A keen reader of graphic novels, nine-year-old Zayne Cowie has a bookshelf laden with tales of the struggles of imaginary superheroes. Now, a real-life role model has inspired him to join a battle for his own planet’s future.
Kept awake some nights by fears that rising seas will devastate his native Brooklyn, Cowie came across a news story about Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teen who was walking out of class on Fridays to protest government inaction over climate change.
No longer feeling quite so powerless, Cowie persuaded his mother to help him stage a parallel protest outside New York’s City Hall in early December. He has since kept vigil there 26 times, embodying the kind of tenacity that turned Thunberg into the global face of a youth protest movement.
“She inspired me to take a stand — and not just sit in my room eating ice cream and feeling worried,” Cowie said of Thunberg, who has been nominated for a Nobel Peace prize since starting to protest outside Sweden’s parliament in August.
With hundreds of thousands of pupils and students now regularly joining much bigger Fridays for Future strikes in more than 120 countries, Reuters visited three young campaigners from very different backgrounds, united by acute concern over climate change, plastic pollution and the rapid extinction of species.
FACING DOWN FACTORY BOSSES
In the Chinese city of Shenyang, Wu Guanzhuo, 17, proved her mettle as an environmental activist before Thunberg became a household name.
One night in 2017, when she was 15, Wu let chickens through the gates of a printing equipment factory to distract guard dogs and their club-carrying handlers. She and several friends then collected samples of polluted river water that helped bring about a court case that forced the factory to close.
“I testified as a witness and then when I saw the bosses of the factory I felt really uncomfortable,” Wu said. “They were looking as if they were going to devour me.”
Though the school strike movement is muted in China, where protest is tightly controlled, Wu has tried to raise awareness in her city by handing out reusable bags and leaflets about plastic waste to locals. She hopes to follow Thunberg’s example and force leaders to listen.
“What I hope is that one day I can become the Chinese Greta,” Wu said. “The world will belong to the teenagers, so why don’t we stand up and make the politicians hear us?”
STRIKING IN AFRICA
Leah Namugerwa, 14, joined the environmental struggle after seeing news reports of landslides wiping out a Ugandan village. With the help of her father, Cephas Lukwago, she takes time out from boarding school on Fridays to join pupils marching in Kampala.
“My message to the adults is: let them know their responsibilities,” Namugerwa said. “I want the adults to realise that they also have a stake in the future.”
While Thunberg has dressed down politicians and business leaders from Davos to the British parliament, the young people following in her footsteps have also caught the attention of decision-makers.
In May, Namugerwa met with Rebecca Kadaga, speaker of Uganda’s parliament, her father said. New York city council member Brad Lander tweeted Zayne Cowie to say he had backed a climate emergency bill partly in response to his protest.
But with the impact of the climate crisis degrading many of Earth’s ecosystems faster than scientists had predicted, Cowie, Wu and Namugerwa need more than just words.
“We have no power because we can’t vote, we don’t do any of the stuff that grown-ups do,” Cowie said. “Basically all we’re saying is ‘please help us, please don’t screw up our future.’”
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