Don’t let youth climate activists like me burn out

To all the COP26 delegates and others with power over what happens at this conference: Please show us that you’ve heard us.

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SOURCEYes! Magazine

I was 5 years old when I first got involved with environmental activism. For me, it started with caring about whales and the ocean, and that morphed into climate action. From handing out pamphlets at the local farmers market and being on a local radio station when I was 6, to speaking with the Connecticut governor and organizing a rally with more than 1,000 people, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t passionately working for positive change. But recently, my lifelong activism has become a lot more difficult.

In August, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made up of the leading group of climate scientists from around the world, released its 2021 report, finding that it is absolutely necessary that we take immediate and drastic climate action to prevent the worst consequences of the climate crisis and as much human suffering and death as possible. It’s yet another wake-up call—one that scientists, Indigenous peoples, and activists have been trying to communicate for decades—and it’s becoming more and more urgent, as time to act at the scale of the climate crisis is quickly running out. I hope that this time the message sinks in, because like many other young activists, I’m burned out

A “die-in” event was held at the Connecticut State Capitol on September 20, 2019, as part of the youth climate strike, organized by the CT Climate Crisis Mobilization coalition, which includes Sunrise CT. Photo by Sena Wazer

I’m now 17 years old, and in the past few years I really stepped up my level of involvement with climate activism. I am currently co-directing Sunrise CT, a hub of the national Sunrise Movement. When I first started working on climate action in early 2019, I threw myself into organizing. I did everything I possibly could: attended every meeting and event I was invited to, made lots of connections, and learned as much as I could. Although climate change can be a very depressing subject, it was exhilarating in a way—I was excited to feel like there was something I could do. Over the next year, I grew a lot as an activist: I learned how to organize climate strikes, about intersectionality and environmental justice, and how to run an organization.

But then, in early 2020, I started to hit a wall. I was in the middle of pushing the Connecticut state legislature for bolder climate action, and working on a few different bills. I would find myself overcome with a weird sort of excitement that, at 16, I was actually able to do this. But then I would suddenly be overwhelmed: at the magnitude of the problem, at the lack of action from political leaders, and at the fact that I felt like I had to do so much at such a young age. I kept pushing through, doing the work that I believe in. But it became harder as the motivation that I once had began to turn into disillusionment as I saw how unwilling some people were to take action.  

Over the next year, it didn’t get better. COVID-19 arrived, at first providing a break and some time to reset, but then the pandemic just added challenges as we continued our work at Sunrise CT: endorsing politicians, phone-banking, and engaging residents with climate action. 

I don’t want to be burned out, to already be tired of fighting when I’m so young. 

In January 2021, the legislative session restarted, and again I pushed climate legislation. Although this time there were some climate bills that got through, the ones I’d been fighting hardest for—climate education in all public schools and a moratorium on all new fossil fuel power plants—were again shot down. I began to wonder if there was even a point in fighting for these bills when our so-called allies, who claim to understand the urgency of climate change, were unwilling to pass this kind of impactful, common sense climate legislation. I became disillusioned and burned out.

I used to think burnout wouldn’t affect me, that I could push so hard, invest so much, and be OK. I thought because I was fighting for something bigger than me, because I believed so strongly in our ability to pull ourselves out of the climate crisis, that I could keep burnout at bay. 

Turns out I was wrong. And it’s not just me. There are lots of young activists who invest a lot and work really hard, only to get burned out. Activists like Jamie Margolin and Leah Thomas have been open about the effect that climate activism can have on mental health, and I know from personal conversations with other young people that they, too, deal with burnout and feelings of disillusionment due to leaders’ lack of action.

In just under a month, the U.N. Climate Change Conference will convene in Glasgow, Scotland. The world’s leaders—although not the most representative group—will come together to talk about what they can do to combat climate change. I will be attending as a delegate from the University of Connecticut, where I’m a rising senior. While I’m excited at the opportunity, I’m also worried about the potential for more greenwashing and a lack of meaningful action. And it’s not an unfounded fear considering how badly COP25 failed to advance emission targets and get the world on track to meet the 1.5 ℃ warming target laid out by the Paris Climate agreement. I’m worried that I won’t be leaving the meeting with a sense of hope at what was accomplished, but instead further disillusioned at how little real action is being taken at a global level.

I don’t want to be burned out, to already be tired of fighting when I’m so young. 

The COP26 meeting is an opportunity for world leaders to prove me wrong, to show us that they can act boldly on climate change and do more than make empty promises. It’s an opportunity to show young people that all the work we’ve put in, the childhoods we’ve sacrificed, and the burnout that we’re fighting have actually made an impact. 

I believe that we—youth activists—are strong. I know that we will continue fighting and pushing for what we know is right no matter what. But it would be so heartening, such a relief, to know that we are being heard. To all the COP26 delegates and others with power over what happens at this conference: Please show us that you’ve heard us. Please take real, meaningful action that centers those being most impacted by the climate crisis.

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Sena Wazer
Sena Wazer is a Senior at the University of Connecticut majoring in environmental studies, a 2021 Truman Scholar, and the co-director of Sunrise CT. In 2019, Sena helped organize the September 20th and December 6th youth climate strikes at the CT State Capitol in Hartford. In early 2020, she was also the lead organizer for the Sunrise CT youth lobby day at the CT state legislature, which brought over 150 students to the Capitol. Over the summer of 2020, Sena chaired a subcommittee on the Governor’s Council on Climate Change and phone banked for candidates who ran for the state legislature. She also helped organize the first CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Youth Climate Summit and a Rally for a Peaceful Planet at UConn. She can be reached at her social media accounts.

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