‘It’s all we have’: young climate activists on the state of politics around the world

This year elections are taking place across the globe, covering almost half of the world’s population. It is also likely to be, yet again, the hottest year recorded as the climate crisis intensifies. The Guardian asked young climate activists around the world what they want from the elections and whether politics is working in the fight to halt global heating.

Adélaïde Charlier, 23, Belgium

Election dates: 3 June to 9 June

“We’re scared, because we have worked really hard for the past five years as a movement to [focus attention on] the climate emergency,” says Adélaïde Charlier. In the European Union elections, the parliament is anticipated to swing sharply towards rightwing parties that oppose climate action.

She says the EU’s green policies, some of which have already been blocked or weakened, are a scapegoat for the wider social change she sees as necessary to beat the climate crisis, but which are opposed by conservative groups. “We are questioning the norm and so I believe that this is a reaction to our vision, rather than to what [the policies] actually mean in our daily life.”

that we are failing on our 2030 emissions target and still have companies, such as TotalEnergies, who are creating huge fossil fuel projects across the world.”

Political inertia is seen as the biggest barrier to climate action and must be overcome, says Charlier, a political and social science graduate now at the College of Europe in Bruges. “Throughout my activism, I have seen politics not working to face the climate emergency. But the definition of politics is to organise ourselves as a society and I still believe that reinforcing democracy is the best way for us to solve this problem together.”

She says halting global heating is not a challenge of technology. “Climate change has to be solved through systemic change – we have to change everything. Can we do this on the political level? We simply have to.

“We are trying to take the role of engaged citizens and right now we are really trying to mobilise young people to go and vote, while knowing that it isn’t enough. We will go and vote and actively hope for the best. But for the rest, we will fight for it. The climate movement started with the right to protest and we will continue to use it, because it’s in our DNA.”

Adriana Calderón, 21, Mexico

Election date: 2 June

In the Mexico election, the candidates’ campaign materials alone are a signal of how seriously they are taking the environment, says Adriana Calderón, a 21-year-old youth climate activist.

The country is littered with them, hanging from lamp-posts, bridges and telephone wires. One NGO estimates that, by the end of the election cycle, 25,000 tonnes of “electoral garbage” will have been discarded in Mexico City alone. All made of plastic. “We can know from there how it’s going to go,” Calderón tells the Guardian.

Mexico’s nearly 100 million voters go to the polls on 2 June, in mass elections with thousands of seats at play. Seats in local, regional and state governments and the country’s national congress are all up for grabs, as well as the presidency itself.

In the lead to replace Andrés Manuel López Obrador is Claudia Sheinbaum, his anointed successor. Much of his popularity was built on social projects funded by oil and gas exploitation. Environmentalists expect more of the same from Sheinbaum – ironically a former Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientist.

“She’s going to try to stay on the same track as her current party, which is keep relying on Pemex [Mexico’s state-owned petroleum company],” says Calderón. “They also want to explore lithium expansion with her through Pemex also, because lithium was nationalised in Mexico last year.”

As the Guardian speaks to Calderón, from her home in Morelos, just south of Mexico City, she is sweltering in the region’s third heatwave of the year. Much of the country is gripped by water shortages. Last year, the west coast, a popular holiday destination, was battered by Hurricane Otis, the first category five storm ever to hit the country.

Other candidates, such as the second-placed Xóchitl Gálvez, have spoken more extensively on the environment, referring to increasing private investment in the energy transition and reversing state exploitation of oil and gas.

A third candidate, Jorge Álvarez Máynez, has made more environmental promises but seems unlikely to win.

That leaves Mexico’s green voters stuck between a rock and a hard place. Calderón says. “I’m still debating with my friends about this and with my colleagues on the climate sphere, because, you know, it’s either going back to the old party which has some very bad things for the country or is it staying with the current government that is not helping climate at all?

Lauren MacDonald, 23, UK

Election date: 4 July

“We desperately need a change to a government that is actually ready to take urgent action to tackle the climate crisis,” says Lauren MacDonald, a campaigner with Uplift. “Currently, we have a [Conservative] government completely hell bent on expanding oil and gas production in the North Sea, despite the absolutely catastrophic impacts burning this oil would have on our planet.”

She says ministers have failed to sufficiently drive up the home insulation and renewable energy that would cut both energy bills and carbon emissions: “Instead, they are making matters worse by handing out billions of pounds in tax breaks to [oil companies].”

A critical issue is ensuring that workers currently in the fossil fuel industry can move to clean energy jobs, a so-called just transition, as seen in Germany and Spain, says MacDonald. She is from Scotland, the centre of the UK oil and gas industry.

