In an attempt to look forward to COP26—and look backward to the year we’ve spent in lockdown—photographer and youth climate activist Pamela Elizarrarás Acitores uses images to tell a story of young people from around the world trying to save the planet for The Frontline.
It’s been one year since lockdown. Since the pandemic put the world on pause, youth climate activists have been gathering online. However, internet access is a privilege. In acknowledgement of that, I sought to collaborate with 21 youth activists worldwide who represent numerous organizations and movements. We spoke about how their activism in 2020 shifted—and what they want to see achieved in November at COP26, the global climate change conference hosted annually by the United Nations. A virtual photoshoot followed each conversation.
We created this project to urge leaders to make 2021 the year we truly take climate action and hold the fossil fuel industry accountable.
Each portrait has been paired with an environmental image that connects with the organizer’s work. Take Daniela Balaguera, for example, an environmental defender of La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range in Colombia. She asked to be represented with a forest image. On the other hand, Finlay Pringle, a shark ambassador in Ullapool, Scotland, wanted his photograph surrounded by water.
By projecting visuals of nature over the digital portraits I took during the interviews, I intended to convey what this past year has looked like for youth climate organizers: a confinement to our screens where we have been networking, organizing, and learning mostly online. Some of us may have been tucked safely inside during lockdown, but that does not mean the climate crisis has gone away. It is more present now than ever. Just look at all that occurred in 2020: record wildfires, record storms, and record ice loss.
The project’s backdrops of ecoscapes represent the beautiful places that are alive today and at risk of disappearing within our lifetime. Further damage to these ecosystems—from rainforests to oceans—will worsen existing injustices that are disproportionately experienced by the most vulnerable people and communities.
Despite our grief, we are still optimistic. Our voices are more powerful than before. COP26 is an opportunity to come together inclusively to commit to reducing our emissions and building resilience through green recoveries. So far, only 18 percent of the global economic response to the pandemic is going toward environmentally friendly initiatives. The conference is an opportunity to unite around the need for bold climate action.
The words the youth shared with me for this project reflect their optimism and agency. We need more of that at this moment.
Uriel Medina (17): Colima, Mexico
On youth participation in COP26
“I hope that by seeing all the mobilizing the youth around the world are doing, COP organizers understand that we don’t need three doctorates in climate mitigation to be worthy of having an impact on decisions that will affect our future. Youth participation is fundamental for fighting climate change.”
Ayisha Siddiqa (21): Jhang, Pakistan & New York
On fossil fuels in COP26
“I don’t want to see any more fossil fuel companies, executives, CEOs, lobbyists, and handlers at that conference. It is a blatant conflict of interest. It is like inviting the wolf to your house after he ate the rest of your family for dinner. It doesn’t make sense. In addition, we as a society need to realize how damaging green capitalism is if we are going to get anywhere.”
Jefferson Estela (20): Calamba, Philippines
On being listened to in COP26
“It is difficult to be a climate activist in the Philippines; it is extremely difficult to get our stories heard. Numerous typhoons are ravishing us in the middle of a pandemic. The government is attacking the activists. People are getting killed for fighting for climate justice. We don’t have any international coverage, and unfortunately, I don’t think it’s only an issue of the Philippines. We in the Global South don’t have the visibility white people have. It is crucial that in COP26, we are listened to.”
Valentin Abend (25): Mallorca, Spain
On the urgency of COP26
“The first COP was held in the year of my birth—in 1995. This year in 2021, the COP and I turn 26. My wish is for the policy and decision makers to attend this conference with a level of consciousness and responsibility that matches that of the youth organizers in contemporary climate and social justice movements.”
Veronica Mulenga (26): Lusaka, Zambia
On gender equality in COP26
“The effects of the climate crisis disproportionately affect women the most, yet most of the time, we are not included in the decision-making process. We need stronger female representation at these types of conferences. The majority of climate justice activists are women; we understand that the climate crisis is and will affect us the most; we want to participate in making the decisions that will influence our lives. Not have men decide our present and future for us.”
Catalina Santelices (18): Talca, Chile
On having a ‘seat at the table’ at COP26
“It is not true that young people are not interested in anything. We are here, we are interested, and we want to change things. Change needs to happen now because, by the time we are old enough to be in a position to make decisions, it will be too late.”