“We Can’t Eat Money or Drink Oil” – Youth on the Frontlines Fight for Climate and Environmental Justice

Young people from frontline communities have been fighting for change for years, knowing that they are the hardest hit by disasters. Here students from El Puente march in the 2014 NYC Climate Rally. Photo: Rachael Bongiorno

By Lucia Mejia Cardenas, age 11 and Indykids Staff

Young people are making history as powerful leaders in the fight against climate change. Sixteen-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg is receiving global attention for her work and has quickly become the face of the movement. Thunberg’s work has been of great importance in the school strike for climate movement, but focusing too much on one person overshadows the diverse voices calling for change and the diverse solutions being proposed to address the climate crisis and to protect the environment.

This diversity is crucial in developing a good understanding of the situation, as those fighting from the frontlines are constantly risking their lives and safety to protect the earth. Activists representing indigenous communities, communities of color, and low-income communities, not only tend to bear the brunt of climate change but also, as climate activists Thanu Yakupitiyage and Maia Wikler write in Vice, “[they] are building an intersectional movement for climate justice—to not only save the planet, but fight to end systems of oppression that enable climate change.”

Autumn Peltier, Water Warrior

Autumn Peltier is a 15-year-old Anishinaabekwe and citizen of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, located on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario, Canada. She is a water protector, a Water Warrior, who has been fighting to protect the rights of indigenous peoples and their access to clean water since she was 8 years old. In 2016, at just age 12, Peltier raised the issue of the problems of oil pipelines with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, saying, “I am very unhappy with the choices you’ve made.”

Peltier is now the chief water commissioner of the Anishinabek Nation, a role that is deeply connected to her culture. “We’re automatically given roles and responsibilities to protect the water and to protect the land, being born Anishinaabe, being born a First Nations person,” Peltier told Vice. Peltier and her community treat water the way it should be treated: as sacred.

Her work began as a young girl when she noticed that many indigenous communities don’t have access to clean water. During a speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in September 2019, she pressured the U.N. General Assembly to “warrior up” and do more to protect the environment, so that the financial profits of companies and governments are not put ahead of people and the planet, adding, “I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: We can’t eat money or drink oil.”

She is also fighting to ban plastic in order to create a more sustainable society. Peltier refuses to stop pushing Canada’s government until they begin respecting the indigenous peoples, the land and the water.

Frontline Climate Strike

On September 20 of this year, millions of people participated in the Global Climate Strike. In Dumbo, Brooklyn, young people led the Frontline Climate Strike. This strike centered communities of color because they are often hit the hardest by environmental and climate disasters.

These frontline activists are also critical of big corporations which they say are responsible for creating unhealthy conditions that exploit already impoverished communities vulnerable to climate change. Chelsea Turner, a 20-year-old artist, discussed the idea of “environmental racism” at the rally. Environmental racism is the concept that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation and are usually the ones with the least access to green alternatives.

Nyiesha Mallet, who also spoke at the strike, is an 18 year-old climate activist who is fighting to make the climate movement a more inclusive and diverse one. She works at UPROSE, an organization that aims to create environmentally sustainable, inclusive and resilient communities that doesn’t leave anyone without employment or money.

Similar to the Green New Deal, the proposal which calls for a national approach to prevent a potential climate disaster, UPROSE is calling for a shift in how things are done. It’s not just about creating clean energy, but creating an economy that benefits the community as a whole, not just a privileged few. “Core to a Just Transition is deep democracy—in which workers and communities have control over the decisions that affect their daily lives,” Mallet wrote in Newsweek.

Both Nyiesha Mallet and Chelsea Turner are trying to make going green a realistic option, one that can be achieved by all people. But, as Mallet wrote in Newsweek, for this to happen, the voices of young people in frontline communities need to be listened to.

“As frontline youth, we have been raised to be flexible and adaptable to survive. This allows us to understand that the solutions to our climate emergency may not look the same everywhere, but we know that these solutions should be rooted in the communities that are affected by them. They should be rooted in repairing rather than exacerbating historical harm. They should be rooted in building a future for our communities. A future where we will all thrive.”

“A Future Where We Will All Thrive.”  

When frontline climate activists talk about “all people,” that includes people of color, people of all ethnicities, abilities, genders, income levels and also of all ages.

Daphne Frias experiences the environmental racism Chelsea Turner was talking about. She lives in Harlem, New York City, and experiences this environmental inequality on a daily basis. “There is a waste treatment plant that has been creating pollution in my community for a long time. I didn’t realize that wasn’t normal until I went to a predominantly affluent neighborhood and saw that they don’t have that,” she told Vice.

Frias has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair. She wants to use her voice not only to fight environmental degradation, but also to encourage people with disabilities to take action against climate change, as they will be impacted disproportionately. According to a recent study published in the journal Science, “Climate change and the loss of ecosystem services are likely to disproportionately affect the world’s disabled populations by accentuating inequalities and increasing marginalization of the most vulnerable members of society.”

