Natalie Sweet, just before meeting the core group of the strike planning team for the global climate strike on September 20, 2019.
Almost half of young people (45%) say their feelings about climate change are negatively affecting their daily lives. More than three in four young people (77%) say the future is scary when it comes to climate change.
That is the result of a survey of 10,000 young people in 10 countries published this month by academics from Stanford, Oxford and the University of Bath, among others.
CNBC spoke to Natalie Sweet, an 18-year-old climate organizer, in August about her experience with and moving through climate fear. As a freshman in high school, Sweet joined Zero Hour, a youth-led climate activism organization, and worked her way up to director of communications. She is leaving this role to focus on her freshman college at Wesleyan but will continue to be a member of the Zero Hour communications team.
The following are excerpts from Sweets’ comments in a telephone interview with CNBC. They have been edited for brevity and clarity.
“We weren’t the ones who founded Shell and Exxon”
There is another sense of urgency in the youth because we hear things like “Miami will likely be underwater in the next century”, “these heat waves and storms are just going to get more frequent”. Older people know this isn’t really an issue for their generation and that makes me really angry because part of me feels that this is their mess that they need to clean up.
We weren’t the ones who started Shell and Exxon. It wasn’t our generation. And now we are sitting in this big mess that has arisen since the 1950s with rapid fire due to anthropogenic climate change.
Even if the youth are valued in the fight against climate change, it is often said: “Wow, I am so proud of you children. You are all fine.” Then come and help us. Come join us.
I wish that adults who care about climate change and young people who care about climate change almost unite and use the collective power of a multi-generational movement to influence more adults to move more people into these senior leadership positions climate change is real and now deserves your attention. It’s really inspiring that older adults in the climate movement are working with us and really pushing our goals.
We’ll keep trying to convince the adults, but I can’t focus on that for too long because – this is going to sound a bit drastic now – we don’t have time.
Burnout is real: is all the work free?
I attended Zero Hour in May or so in 2018 when I was a high school freshman.
Before that, I hadn’t really heard recently climate justice principles discussed. Many times when people talked about climate change it was adults talking about protecting the wilderness, but Zero Hour was one of the first times I really saw a group teaching and prioritizing the human rights issue of climate change.
My parents have always been pretty environmentally conscious, but I think they weren’t as well informed as I was about climate justice or the scope of climate change and everything that goes with it.
Natalie Sweet, youth climate organizer
Photo courtesy Ava Olson
I joined the national communications team in January 2019 in my sophomore year.
I’ve done all kinds of great national appearances, social media work, like working on various online campaigns, sending out press releases, speaking to reporters. I started getting really involved and eventually became the communications director – the director of the team – after a previous director resigned. That was in December 2019. Since then, I’ve only been working as a communications director and leading both the press and social media team. I lead a team of around 14 people.
At peak times, I would spend between eight and twelve hours a week doing zero-hour work, including phone calls. I’ve been really busy.
I feel a lot of burnout, a lot of frustration when you push for different guidelines and then see that no one can get around them, or just feel like they’re fighting an uphill battle. I think that makes me very, very emotionally burned out.
It’s really annoying. Because not only does all the work I’ve put into it doesn’t work, but we’re just fighting against what feels like a ticking time bomb. It’s zero hour to save our planet.
We have no more time. I sometimes feel so tired from all the work I’ve put into it and don’t really see the fruits of my labor where it feels like, “Okay, was it all in vain?” Because if politicians don’t listen to us, how can we get our point across?
How to stay engaged: find your people, take breaks
The community of people I met through organizing was so wonderful and joyful.
In December 2019 we did a retreat in Washington, DC and we all met and were able to share our goals for the organization, we wrote a schedule together for 2020 – and it was then useless because Covid happened. But this feeling of being together and having fellowship and knowing that there are people who also share love and organization and a deep concern for the planet and people is really what keeps me going.
If this was one of those solo fights like there was nobody with you and you were just going uphill it would be very difficult for any organizer to feel the ghost keep going. To have people around you who push and motivate you, but also share the same worries and fears and worries as you, was really very inspiring. With that in mind, I’ve really connected with the people at Zero Hour.
It is also very conscious of taking really relaxing breaks.
Zero Hour mandates that each of our directors give a certain number of weeks off just because we understand that we are teenagers and a lot of this fight for climate justice can be really exhausting at times. Therefore, it is very important that you know that at some point you will need to take relaxing breaks.
Many of my closest friends are climate organizers, people I have come to know through our shared love for this planet, the people on it, and our shared desire to fight for justice in all its different forms.
It’s really important to be surrounded by a caring community that understands burnout as much as you do. Like many other directors and my friends in the climate movement, I feel totally: “Yes, you have to take a break now.” I think hearing that confirmation is really, really confirming.
My fight is for a future worth living
Zero Hour really attaches great importance to the right to a future worth living in. And that’s something that I instilled in myself too. Most of all, everyone has a right to a planet, future, safe neighborhoods, safe communities, and I really want to do everything I can to ensure that this goal is achieved.
I was particularly interested in environmental law. At school, I took a course called Global Environmental History, which really introduced me to the history of man’s dealings with the earth.
I see my way in continuing to work with the media and keep creating narratives because I think that’s one of the most rewarding things from communication that I’ve learned about the importance of storytelling and the organizers of the Developing the climate to help tell stories and build different voices.
I feel very driven by the fact that everyone should have the right to a future worth living in. I think I’ll keep fighting for it as I move on and grow up.
Also in this series:
Climate change is radicalizing young people – what that means and how to counteract despair
Grief and fear of climate change drove this 30-year-old to write a letter to his future child