Youth Profile #12: European activists demand governments put their futures ahead of ‘dirty industry’

By Tierney Smith 

Europe is often cited as the leader of the global climate process.

For European youth activists, however, the EU’s action falls short of their expectations and of what the science says is needed to halt temperature rises to below 2°C.

The bloc has played a key role in the international climate change negotiations, and is leading the push for a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol at COP18 in Doha.

It has also faced criticism for refusing to commit to a more ambitious emissions reductions target of 30%, up from the 20% they have already pledged, by 2020.

While negotiators in many EU countries are calling for this rise in ambition, a few countries within the EU – most notably Poland – continue to block the process.

Push Europe, a pan-European organisation, aims to put pressure on those countries to lead the way on greater ambition.

Their latest campaign, Unblock our Future, will be calling on Prime Minister Donald Tusk of Poland to be the catalyst in Europe’s transformation to a low carbon future.

Through an email action, followed by an International Day of Action, the group aims to highlight what they say is the dirty industries’ influence on European decision making.

As part of RTCC’s youth series I spoke to Lucy Patterson from Push Europe about their latest campaign, putting pressure on polluters and building a cross-European network on climate action.

What is your group doing and what areas of work do you focus on?

Push Europe is an open source campaign. We are a group of young volunteers working from all across Europe. We have two strands, the first is skills and capacity building within Europe and the second is co-ordinating actions or action days. That can include working together with lots of different youth climate groups from all across Europe and trying to link them together into one solid action.

On those action days we put pressure on a particular interest party – whether that is corporations or governments etc – and we all work together towards that unified goal.

Our work is mostly done online and through our own network – the youth climate network in Europe. Our main target – our overarching goal – it is expose corporate influence on decision makers who are making the decisions on climate change within Europe. So that is the politicians, the UN negotiators working for Europe, the EU parliament – the people who are deciding on climate policy. We are trying to expose how they are being influenced by dirty industry and fossil fuel corporations. That is the overarching theme that runs through every campaign that we do.

The most recent campaign – which is probably our biggest achievement so far – was our Tar Sands Action Day. It took place on 5 May and was called ‘Stop Pushing Tar Sands’. Basically what we were trying to do was to build on the momentum that came out of the tar sands actions in the USA – when they were trying to and succeeded in stopping the Keystone pipeline and stopping tar sands from going into the US. We were trying to build on the momentum and interest in that and help stop tar sands from entering Europe.

We had actions in nine different European countries and engaged with over 500 people on that day. We used social media to get a real presence and to gain people’s interest. Some people did actual actions – at for example Shell garages, holding up banners – some people took a photo of themselves and sent it in; them holding up a ‘no tar sands’ sign. That was one of our main campaigns of this year.

Our latest campaign, ‘Unblock Our Future’, aims to focus on exposing the influence of dirty industry on specific European states and illustrate how this leads to a block on European ambition and climate action.

What results have you seen from your work so far?

We are still a relatively new campaign; we have been going for just over a year. Results wise, what we are happy about at the moment is actually gaining visibility and having our message heard. For example, one of our biggest achievements in that respect is gaining recognition within the NGO community in Europe.

We had quite a strong presence at the UN intersessional in Bonn, where we staged a couple of actions and received quite a lot of really good feedback from key NGOs who really recognised what we were doing.

At the moment we are still growing. With the fight against climate change you have to take all of the achievements you can get – you are constantly fighting against the fold.

Young people from across countries came together at the Bonn climate talks to call on governments to listen to them and not dirty industry (Source: Push Europe/Flickr)

During the latest intercessional in Bangkok we released a press release which was picked up by a number of news outlets, including RTCC and BusinessGreen and a number of different climate blogs.

By responding quickly and in a way which demonstrated outrage we were able to put pressure on the EU and to remind them that we are watching. We were able to rapidly mobilise our groups to take action with a Twitter storm, and some young activists were even able to make contact with their own energy and climate change ministers to ask what was going on. This has created a real buzz around the new upcoming campaign.

What are the challenges you have faced in your work?

I think one of the main challenges is that there are so many of us. There are so many people who are on our mailing lists and who would count themselves under the Push Europe umbrella. What we try and do a lot of the time is to make all of the decisions made bottom up and get everyone’s input. When you are working with so many people who are doing this exclusively voluntarily and you are working with so many languages and so many countries, it can be really difficult to get everyone together at the same time to agree on a date and to get everybody working together.

That is all part of our strategy and we are constantly re-evaluating how we are doing everything and we are constantly trying new things. We have set up a coordination team who have the mandate to make certain decisions, so we are able to progress. We have learnt how we work best together. And of course everything is done online. We are all communicating via Skype and email, which can be frustrating sometimes. That is probably the key challenge when it comes to working.

More broadly the key challenge is just getting people to listen to us. Especially dirty corporations, they are not going to listen to us until they start going bust because there is no oil left and that is something we have to except but not let deter us.

What support have you seen for your activities?

We actually won a prize from the European Parliament in May. We were national winners representing the UK even though we are not wholly from the UK; you had to affiliate yourself to a country. We were national winners for the Charlemagne youth prize.

It was great because they recognised youth initiatives working to bring people from Europe together. It was nice to be recognised for the hard work that we have been doing.

Because we are an umbrella campaign working with an awful lot of campaigns in Europe the best thing about that is that we get so much input from so many people who are all so motivated. Often we have very experienced people who can give us advice, help us and give us support. Even if not funding – which we are always trying to get – even if it is just their expertise and things like that. We are very privileged that we have a great network that we can draw upon.