“Those workers and unions are right to be asking the big questions,” she says. “I think people are ready for a transition that puts workers and communities before the profit-driven energy giants.”

The opposition Labour party has a huge lead in opinion polls ahead of the general election and has pledged to end new oil and gas exploration. “Labour is talking a good talk, but we’ll be looking very keenly at how that will be implemented,” says MacDonald. “There will still be a huge role for the climate movement to play.”

She sees no alternative to political action to halt global heating. “The UK political system is not exactly inspirational, but governments need to tackle the climate crisis, because we can’t trust the oil and gas companies. Who else is going to do it?”

But, she says, “whatever happens at the election, climate is not an issue that’s going to be solved overnight. It is going to take every facet of society doing everything that we can to actually implement change.”

Alexia Leclercq, 24, US

Election date: 5 November

“To be quite honest, I don’t know what to do in the election,” says Alexia Leclercq, an environmental activist.

“On the one hand, we know the Biden administration has had significantly better environmental policies, with real-life consequences on our communities,” she says. “For example, under the Trump administration, policy rollbacks had a huge impact on frontline communities trying to fight petrochemical industries that cause a lot of severe health issues, especially in the South.

“But I think on the other hand, with the genocide going on in Palestine, a lot of folks that are in the climate movement don’t feel morally OK to vote for Biden. It’s definitely challenging.”

Leclercq says no climate activists want another term for Trump, who withdrew the US from the global UN climate agreement, but she says Biden’s term has had flaws: “Biden campaigned on ending the lease of federal lands for oil drilling but his track record is having given out more permits than Trump.”

She says the presidential election really matters for her home state of Texas, which is simultaneously the heart of the US oil and gas industry, severely affected by worsening heatwaves and floods, and also a major renewable energy state.

“The environmental impacts are severe, especially on communities of colour, but the state government isn’t going to be progressive for the foreseeable future – the petrochemical industry has such a strong stronghold on our state,” she says. “So federal environmental policies are extremely important – it’s basically the only thing we have.”

Leclercq says lobbying and corporate donations dominate the US political system: “We have a so-called democracy but the biggest influence on our government is industry. People are making billions of dollars from the status quo and keep intending to do so.

“We’re trying our best to build people power and put on pressure, and I think that’s all that we can do at the moment,” she says. But she sees some hopeful signs: “Everywhere I go, I see a growing concern for climate, including Republican-voting farm owners, people you don’t think stereotypically care about climate. They’re seeing the impacts of the climate crisis on their livelihood on their ranch.”

Disha Ravi, 25, India

Election dates: 19 April to 1 June

With 970 million eligible voters and an election season spanning months, India liked to style its elections as the world’s biggest exercise in democracy. But this year there was another complicating factor. The stifling heat.

Politicians have collapsed on stage. News anchors have blacked out live on air. With turnout down across the country, politicians have called on officials to open polling stations at 6am so voters can avoid temperatures reaching, in some parts, 47C.

“Despite all of this, I don’t think climate change has been an issue that the contesting political parties have been rallying about,” says Disha Ravi, a 25-year-old Fridays For Future activist from Bengaluru.

This year, most parties’ manifestos at least mention climate breakdown. “So that is a huge change,” says Ravi. “But it’s not something that’s being spoken about. It’s not a voting issue as of yet.”

The governing BJP party of prime minister Narendra Modi was the frontrunner, and appears, according to exit polls, to have won a commanding majority. They have “made a lot of promises”, says Ravi, including net zero by 2070 and a beefed-up clean air programme.

But their record is less positive. New coalmines, deforestation projects and environmentally destructive infrastructure plans have fuelled a boom India has enjoyed under their rule – the benefits of which has overwhelmingly accrued to the ultra-wealthy. And despite big talk on the environment, their manifesto was light on concrete measures.

“They have no mention of coal in the whole text,” says Ravi. India relies on coal for 45% of its power, according to the IEA.

Other parties, including Congress, formerly India’s longtime party of government, made bolder pledges. “And they’ve also, most importantly, addressed the fact that there have been landslides happening and there has been ice melting in the Himalayas,” says Ravi. “Congress importantly and CPI, they both mention that the deregulated environmental norms, especially the forest rights that have been deregulated by the BJP, are going to be undone.” But with only an outside chance of victory, such pledges are worthless.

The BJP’s big idea, meanwhile, is “Life”. “L-I-F-E, which expands to lifestyle for environment,” is a plan to centre individual Indians’ personal responsibility for climate, says Ravi. “And I think that’s putting the onus on people whose per capita emission is so much, so incredibly marginal.”

If the exit polls are correct, Modi will have won by a large margin, which fills Ravi with despair.

“I don’t think we can handle another year of living like this.”