In early October, activists from the group Just Stop Oil threw a can of tomato soup at a Van Gogh painting in a London gallery, before glueing their hands to the wall. “What matters more: art or life?” they shouted. “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting, or the protection of our planet and people?” Their protest sparked a global media response.
“I recognise that it looks like a slightly ridiculous action,” explained one of the activists, Phoebe Plummer, in an interview the following day. “But we’re not asking the question ‘should everyone be throwing soup on paintings?’ We’re getting the conversation going so we can ask the questions that matter.”
The protest divided opinion: some activists described it counterproductive, while others saw it as a telling sign of young people’s frustration with inaction over climate change.
One thing that is clear is that climate activism, in Europe at least, has an increasingly youthful face, with the emergence of globally recognised figures such as Greta Thunberg inspiring regular strikes and marches in cities across the continent.
In Mexico, the response to the climate crisis has been more fragmented. Various efforts underway, but those involved say they are yet to reach a critical mass.
“We are facing a Mexico that is apathetic, muted, and when we call for action, few come,” said activist Aurélien Guilabert at a recent event on youth and climate change held in Mexico City, which looked ahead to the upcoming COP27 climate summit in Egypt.
Contemporary climate activism is very incipient – there is not a long tradition of it, so we are laying the foundations
“I invite you to be activists!” he exclaimed to the forty-or-so attendees. “We have to do ‘shock’ activism because marches are not working for us. We convene and only a hundred people show up.”
Speakers at the event returned to similar questions: what is going on with youth environment movements in Mexico, and how can we get more young people involved?
Mexico has one of the highest rates of murders of environmental defenders in the world, as hundreds of activists, including young and indigenous women and men, struggle for the defence of their rights to water and lands; human rights organisation Global Witness recorded 54 killings in Mexico 2021, but the true number is likely higher. These struggles often occur in isolation, and in this context, climate activism seems also to exist in isolation, Guilabert explains.
“Contemporary [climate] activism is very incipient. There is not a long democratic tradition for it either. We are laying the foundations of democracy, these are sectors that are under construction.
“Many organisations are fighting among themselves. This has meant that the environmental movement does not work together and has not gained in strength. There is also a lack of environmental education.”
Mexico’s youth and their potential
There are more than 39 million teenagers and young people (aged 12–29) in Mexico, almost a third of the country’s population, according to estimates by CONAPO, the National Population Council. It is a notable demographic, not only for the country’s economy, but also as it represents a sector vulnerable to climate change and its impacts. At the same time, it is a section of the population that could lead in climate action, and will have a significant say in the 2024 presidential elections.
“That is why the demands of young people at COP27 are aimed at being involved in decision-making and in the whole cycle of public policies – not only in matters of consultation, but also in their design, approval, implementation and evaluation,” said Adriana García, a member of the Youth Advisory Group of the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) in Mexico.
Maria Fernanda Camara, 23, grew up in a rural community in Tabasco, a state in southern Mexico. She is part of the Youth Alliance for Family Planning and will be attending the climate negotiations in Egypt, looking to push climate change’s intersection with gender, sexual and reproductive health up the agenda. Camara will also be representing the Youth Climate Movement, also known as YOUNGO, an observer group to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
For the young activist, gender is one of the factors that determine – in addition to age, economics and location – how each person will suffer from the impacts of climate change.
“If we understand these differences, we can have adaptation and mitigation policies that respond to these needs,” Camara explains.
“Individual activism is very good, but when you do it as an organisation and as a collective, you have much more success and impact in making realities visible. At COP27, this is much more urgent because it is a privileged space, where there are more political leaders present than social and youth leaders.”
Individual activism is very good, but when you do it as a collective, you have much more success and impact in making realities visible
Gender will be high on the agenda for Camara at the upcoming summit, and she shares that only 3.8% of all attendees at last year’s COP26 meeting in Glasgow were Latina women. In Egypt, she will also present “Ignored sustainability”, a documentary she produced with her sister, which tells of climate adaptation actions carried out by farming communities in southern Mexico.
In addition to the groups to which Camara and Adriana García belong, such as Latinas for Climate and UNFPA, the other youth civil society organisations attending COP27 with Mexican representation are Earth Charter, Climate Reality Project, My World and, potentially, Fridays For Future Mexico.
The challenge for young people, Adriana says, actually begins after going to these major international climate conferences: “The problem is, when we return to the country, how do we manage to implement all this at the institutional, state and municipal level? This is where the youth come in, weaving networks with their communities to communicate what happened in this international process and what happens in the local context and in the territory.”
The need for a response is more important now than ever. Despite having poverty and inequality figures of a developing country, Mexico ranks thirteenth in the world for annual greenhouse gas emissions, and is among the 10 largest methane emitters.
While global authorities are urging a change in the energy model, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is betting on energy independence based on fossil fuels over renewable energies. The country’s commitments to international climate efforts have been called into question, with its previously submitted plans for decarbonisation as part of the Paris Agreement currently suspended by a Mexican court for their lack of ambition.
Amid this backslide, there are some supportive and ambitious voices at the top level backing climate action – and young people’s key role in demanding it. “No one dares to mention climate change,” said senator Xóchitl Gálvez, a vocal environmental advocate, at the recent pre-COP youth event. “You young people have the possibility to influence the agenda of the next elections.”
COP27 will be held in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh from 6 to 18 November.