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Young climate activists slowed by pandemic, but not defeated

Jamie Margolin had not expected to be sitting in her bedroom right now.

The high school senior had prom and graduation coming up, but so much more: A multi-state bus campaign with fellow climate activists. A tour for her new book. Attendance at one of the massive marches that had been planned this week for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Then the pandemic arrived in Seattle, her hometown, and her plans went out the window.

“But still so much to do,” Margolin said, perched in front of her computer for a video interview from that bedroom.

Like many other young activists who’ve helped galvanize what’s become a global climate movement, Margolin is not letting a spreading virus stop her. They are organizing in place, from the United States to Ecuador, Uganda, India and beyond.

And while some fear they’ve lost some momentum in the pandemic, they are determined to keep pushing — and for now, to use technology to their advantage.

Unable to gather en masse as they’d planned this Earth Day, these activists are planning livestreams and webinars to keep the issue of climate front and center on the world stage and in the U.S. presidential race.

One event, Earth Day Live, is being organized by a coalition of youth-led climate groups, including Zero Hour, of which Margolin is a leader (her Twitter profile includes the tag #futurepotus). As is the case with many other young climate activists, she got involved in the movement taking aim at the fossil fuel industry well before Sweden’s Greta Thunberg became a global household name.

Online organizing is not as easy in some countries. In Uganda, activist Mulindwa Moses says only about a third of the population has Wi-Fi. Also under lockdown, the 23-year-old graduate student is waiting for his chance to return to planting trees and speaking to his nation’s youth in person.

Like the original founders of Earth Day, he is among those who were first inspired by local issues — which they came to connect with global climate change.

While traveling in eastern Uganda, Moses met with families who had lost their homes in mudslides caused by torrential rainfall.

“I remember a girl I had a conversation with — she lost her parents and had to take care of her siblings. She was suffering so much,” he said.

So, last year, he began a campaign to encourage citizens to plant “two trees a week” and regrow their forests to combat deforestation and mudslides exacerbated by changing weather patterns.

In Ecuador, 18-year-old Helena Gualinga also has had to pause her world travels.

Born in Ecuador’s indigenous Kichwa-speaking Sarayaku community — home to about 1,200 people in the Amazon — she says she learned from the example of her parents and her elders how to speak up for the rights of her people. Their fight has been against a government that they believe has given their land too freely to mining and oil companies.

“The energy I remember from my elders growing up” — at community meetings she attended with her parents when she was small — “was that my community was always very worried,” she said.

Now, she added, “I know I have a voice.”

Moses plans to run for his country’s parliament next year. “I want to fight to change the system from the inside,” he said.

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