Climate Activists Say They’re Sick of Being ‘Youthwashed’ at COP26

Younger activists and climate defenders fear they are being tokenised, and ignored by companies and world leaders.
Activists Say They're Sick of Being Youthwashed at COP26
An activist from Ocean Rebellion pretends to vomit oil during a demonstration near a refinery in Grangemouth, Scotland, during COP26 in Glasgow. Photo: BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images

GLASGOW – World leaders are praising each other for their commitments to fight climate change, but youth activists also at COP26, the UN’s climate change summit, say they feel like they’re being used by governments and companies who want to make themselves look better.

Multiple young activists speaking at COP26 in various capacities have told VICE World News that they have felt some of their involvement has been a box-ticking exercise for the power players who in their view aren’t truly committing to solving the climate crisis. 

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Their Instagram stories paint a picture of constant panels, side talks and burnout, pulled from interview to interview and meeting to meeting as the demands they are making seem to go unnoticed by the actual decision-makers. 

For Ayisha Siddiqa, a 22-year-old climate activist from Pakistan known for her leadership in the climate strike and fighting fossil fuels, one of the most frustrating examples was when she was invited to speak at a Climate Parliament event at COP where the UK and India announced a new high-level coalition for clean energy. She said that the national leaders present at the announcement spoke about proposals without being held accountable for their climate controversies.

“So I called the Indian government absolutely pathetic for preaching about solar panels and veganism when they’re putting environmental defenders in solitary confinement in jail,” she said, referring to her friend Disha Ravi

Siddiqa, like many activists, is only present at COP because she secured a delegate badge through an NGO. 

While NGOs act as observer organisations at climate conferences, activists are ultimately not as influential as they could be if included as part of formal government delegations. “Not even Greta [Thunberg] was actually invited,” Siddiqa said. “She is also with an NGO.”

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Siddiqa said she was disappointed to have been invited to speak at the venue Extreme Hangout, where she said she was not aware that Swiss multinational Nestlé was an event sponsor. 

Nestlé has previously been accused by critics of climate destruction, and admitted in 2019 that a satellite rainforest monitoring service it commissioned documented 388,047 cases of deforestation.

Nestlé did not respond to a VICE World News request for comment. 

In a statement, Amber Nuttall, environmentalist and co-creator of The Extreme Hangout, told VICE World News: “We completely respect everyone’s views and are sorry that Ayisha was unaware of who our sponsors were before she took part in a panel. Her contribution and her work on the Polluters Out campaign was incredibly impactful and very moving and will most certainly continue to reverberate and resonate globally.

“We have been transparent about who we are working with to bring The Extreme Hangout to life, all of our sponsors are clearly visible on The Extreme Hangout website and at the venue. We believe that tackling the climate crisis needs all voices to come together in conversation and to collaborate on solutions.”

It is not the first time Siddiqa has been asked to take part in initiatives sponsored by companies whose practices she opposes, including one that asked her to be an ambassador. “I’ve been offered opportunities that could have paid my parents’ mortgage. I said no. They could have put me through college. Instead I’ve worked every year since I was 16 years old.”

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“But if you’re 15 and you’re reached out [by a fossil fuel company] and you live in a global south nation and you need finance and they offer you thousands of pounds...of course you’re going to take it. They’re exploiting people’s vulnerability.”

Young activists protest inside COP26 this week. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Young activists protest inside COP26 this week. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

One Young World, a youth leadership summit, lists several business partners in its 2021 work including fossil fuel giants BP and Shell.

Leah Thomas, founder of @intersectionalenvironmentalist, was also asked to speak at COP26 by One Young World, who says it convenes young talent from around the world to accelerate social impact each year. The group is a content partner of Extreme Hangout this year, and has been arranging speakers for many of its events. 

Thomas declined last month when she learned that Shell had been a former partner of the organisation. 

But she was surprised to learn that other climate activists were being approached billing Thomas on the event, even though she had not yet confirmed or declined the invite at that stage.