“We don’t have the privilege to be able to up and leave when a natural disaster occurs. And because natural disasters are getting more unpredictable, we’re becoming prisoners to our habitats,” Frias said to Democracy Now!

Climate Refugees

Most people think of refugees as people who are escaping conflict, not as people fleeing areas affected by climate change. But like millions of others, Feliquan Charlemagne was displaced by a natural disaster. Although natural disasters are not all caused by climate change, global warming does mean that disasters such as hurricanes will occur more frequently and with more intensity.

A powerful hurricane hit Feliquan’s island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean, destroying his home. Determined to prevent anything like this from happening ever again, he is now the national creative director of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, a campaign that represents the youth of the United States, and uses his platform to give a voice to communities of color on the frontlines. “Throughout my entire life, my island and its economy have been further destabilized by climate change and disasters caused by it.” Charlemagne told The Verge.

Like Charlemagne, Kulsum Rifa was also forced to leave her home. When she was 10, she lost her 3-year-old niece during a monsoon season that caused a severe flood in Bangladesh. Now 19 years old, she represents SustainUS, a youth-led social justice group. As a climate refugee, Rifa wants to stand up for those who are the most vulnerable to extreme natural disasters as a result of climate change.

Indigenous Rights and a Red New Deal 

Like Autumn Peltier, Makaśa Looking Horse is a water protector and is standing up to corporations who exploit her water and land. She lives in the Grand River indigenous reserve in Ontario, Canada, an approximately 90-minute drive from Toronto.

Nestlé removes millions of water from her indigenous community’s local water source every day to sell bottled water, while the local community doesn’t have access to clean drinking water. As an activist fighting for indigenous rights, water rights and against climate change and corporate greed, Looking Horse says all these things are connected. “When we have rights to care for the land, the land thrives. With capitalism, the land is seen just as a money maker and a resource and not as a source of life. This is why Indigenous rights matter,” she told Vice.

While all these communities are frontline communities, the people who have been most impacted by companies and governments exploiting their land and resources are indigenous communities.

Recognizing the connection between indigenous rights, climate and environmental justice has prompted organizers with the grassroots Native organization The Red Nation to call for a Red New Deal. The Red New Deal is a proposal that doesn’t replace, but adds onto Rep. Alexandia Ocasio-Cortez’s policy proposal the Green New Deal. The Red New Deal demands that any environmental justice policy centers Native leaders and the knowledge that comes with protecting the land for thousands of years, as well as centuries of experience of fighting back against governments that tried to destroy indigenous communities and exploit the land through colonization.


Vulnerable: At risk of harm.

Disproportionately: Unequal; whenever anything is out of proportion, it is either too large or too small.

Degradation: The act or process of something going down in quality.

Accentuating: To make something larger, more prominent

Affluent – wealthy

Colonization: A process by which a central system of power dominates another land and its people. Christopher Columbus came to the Americas in 1492. Large-scale colonization by Western Europe soon followed. Since then, a great number of the Native American population were killed, pushed off their lands, imprisoned and controlled by the reservation system and other colonial policies such as boarding schools, the forcible removal of Native American children from their homes, and environmental destruction.

Capitalism – According to Kids Britannica, “Capitalism is an economic system. That is, it is a system for dealing with money and wealth. In a capitalist country, citizens, not governments, own and run companies. These companies compete with other companies for business. They decide which goods and services to provide. They also decide how much to charge for the goods and services and where to sell them. Companies do all these things to make money for their owners.”

Young People from The Point in the Bronx march in the 2014 NYC Climate Rally. Photo: Rachael Bongiorno

5 thoughts on ““We Can’t Eat Money or Drink Oil” – Youth on the Frontlines Fight for Climate and Environmental Justice”

  1. A powerful statement, Lucia, which shall be shared by many. Thank you so much for adding your very articulate voice to this cause. Un abrazo muy fuerte. Dr. Michael Hogan, Guadalajara, Mexico.

  2. Gonzalez, Guillermo

    At work now but took a brake and couldn’t stop reading the many young voices needing to find echo for this vital cause, among those voices yours too, I am so proud and supportive of your cause. Tu tio Memo desde el hospital de veteran’s en Houston donde cada dia trato patientes graves dañados por el ambiente,especialmente aqui con las petroquímicas. Un abrazo para ti tu madre.

  3. So powerful and moving writing, Lucia! An important call to all of us to do our job and join you in the struggle for environmental justice. Thank you for your message! Jaime

  4. Estimada Cocoi, Lucía.me sorprende tu consciencia social y ambiental. Hija de dos personas que luchan por las causas sociales desde sus propios trabajos y medios. Me alegro que tengas esa capacidad para comunicar. De verdad te felicito. Un inmenso abrazo de navidad. Que sigas así y muchos éxitos en tu labor como joven activista.

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