At the Bonn climate talks the group staged an action calling for more green jobs (Source: Young Friends of the Earth/Flickr)

What are the impacts are you seeing in your region from climate change?

There are things that we have seen across Europe. The most recent thing, which is not a direct effect but is definitely linked to climate change, is the food prices. The massive drought in the US completely destroyed a percentage of its crops, maize and wheat in particular – base crops for the US where production went way down – so here in the UK we are seeing massive hikes in the price of bread.

Although it isn’t a consequence of climate change here in the UK it is a consequence of global climate change as there is no doubt that the droughts are either exacerbated or brought about by climate change.

It is really almost frustrating that the effects aren’t being seen in the richer countries, like in Europe, because there are so many developing countries across the world that are seeing these effects daily. There are people dying already as a direct consequence of climate change and nobody will care. Until it happens in the developed countries, who is going to take any notice?

For people in Britain for example, in general it is not affecting them so they will not care about it.

Obviously not everybody in Britain doesn’t care but I think that is a real problem and that is one of the biggest challenges in the fight against climate change. It is not something that you can see, at the moment, in the developed countries.

What would be your vision for 2050? What needs to happen to ensure this?

I think in terms of what Push Europe would like to see is a world whose fate is not decided by corporations and dirty industry. They would like to see governments who are not buddying-up to corporations and governments who are making decisions for the people and not for polluters.

I think we would like to see a world in which people have realised that we have a finite amount of resources and even if we have access to fossil reserves they should stay there because humanity is worth more than a quick buck.

I would like the world to still be here and for people to still be happy and healthy and alive, all across the world not just in developed nations. Also I would like developed nations to have absolutely taken the lead in fighting climate change and to have helped the developing nations to develop sustainability.

I don’t think there is one answer. It needs to be about a whole system change. It is not enough for one politician to say we are going to switch to solar for example. There needs to be a wholesale change in the way we view our economy, the way we view nature and what it means to live on this planet and in this society.

I think that’s what really needs to happen. I know that we are running out of time and it is quite a lot to ask, but a good place to start would be for the big oil and fuel corporations to stop having so much power because they are ones who are driving the planet into the ground. They have way too much power. In order to enforce real change we have to take that power away from them and give it back to the people.

What would help your group to move forward in their work?

We could do with more man-hours. We are all volunteers so it would be really great if we could have some people working full time for Push Europe. We could do with funding, but that is a really easy thing to say, everyone could always do with more funding.

It would be great if it were easier to become more visible. For example if there were tools in place for campaigns like ours to really gain some visibility and some support, not just from other NGOs, but across the board and for people to recognise how essential it is to educate, motivate and build skills with young people on the subject of climate change. That would be really helpful.

UK activists plan the 1 penny action on a windfarm in the UK, aimed at pushing for more investment in renewable energy (Source: Push Europe UK/Flickr)

Why did you get involved in the group? What do you think youth bring to the debate?

There is usually like a moment isn’t there when you realise that a) there is something very, very wrong here and b) there might be something I could do about it. I never really had that sort of moment, I just met some very influential people and came round to the idea that there is something very wrong and that I can do something about it.

I think that a lot of the time there are global and social issues that you recognise are awful but you feel completely powerless because you feel that there is nothing you can do about it. You just think ‘why am I wasting my time worrying about it’ but I met some people who were involved with the UKYCC and it looked like they were doing something about it and they were having fun and it wasn’t actually a doomsday scenario which I had built up climate change as being in my head. They were actually having a real impact.

I got involved in Push Europe through the UKYCC because they are one of the organisations under Push Europe.

I think the youth offer so much. Firstly, energy and then also a cheekiness. We can get away with a lot. There are a lot of NGOs – well known big NGOs – who have a lot of things holding them back from being cheeky and radical and pushy and from taking risks.

As youth groups, we are much better at taking risks. We have nothing to lose, we don’t have funding, we have nobody tying us down to any conditions, and we have nothing really to pull us back. That is a great advantage sometimes.

Also we have moral authority. The people who at the moment are deciding what is going to happen in 2050 are people who won’t be alive in 2050.

That automatically questions what their interest is. It is so much less than our interest. These are the people deciding our lives. So we really need to be there to police that and to have our say on what is going to happen to our lives. It is of vital importance that youth have a huge voice in climate policy at the moment.

More RTCC Youth Profiles:

Youth Profile #11: China’s young activists out to prove they do care about climate change

Youth Profile #10: Life on climate change’s frontline with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition

Youth Profile #9: Young entrepreneurs driving sustainability at US campuses

Youth Profile #8: Why education is key to developing climate awareness in Ghana

Youth Profile #7: Why Indonesia’s biodiversity is at the front line of the fight against climate change

Youth profile #6: Meet the African coalition that brings together 54 countries to tackle climate change

Profile #5: Bangladeshi youth fight to give world’s second most climate vulnerable country a voice

Youth Profile #4: Nepal’s youth fight to save Himalayan paradise from effects of pollution and climate change

Youth Profile #3: Canada’s climate coalition on taking on the Tar Sands lobby and fighting for Kyoto

Youth Profile #2: How PIDES are working on practical solutions to climate change in Mexico

Youth Profile #1: How Nigerian Climate Coalition are building green bridges ahead of COP18

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