“It’s a tactic that businesses and organisations do,” Thomas said. “Because the youth and environmental space is small. Especially for BIPOC, so they’ll claim someone committed before they did to exploit our trust.”

A spokesperson from One Young World told VICE World News: “We are proud to have extensive support from many global businesses but engaging with our community is never an opportunity to bury bad news, greenwash or gloss over responsibilities to society. Any business trying to engage with young people today needs to come up with plenty of proof that they are genuinely committed to making the world a better place.

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“Over the last decade, One Young World has developed into a major forum for business to face the youth of the world. This is a generation that’s prepared to accept business as an honest partner in tackling global challenges, but one that is more cynical towards marketing and advertising strategies than their predecessors.

“All sectors have been invited to send young employees as representatives to One Young World; we believe that the only way to tackle the climate crisis is to ensure broad and deep engagement, including with energy companies and businesses who bear responsibility for the climate crisis.”

VICE World News have also been made aware of an administrative error, of which One Young World was not responsible, which published a list of names of activists it wished to invite on the Extreme Hangout website portraying them as confirmed speakers. It was removed once spotted.

All the activists VICE World News has spoken to have emphasised that youthwashing is particularly affecting young BIPOC, many of whom have experienced racism on top of climate trauma and who question the real role they have on panel discussions. 

The Women & Gender Constituency, one of the official stakeholder groups of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) told VICE World News: "Young women activists, especially Black, Indigenous, and young activists of colour from the Global South, too often experience tokenisation of their voices, cooptation of their perspectives, and exploitation of their leadership in the COP space.” 

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“This often looks like world leaders, delegates, and the private sector inviting youth to photo ops and panels, but not truly wanting to listen to our radical solutions and demands for a more just future. We are not considered experts, yet youth are on the frontlines of the global climate movement, and are leaders in driving intersectional, feminist solutions to the climate crisis. Corporations or governments can’t youthwash or greenwash that away."

Kevin Patel, founder of an intersectional organisation that provides young activists with resources, feels that he is being invited to some events to “check the diversity box and the climate box.”

The car manufacturer General Motors invited him to speak at a private reception they were holding this week, in which he would talk alongside the company’s sustainability director, which he declined. “These things are happening all the time,” he told VICE World News in Glasgow. 

Sophia Kianni, founder of Climate Cardinals, an international youth-led nonprofit that translates climate change information, added that she was asked if she would sit on a panel held at the conference by an investment banking service. 

“I felt like the bank just wanted to use me to make them look good for a green service that...just isn’t green.”

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The youthwashing is happening online, as well as offline, around the climate summit. 

Luisa Neubauer, a prominent German climate activist involved in Fridays for Future with over 336,000 followers on Instagram, said that over the last few months an “endless” number of brands she thought she would obviously not endorse have reached out to her, including airline magazines. 

Speaking about the current situation at COP26, she said it was difficult as some people might be taking on opportunities without being fully informed. “It’s a really tricky situation for youth movements because we’re seeing our former allies, colleagues here being talked into stuff that we would usually oppose. It’s a difficult dynamic.”

She said that she often sends a simple “no” to brands because “I have to pick my battles,” but adds that some battles are worth it. 

“I got into a bit of a public fight with the head of Siemens, who claims to be really green. I think it shows it helps to call them out when they’re pretending to be green when they’re really not.” 

While the world leaders have left Glasgow, lots of young activists remain there, desperately trying to ensure that their message is heard and agreeing to as many interviews and meetings as they can. Siddiqa can’t remember the last time she ate, and that it was probably around 48 hours ago. “I’m really bad at saying no,” she said. 

“Smaller groups and smaller requests are hard to say no to because the most authentic interviews or relationships I’ve built are with independent media oftentimes, or friends who are doing a podcast. I want to be there for the community.” 

“But at the same time if I don’t take up that seat at the big panel with the big flashing lights, I will be replaced by someone else. And that someone else might not have it in their vocabulary or strength to say the truth. I have nothing to lose.” 

Update: This story has been updated with a statement from Extreme Hangout.