The youth climate change movement is a force to be reckoned with. Fiercely intelligent and deeply knowledgeable, Mya-Rose Craig embodies the dynamism her generation holds and the sheer determination to create positive change.
The 19-year-old British Bangladeshi ornithologist, environmentalist and diversity activist started her popular blog aged 11, under her alias ‘Birdgirl’. President of Black2Nature, a visible minority ethnic (VME)-led organisation which Craig set up when just 14, she is passionate about equal access to nature and making the environment sector more diverse.
Her new book We Have A Dream: Meet 30 Young Indigenous People and People of Colour Protecting the Planet shares the stories of her peers from other continents, and highlights the importance of listening to those affected most by climate change.
Craig, who is an ambassador for indigenous rights charity Survival International, credits the organisation with helping her look deeper at the climate change movement and her relationship with it: “Survival has been great in terms of my journey with global climate justice, and they were the ones that originally made me think about indigenous people's rights in the environmental movement,” she says.
She notes that the people speaking out on climate issues are “always very white and very western”, so she went directly to young climate activists in the global south to hear for herself what they had to say.
One of the things that shocked her was the young age at which these activists began their work - some as young as seven - and that this came from necessity, the need for clean water, or to stop invasion by miners or loggers.
“It’s very easy to say ‘oh, wow, look at all these young, inspirational people’, but by the end of the book one of the things I felt is ‘look at all these teenagers who have lost a decade or more of their lives campaigning to survive’,” she says.
Reflecting the urgency that underpins Craig’s work and that of other youth activists, in the week that we speak, the mainstream news is for once charting the full range of climate effects, with extreme heat and fires across the Mediterranean, North Africa and Siberia, and deadly floods in Turkey.
Craig is clear on what needs to change, from adopting green energy and jobs, and the importance of putting in infrastructure to cope with the issues that we've already created, such as heatwaves and floods.
“What we need to do in the next decade is transition into a green economy, where the environment is the priority and it's the centre of what we're doing,” she says. “I know the government has made various promises but frankly they're all very hollow and at the pace that we're going – absolutely unattainable. I think taking an international perspective is very important, whether that's reparations, or just not dumping our rubbish in other countries anymore.”
While constantly pushing these issues to the top of the agenda, I wonder what she makes of our current leaders. “The message you’re always trying to convey is that every day that you are not choosing to solve climate change is an active decision, and people are suffering because of that,” she says, diplomatically, before correcting my attempt to describe the UK’s outdated green efforts as “too forgiving”.
"I feel personally that it's much more purposeful than that. When we're talking about environmental issues, we talk about the earth dying, but really it is people dying,” she adds.
What would she like to see happen instead? “Short-termism within our government is a massive issue, because why should politicians care about what happens in five years’ time once they’re not in power anymore? That’s absolutely something that needs to change,” says Craig, who cites the importance of protest particularly for young people, who might not yet able to cast a vote for their future.
“If people are able, I think going to protest at COP26 is really important. So many people these days are coping with eco-anxiety about the future. There are many I know that feel empowered by going out and doing something about that, rather than sitting at home.
“Protesting is a way of using your democratic voice; I think it should never be illegal. You are just showing your leaders what you think about issues, which is essentially what protesting is: showing that you care about something,” she explains.
Very much in the public eye through social media and a growing profile in the press (Craig was awarded an honorary doctorate from Bristol University for her campaigning and conversation work), she says she looks after her own mental health by returning to her first love of birding and nature.
“I’m pretty good at taking a step away and looking after myself. As I’ve got a bit older, being outside in nature has become an extremely meditative thing for me,” she says.
“There have been lots of conversations going on about burnout; there are certainly amazing young activists who have faded away because they have just given too much of themselves to the movement,” says Craig, who is involved with the Resilience Project, set up in Bristol to help younger activists take care of their mental health.
I ask what she wants readers to take away from her book, and the fight for global climate justice is at the heart of her reply. “I want people to come away with the importance of listening to people from the global south and from indigenous communities in general,” she says. “I also want people to feel empowered after reading it, especially young people. Even if you can't vote and don't necessarily have that democratic power you're still able to change the world.”
Engaging with such a vast issue can be overwhelming but Craig is a great advocate for how activism is empowering. For practical tips, she suggests using social media to find a community of like-minded people, and taking action – whether that is through conservation work, protesting or writing to your MP.
Joining her voice with those from around the world, Craig’s work and her book is a strong reminder that we truly are all in this together and need to act on that truth.
We Have A Dream (Magic Cat Publishing, £12.99) by Dr Mya-Rose Craig is out now.