A climate protest is shown as one person holds up a sign with a picture of the globe that reads: “There is no planet B”.
Credit: Li-An Lim

The exploitation of vulnerable climate activists

By Katell Lavarec

The media favours young climate activists for the spotlight – is this inspiring in the fight against climate change or exploitative of vulnerable children?

The past year has been peppered with demonstrations and petitions about the climate emergency. From COP28-related protests around the globe, to Just Stop Oil campaigns in the UK, we are surrounded by activists. These activists are often considered to be the face of these fights, educating the general public on the actions they take part in or organise. Despite activists being of all ages and origins, the media usually focus on a certain category: the younger generation, usually under 25 years old. The name of 21-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg will have appeared on your screen at least once in your life. In the UK, you may have heard of Laura Young, awarded the Scottish Influencer of the Year 2022, Finlay Pringle, Sea Shepherd and Ullapool Shark Ambassador, or Dominique Palmer, a University of Birmingham graduate known for her intervention as a speaker during the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference.

These young people are making a significant difference in the fight against climate change. However, the morality of using young activists by putting them in the global spotlight is questionable – they are often subject to threats, abuse, and violence. Why do young activists get more media attention than adults? Are they being weaponised by the media or do they demonstrate the urgency of climate change?

The main issue activists encounter is how their actions are transmitted. Their messages are simple and straightforward. As teenagers and young adults, they tend to have fewer filters when it comes to talking about the climate compared with older activists. However, the portrait painted by the media of this new generation is often laced with mockery and nastiness. When covering young climate activists, media outlets often use language that creates an “us versus them” dynamic, weaponising words and sentiments to attack campaigners.

Having these individuals’ voices amplified for a cause that adults often overlook explains the gap of understanding and compassion between generations. Research by the Harvard Political Review has shown that there are differences in people’s beliefs about climate change depending on their age. Older individuals are more likely to express scepticism towards climate change, whereas younger people tend to be more concerned about environmental issues, including climate change. In The Lancet’s 2021 global survey regarding climate anxiety in children and young people, 59% of respondents were extremely worried about the climate and 84% were at least moderately worried. Age is clearly a factor that influences people’s attitudes towards climate change. It is the youth that will have to face the consequences of the inaction of older generations, hence their strong will to urgently change the world they are going to grow old in. Young activists can easily fall into the spotlight as their dedication to the cause at such an early age comes across as impressive. But debates in the media often reduce them to simple teenagers, too young to understand how the real world works. They face older people with a conflicting way of living and perceiving the world. This opposition between denial and will for change creates an eternal fight between young climate activists and old climate sceptics.

I believe that climate activists have the right to protest and voice their concerns. Their fight for a better future is admirable and justified. However, it is disheartening to see the media’s criticism and mockery of these activists, regardless of their innocence and the importance of their cause. It seems that no fight can resist the criticism of others, never mind the execution and urgency.


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