Paper presented at the Richmond Earth Day Youth Summit 2016
by Kate Hodgson
I wasn’t always a part of the climate movement. For a long time I ignored climate change because it terrified me and because I assumed someone else, older and far more capable, was taking care of it. And it took me a long time to look to the future with hope rather than paralysing fear.
I’d like to share a little bit of that journey with you.
I grew up spending my summers at Manitoba Pioneer Camp, which is a Christian canoeing camp on an island in the middle of the Manitoban wilderness. It was at Pioneer Camp that I learned to love Nature, and it was in there that I learned what it meant to care for those around me. Every time I go back I’m reminded of what it is I’m fighting for: the places I love and the people I love.
When I was little I knew climate change was an issue. But back then it was just another thing we talked about at the dinner table. It wasn’t until Grade 9, when I took an environmental studies class that I was forced to confront the climate crisis head-on.
The facts are not always easy to hear. Climate change is already altering our planet in radical and dangerous ways. Millions of people have lost their homes to flooding, storms, and ocean level rise. Millions more are the refugees of climate change-driven conflict. Many are losing their crops and their means of subsistence to drought. The longer we wait to take serious action on climate change, the more people will suffer.
When I learned these things for the first time I was overcome with guilt. I had been taught all my life that this crisis was the consequence of my own individual consumer choices, and so I felt personally responsible for the impacts of climate change. I took all the anger that I felt about the injustice of the climate crisis and I directed it inward onto myself.
And so, for a full year, I became obsessed with greening my own life as well as the lives of people close to me. I rode my bike. I stopped eating meat. I worried over every piece of paper, every item in the trash, and every piece of clothing I bought. I believed that I was fully to blame for the climate crisis. And because the people around me didn’t seem to care, I believed that I was the only one fighting to stop it. For all my micro-managing, I felt disempowered and alone in my activism.
It wasn’t until I attended my first protest, which was a demonstration against tar sands pipelines, that that feeling of powerlessness lifted for the first time. I remember walking down the street, with a sign in my hand and a thousand people all around me, and feeling like I was a part of something that was finally big enough to stop climate change. For the first time, I felt powerful. And it was because I wasn’t fighting alone.
Our individual actions do have a place in this movement. We all have a responsibility to practice what we preach, as often as we can. The work so many of you are doing – school gardens, recycling programs – are a testament to the power of individual choices. But individual choices are only the start—they prepare us to join the people-powered climate movement.
It’s easy to feel guilty about climate change. I know because I’ve been there. But trust me when I say that guilt is not a good place to stay. The climate crisis is rooted in the very DNA of our society: in our economy, in our government, in our institutions. They are the ones with the power to address climate change with the urgency it requires. When world leaders, including our own in Canada, signed the Paris Climate Agreement, it signalled a new era of climate action. Our new leaders will be judged by the actions they take to mitigate climate change. And young people like all of us have to hold them accountable to the promises they have made. Our activism is most powerful when we act together.
That first protest I attended was organized by a group of high school students called Kids for Climate Action, of which I became the director in 2014. They campaign for real action on climate change by standing up to decision-makers and holding them responsible for protecting our future.
When I first joined Kids for Climate Action, they were campaigning against the Enbridge pipeline, and the Fraser-Surrey Docks coal port expansion—two projects that have been proposed right here in BC, one in Metro Vancouver itself. We also ran three different non-partisan campaigns during the municipal, provincial, and federal elections, in which young people – who are not old enough to place ballots themselves – urged thousands of adults to vote for climate action in their stead.
In 2015 Kids for Climate Action coordinated a day of action on climate change called Defend our Future, in which 25 groups of elementary and high school students from across BC—many of whom had never signed a petition before, let alone attended an event like this—met with their politicians to urge them against allowing the export of coal in BC.
Currently I organize with a group called UBCC350 which is a climate action group at UBC. At the beginning of this year, we mobilized hundreds of students to demand real change coming out of the UN Climate Conference in Paris. We have also been campaigning for three years for UBC to stop investing money in the fossil fuel industry—a movement known as Divestment.
Young people are often told that we do not have a voice. We are told that because we are too young to vote, we cannot have a say in the decisions that will shape our future. But if there’s anything I have learned in being an activist, it is that young people are powerful, often far more than we give ourselves credit for.
I have two 15-year old friends, who crossed a injunction line during the protests against the Kinder Morgan pipeline at Burnaby Mountain. They risked arrest because they felt compelled to stand up against climate change on behalf of all those it will harm. Often we equate power with men in suits, and courage with superheroes. But that small and simple act was the most powerful and courageous thing I have ever seen.
Know that your actions aren’t limited to the changes you can make in your own life. Sign a petition. Write a letter. Attend a meeting with your politicians. Take to the streets. Get organized. You are truly never too young to take on the powerful.
Kids for Climate Action’s core organizing team was made up of maybe ten people. Look at all that we have accomplished. There are 500 people in this room. Imagine how much more you can do!
So my advice to you, as you leave this conference and go on looking to make a difference in your community:
- be loving, because the relationships we have with each other are at the very foundation of this movement;
- be bold, because the scale of the challenge we face demands it of us;
- know that together we have the power to create a future we can be excited to live in.
Kate Hodgson is a first-year student at UBC and a climate activist.