In August 2018, then 15-year-old Greta Thunberg started skipping school to protest in front of the Swedish parliament, demanding the government reduce carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. Her protests, which she began doing every Friday, galvanized thousands of students around the world to lead their own climate strikes, launching the youth-led movement #FridaysForFuture.
In Toronto, 20-year-old Aliénor Rougeot is the lead coordinator of the local #FridaysForFuture protests. The third-year economics and public policy student at the University of Toronto organizes weekly protests, like the September 27 action that brought out more than 50,000 people. Rougeot worked alongside environmental groups like Climate Justice Toronto to come up with local demands, which include calling on the federal government to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions by 65 per cent by 2030 and reaching zero emissions by 2040, as well as pushing social justice issues like Indigenous sovereignty, universal health and dental care and asylum for those displaced by war, occupation and resource extraction.
I spoke with Rougeot about eco-anxiety, juggling organizing and school and holding adults accountable.
When did your activism start?
When I was 10 years old. I grew up surrounded by nature in the south of France. I started hearing about species going extinct and it was really shocking. I thought there’s no way we can have animals go extinct because of us. That bothered me. In school, I would give presentations to my class and pass around petitions. Then the refugee crisis hit after the Syrian war, and I started getting involved in human rights because we had so many refugees who were arriving on our shores and trying to advocate for their rights. At around the age of 15, it clicked that climate change was the intersection of caring about animals and caring about humans. That’s when I started to focus my attention on climate justice.
I’ve heard other activists talk about how social justice issues need to be at the centre of climate change discussions. Why is it important that we look at the climate crisis through an intersectional lens?
I’ll be very honest, we faced backlash from some of our earlier supporters who were like, “your only demand should be [lowering] carbon emissions.” But we also push for the protection of communities who have been affected by climate change. It’s definitely a subject that we see more tension with than we expected. People don’t always seem to make the connection between climate and social justice. A lot of times, though, they just need someone to walk them through the ties, to explain why Indigenous sovereignty is a climate issue. It’s not out of malice.
How do you find the time to organize on top of going to school?
People have bets on when I’m going to drop out of university to organize full time [laughs]. I am privileged in that I don’t need to work a part-time job to pay for my education, I have a family with a stable income, I’m a settler and I’m white. I’ve been able to meet wonderful people in this movement. It helps knowing that you’re not alone. I met an environmental activist who started 30 years ago but had given up. He said that we made him want to come back again. That drives me – knowing that every time I step up there are people who were just waiting for that impulse. And there’s the real reason: what climate change is going to do to us. I firmly believe that I’m probably not going to have children because of the climate crisis.
How do you define eco-anxiety?
Eco-anxiety is the awareness that the climate is threatening most aspects of our lives, and it’s distressing and overwhelming because we don’t know what to do. But I’m combatting that by realizing that we’re so close to the edge, there’s no time for me to be scared. There’s only time for action and hope. Not in a naive way – thinking that someone else is going to do it – but [believing] you’re powerful enough to change things.
Why do you think today’s young people, whether they’re in high school or university, are so passionate about this issue?
I want to push back against the “passionate” part because when I do it, I never feel passion. It feels like survival instincts. I’m passionate about dancing and other things. This is survival. I think the reason why so many young people rise up is because we’re being told that within the next 10 years, we’re going to start living through the impacts. I’ll be 30 then. It’s not a great prospect for my life. I don’t blame my parents for not stepping up for climate when they were 10 because at that time it was still very much debated. Now we’re already seeing the impacts. As young people, we’ve been excluded from a lot of decisions. #FuturesForFridays is our way of saying, “we’re holding you accountable and we’re asking you to do more.”