This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
Every day we're bombarded with reports and headlines about the irreversible damage we're collectively doing to the environment. Over a million species are on the brink of extinction, and the UN predicts that we have about 11 years left to save ourselves from irreversible climate disaster. Both the magnitude of the problem and the lack of political willpower to solve it is leaving people feeling utterly hopeless.
Eefke van der Wouw is the Dutch UN youth representative on sustainable development. As part of her role, she travels all over the Netherlands asking young people for their views on climate change, before taking their ideas to climate conferences in the Netherlands and abroad, with the aim of providing a bigger platform for young Dutch people.
I spoke to Eefke about how she deals with climate hopelessness, and how we can all stay inspired to keep fighting for the future of the planet in the face of so much opposition.
VICE: Hey Eefke. You’re relatively influential, so why do you regularly feel hopeless?
Eefke: In a way, I'm in the eye of the storm – working between the politicians, scientists, young people and climate strikers. When I'm talking to scientists they make clear that we have to do something right now. One moment you’re sitting opposite a crying climate scientist who emphasises the urgency of it all, and after that you’re back to the slow process of political negotiations. The UN especially showcases how slow political change comes about. All 193 countries have to agree with each other. We might spend three days discussing a topic, and after all that effort it gets pushed aside. In those moments I feel powerless. That's why it's important everyone in society does something, not just politicians or the UN.
When was the last time you felt utterly hopeless?
Last year at the climate summit [United Nations Climate Change Conference] in Poland. The crying climate scientist isn't a metaphor, it actually happened. We were in a conference room and a scientist was speaking about the state of the world and where it's headed. It was a very intense presentation, and at one point this guy burst into tears. My first thought was, 'Oh Jesus... what can I do if this is the way he looks at things?'
Do you think we’re fucked?
No. There’s a lot that can’t be saved, and that truly upsets me, but there is also a lot we can still do. That's the most important reason to do something. It’s not a hopeless situation, though it definitely feels that way sometimes.
What gives you hope?
That people are seemingly becoming more aware all over the world. People are aware of our [human] impact, whether it’s positive or negative. There’s a lot left to fight for.
You talk to a lot of young people about the climate crisis. What are they worried about?
When I'm in the Netherlands, I visit as many schools and events for young people as possible. People are so worried that it affects them mentally. After [the visits] they'll come up to me and say: "I feel some hope again and I've been reminded of what I can focus on, because I was really at a loss there for a bit."
The more information presented to you, the more useless you sometimes feel, because you can’t see the wood for the trees. I encounter more and more young people who have mental health problems related to climate change, and it worries me. The topic needs to be taken more seriously; young people don't ask for help because they often think the climate crisis isn’t enough of a reason to suffer mentally. And it is, of course. I’ll tell them that I cried like a baby when I heard the Amazon rainforest was burning. The taboo needs to disappear.
Sign up for our Climate Coverage newsletter if you want to receive our climate stories from all over the world. If you don't feel like waiting, here's what we've written about the climate crisis so far.
What do you tell people who feel hopeless in the face of climate change?
That their very existence matters. In my opinion, my generation is incredibly brave because we show that we're affected, whereas generations before us learned to build invisible walls. I feel like we’re breaking down those barriers. And the next step is: what can you do about that feeling of powerlessness? I try to help them with that.
What do you tell them?
First and foremost, I say that change is needed at every level – you don’t need to be at the UN to make a difference in the world. Aside from that, the issue is too big to solve in one fell swoop. Don’t focus on what’s out of your hands, but look for things you can do to contribute. For instance, you can tell all your friends and make your immediate personal environment more aware of the climate crisis. And you can’t do it alone, so look for people around you who inspire you, listen to you and help you. Last but not least, don’t be too hard on yourself. Don’t forget to laugh and enjoy yourself every now and then.