Climate advocacy is arduous, thankless work. But recent wins in the courtroom and at the ballot box give me hope.
By Kwolanne Felix
We are experiencing the climate crisis and its dire effects firsthand, from the blistering heat, havoc from natural disasters and destruction of biodiversity. But all hope is not lost. As a climate advocate, I know that fighting climate change can be thankless work, and the scope is overwhelming. However, it’s important to take time to celebrate climate wins because it gives climate advocates, communities and governments the courage to continue.
In Ecuador, citizens voted in a referendum to protect Yasuní National Park — home to the Indigenous Tagaeri and Taromenane peoples and amazing biodiversity — from oil drilling. The government must stop all operations and remove oil infrastructure within the year under this policy. In another referendum, residents of Quito, Ecuador, also voted to block gold mining in an ecologically sensitive highland area. These wins for the Amazon are coming after decades of transnational movements from Indigenous communities, land defenders and environmentalists.
Learning about the growing success in the movement to protect the Amazon is a breath of fresh air for climate advocates like myself. Activists have fearlessly fought to protect the world’s largest forest for decades — sometimes at the cost of their own lives. In 2020 alone, 202 Indigenous land defenders were killed for protesting the exploitation of the Amazon. Government officials were coerced into ignoring the fact that oil, logging, agribusiness and mining companies were often involved in these murders. The Amazon has a reputation for being the most dangerous area for land defenders. So it’s exciting to witness activist-led movements earn hard-won victories in their fight to preserve the Amazon.
The same week in Montana, young advocates won a trial against the state for its inaction in protecting the environment. This is the first court case of its kind led by young people to reach trial — not to mention win. The court case affirms that the state must consider climate change to honor the state’s constitutional rights to a “clean and healthful environment.” These young people range in age from 5 to 22 years old and have waited three years for the case to be heard. They are a part of a greater movement of young people suing the government because of climate change since the 2010s, in states like Oregon and Alaska. This is a big win for youth advocates and environmentalist lawyers, as the case lays down an important legal framework to hold the government accountable. Hopefully, other courts can reference the Montana ruling as an example for future climate trials. A handful of other states have similar language to Montana’s state constitution to ensure a healthy environment as a right. This ruling can set the precedent and act as a guideline for litigation in those states.
Both of these important wins were decades in the making, and multiple generations of advocates have contributed to these victories. But neither struggle was easy, and both cases experienced many roadblocks along the way. For example, Amazon land defenders took a huge hit as deforestation accelerated during the administration of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. In the U.S. most youth-led court cases on climate change never make it to trial. And such obstructions happen across the board in the climate movement. The work to combat climate change is far from immediately gratifying. If anything, it’s quite the opposite — delayed and arduous. Climate advocacy is difficult, the scope of climate change is global, its effects widespread, and the necessary support for solutions is lacking.
As a young climate activist, I’ve already had a taste of the disappointment that unfortunately comes with the job. I’ve faced many obstacles while working for advocacy at UN climate conventions, which bring together political leaders, environmental advocates, businesses and other stakeholders internationally to discuss climate action. I left COP27 last year disappointed when the advocacy tools and policy initiatives I worked on for months to develop didn’t even make it to high-level discussions. I advocated for governments to create gender-responsive climate policies in their climate plans, and many of these conversations were shut down before they could even begin. In those moments, it felt like effective and inclusive climate policy was a pipe dream. However, reading about the success of other climate advocates gives me hope.
The movement for climate action started long before I began this work, with generations of tenacious activists, scientists and directly impacted communities. I am simply one of the many climate advocates today who is carrying that torch. So when I witness decades of hard work culminating in a winning vote or a successful trial, it feels like my win in a way. We are all fighting for the same thing — a just and sustainable relationship with the Earth — so I’m excited to see any progress that’s made. It also helps advocates around the world feel like we are not alone, but rather are a part of an unstoppable global movement.
For every time a campaign fails or a policy is rejected, I’m inspired by the success of my peers. I know that it probably took countless failures and rejections to get to their well-deserved win. Indigenous land defenders of the Amazon, young Americans in courtrooms, and millions more are fighting for the respect and dignity of our planet and its beings. As I continue my work, I’m honored to stand beside them, because I know that those wins are only possible because of their diligence and refusal to give up. I hope that we all harness the courage to continue demanding climate action, even under grim circumstances of climate disaster and slow-moving policy. Our planet is counting on us, and we don’t want to let it down.
Kwolanne Felix is a writer and an advocate of gender equality and the environment. She recently graduated from Columbia University and studied history, with research interests in the African diaspora, international development, gender-responsive frameworks and environmental policies. Kwolanne writes opinion pieces and articles addressing politics, gender, climate, race, and various other intersecting experiences. Her writing has been published in Ms. Magazine, Womanly Magazine and The Eco Justice Project. Kwolanne has worked with organizations like the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and Climate Justice Coalition, and Columbia Climate School. She was a 2021 UN Human Rights fellow for the People of African Descent program.
This article was published on August 29, 2023 at Truthout. Truthout is a nonprofit news organization dedicated to providing independent reporting and commentary on a diverse range of social justice issues. Since our founding in 2001, we have anchored our work in principles of accuracy, transparency, and independence from the influence of corporate and political forces. Find out more here.