seems to be a clear correlation between the anxiety, and beliefs that government responses to climate change have been inadequate. So, the way governments have been addressing — or failing to address — this issue, is directly affecting youth’s mental health.

“We are witnessing many issues unfold before our eyes, like the recent locust invasion. While I don’t know why it is happening, it is very frightening,” says Sheila Masinde, an 18-year-old university student.

Fuelling this anxiety is the fact that these two generations have better access to news and knowledge than their parents or grandparents had at the same age. They can read and witness the grim realities brought about by climate change in different parts of the world.

Photo credit: Pool

Mercy Wanjiku, 25, 
Founder and team leader, Kuza Generation Initiative

“I run a community based organisation in Laikipia County. Here, we are actively involved in climate change activism and running social projects. We seek to build resilience in arid and semi-arid areas by teaching the community about proper adaptation techniques.

I founded Kuza in 2018 in Kajiado County and we are actually in the process of registering it as a non-governmental organisation. We mainly conduct our activities in primary and secondary schools. We talk to students and pupils about tree planting and reducing pollution. In the past, we partnered with counties like Nairobi for environmental sensitisation and provision of sanitary towels at Mukuru kwa Reuben. 

I got interested to advocate for climate change through an opportunity to serve as a corporate social responsibility manager in 2015. By then, I was first year student pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in environmental resource conservation at Kenyatta University.

Through this opportunity, I travelled to different counties and listened to their challenges and the assistance they needed. I remember while at KU, I had a friend who experienced culture shock on campus. Having come from extreme poverty, she couldn’t understand why people were throwing away food or eating too much. It all starts with food insecurity. People won't access education if they are hungry.

I run Kuza on full-time basis because I want to reach as many communities as possible. I come from a background of farmers and we have faced many challenges including terrible weather patterns and reduced yields. I remember a time when my mother didn’t even have enough to feed us. She is very proud of my work as it seeks to provide a solution to one of the biggest problems the world is facing right now.

So far, Kuza has reached 10 schools where we have planted trees and talked to students about climate change. We have also worked with 22 women groups in Kajiado thanks to a grant from Kenyatta University.

One challenge I face is insecurity. In some of the areas I visit, I have to request for security personnel to accompany me. The other challenge is that of communities asking for different projects that I am not able to fund. Because of the current economic situation, some people are looking for solutions to their financial problems, not climate change efforts.

When it comes to climate change, I am very worried because I don’t think that we are giving the issue the seriousness it deserves. The government is not doing much. Leaders need to listen to the cries of the people. I keep meeting young people who have great ideas but lack funding.

The resolutions that will come from Cop27 starting next week will mean nothing if we will still go back to our ways. I would rather have the delegates stay in their countries and work on the issues they are facing. I hope that the leaders in attendance will talk about the damage brought about by climate change in developing countries. I will be keen on measures to finance the green economy.

Photo credit: Pool

Abdikadir Hassan, 34 
Founder and CEO, Garissa Million Trees

“I come from Garissa County, a region in the North Eastern part of the country that is synonymous with prolonged drought and high-temperatures. Sometimes the temperature goes up to 35 degrees celsius. Coming from this arid region meant that I grew up exposed to the existential threat of climate change. Many of the residents here are pastoralists and without trees to provide shade, clean the air and act as a habitat for animals and trees, their lives are endangered.

I settled on planting trees because Kenya’s tree cover is very low. At Garissa Million Trees, we plant indigenous, exotic and fruit trees.

As a young person, I felt it was important for me to take action and change the story for young people from northern Kenya, including myself.

When I started, my goal was to plant just one million trees. In 2017, I realised that the figure was too low. Now, our new target is to plant 10 million trees within the next five years. We are currently heading to the one million mark. As an individual, I have planted thousands of trees in different parts of Garissa.

This project aims to address the conflict between humans’ need for wood fuel, fruit, fodder and other non-timber forest products and the impact of environmental degradation on the climate. Our goal is to halt and reverse the effects of forest loss and related environmental degradation in Garissa County. I do this on a full time basis. My family is very supportive.

The greatest highlight for me is that I have inspired many other young people and motivated them to conserve the environment. Also, our organisation employs at least 20 individuals. The other impact is that there is increased production of fruit trees, which in turn improves the environment and provides food for people in my county.

I received a state of head commendation in 2013 for my efforts and was awarded the Queen’s Young Leader Award in 2015. These opportunities are testament that our work is impacting lives and that we are bringing about change despite the fact that we have no reliable source of funding. For sustainability, we sell tree seedlings at a subsidised costs.

I decided to increase the number of trees I want to plant because I am worried about the future as far as climate change is concerned. Now that we are dealing with issues such as reduced and delayed rains and drought, I am eager to see the resolutions that will be made at the Cop27 conference coming up next week.

The leaders need to make fresh strategies to combat the threats and effects of climate change. We must move from boardroom meetings and get to the ground where these real climate change is happening. Offering food aid is not sustainable. We need to invest in more practical interventions on climate change.

Photo credit: Pool

Pamela Gakii Gatobu, 29 
Agrifoventure Globe Company

“Climate change has directly impacted my life. Many of the permanent rivers that we depended on while I was growing up are now either seasonal or dry. We have to trek for miles to find water. There is also a reduction in the yield of tea leaves, a cash crop in my community.

When I joined the University of Nairobi in 2014 to study environmental science and natural resource management, we did a lot of environmental studies and this exposed me to the challenges and impending dangers of the climate change crisis.

After graduation, I chose to focus on climate change issues because I saw a gap where I could earn an income while still impacting the community in Tharaka Nithi County. I involve the community in rehabilitating the wetlands using bamboo trees. When we used to go for field trips while at UoN, I would find wetlands that had dried up and the members of the community would attribute that to eucalyptus trees which use up a lot of water.

I read about bamboo trees and discovered that it was the most viable replacement. With the support from the members of my family, I rallied the community to save our wetlands and riparian areas.

We have noticed that in places where we have replaced eucalyptus trees with bamboo, the wetlands are actually coming back to life and the volume of water has increased in just one year.

The main challenge I face as a change maker is that people assume that I get money from donors, and they expect to be paid when they are called upon to do community work. Also, bamboo seeds are expensive and the government needs to intervene and help us even as we continue to engage the youth.

As a young person, I am not as afraid of the future as I am of the present. Pollution in all aspects is getting worse every day and is the largest environmental cause of disease and premature death. On the flip side, what gives me hope is that I am doing something about it.

With the Cop27 being held in Africa, I hope that all participants will come up with definite structures of how they will finance nations like Kenya to mitigate climate change and adapt.”