Young people around the world are speaking out increasingly about the dangers of climate change and taking actions, too, to reduce the risks of global warming in their lifetimes.
In this edition of Columbia Energy Exchange, host Bill Loveless talks with Akshat Rathi, the editor of a new book called "United We Are Unstoppable," a collection of essays by 60 young people about their determination to save the world from climate change.
The book is a stirring collection of stories about the impacts of climate change that are already taking place or are likely to do so in the future from activists, many of them from developing countries where the results of global warming often go unnoticed.
Bill and Akshat discuss this new book, the message it sends and its significance at a time when the risks of climate change loom large, especially for generations that will live through it this century.
Based in London, Akshat writes for Bloomberg about people and their ideas for tackling climate change. Previously, he was a senior reporter at Quartz and a science editor at The Conversation. He has also worked for The Economist and the Royal Society of Chemistry.
Akshat has a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Oxford and a degree in chemical engineering from the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai. He was a 2018 participant in the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative, a program at the Center on Global Energy Policy that helps energy journalists deepen their understanding of complex topics associated with energy and environmental issues.
Ndéye Marie Aida Ndieguene
They were playing along the beach with a ball at their feet and fury in their eyes. They were playing on this strip of land, between heaven and earth and between earth and ocean. The Atlantic faced them, immense and impetuous. They played on this strip of land, which year after year shrank under the helpless gaze of the young boys and girls who frequented it every day.
Today, it has disappeared in the total indifference of a world which, no doubt, had forgotten that each piece of soil, just as all the pieces of planet Earth, are equal.
I started this text without speaking of context. You are in Kayar, a small town located 58 kilometres from Dakar, the capital of Senegal. Kayar is on Senegal’s coast, which stretches over 700 kilometres. The ocean has always been the main source of income for this fishing community. Kayar is famous for its fish market and its coast.
Let’s go back to the young people on the beach, to the young girls splashing their feet in the water, to the rustling of the waves that fall at the foot of the continent. The ocean has turned against its sons. Around the world, islanders and coastal populations tremble with dread in the face of rising sea levels. There is not a day that goes by without talk about crumbling coasts, disappearing islands, floods, climate refugees.
The Kayarois were once the masters of the sea. They tamed it from generation to generation, but today it is out of control. The boys’ soccer field was cut in half in less than ten years. The pirogues, traditional boats used by Senegalese fishermen, are no longer kept on the coast. There are no more photos of canoes lined up as far as the eye can see facing the ocean. Today it is necessary to bring them in further, and alas it is not uncommon now to see canoes pushed by men onto the land and sheltered.
And if you take the time to stop, if you take the time to ask them, they will tell you, ‘The sea is rising, our canoes, and even our homes are in danger.’ Kayar is in danger. Faced with the climate emergency, faced with the rising waters, constant flooding, coastal erosion, the population of Kayar remains powerless. Nothing protects people from the fury of the ocean.
In Bargny, 31 kilometres from Dakar, the pattern is the same. The sea advances silently. Local populations, powerless, see their homes disappear. Their houses collapse in the face of total indifference. There is no policy in place. We prefer to close our eyes, to focus on the other world. The world of commitments, major reforms, major projects capable of saving cities.
Talking about the disastrous effects of climate change without talking about Saint-Louis of Senegal and its emblematic Guet Ndar would be a sacrilege.
Guet Ndar is a fishing village located in Saint-Louis that was flooded, creating real climate refugees. The sea, friend and main resource of this fishing village, once again turned against its sons. Guet Ndar was overwhelmed. The cemeteries were invaded by the waters, the houses collapsed, and nothing was done to help.
Is there a two-speed climate reality? Are there two planets? Or are we the pieces of one and the same planet?
Why, then, is the situation on the Senegalese coast not worrying? Why are our climate refugees left stranded, and why is their situation totally ignored? Have you thought about the future of my country? We, the southern countries, produce less than 1 per cent of global gas emissions but we are suffering the full brunt of the disastrous effects of climate change.
So are we collateral damage? Do they not realise that we are all part of the same world?
This is an excerpt from United We Are Unstoppable: 60 Inspiring Young People Saving Our World edited by Akshat Rathi and published by John Murray. You can pre-order the book now and it will be available on August 6.
Bill Loveless: Hello and welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. I’m Bill Loveless. Our guest today is Akshat Rathi, a Reporter who covers science, energy and the environment for Bloomberg News and the Editor of a new book called “United We Are Unstoppable”, a collection of essays by 60 young people about their determination to save the world from climate change. Based in London, Akshat writes for Bloomberg about people and their ideas for tackling climate change. Now in this new book, he helps young people around the world to tell very personal stories about the dangers they face from global warming in their lifetimes.
Akshat, previously was a Senior Reporter at Quartz and a Science Editor at The Conversation. He’s also worked for The Economist and the Royal Society of Chemistry. He has a PhD in Organic Chemistry from the University of Oxford and a degree in chemical engineering from the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai. I had the pleasure of first meeting Akshat in 2018 when he participated in the Energy Journalism Initiative at the Center on Global Energy Policy, a program that helps Energy Journalists deepen their understanding of the complex topics associated with energy and environmental issues. I've enjoyed following his coverage ever since. Here we talk about this new book, the message it sends, and its significance at a time when the risks of climate change loom large, especially for generations who will live through it, this century. Well, here is our conversation. I hope you enjoy it.
Akshat Rathi, welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange.
Akshat Rathi: Great to be here.
Bill Loveless: Your background is a bit different from that of many journalists covering energy and climate change with a PhD in Organic Chemistry delving into complexities of the science is second nature to you. What led you to journalism?
Akshat Rathi: It’s a roundabout route as you point out; you don’t usually do a PhD in science to become a journalist. I got started writing back in undergrad just as a hobby. It was fun thing to do to be able to talk about gossip in college and with a group of friends we put together a magazine which I'm very happy to say continues to be published, now online, but we had a print version then. And that stuck with me. I was studying chemical engineering and then I decided to do a PhD in chemistry. I’ve always drawn to the science and the beauty of science and so doing the PhD wasn’t a decision that was hard for me. I really, really wanted to pursue it. But somewhere down the route of doing a PhD, I realized the life of an academic is not as glamorous. You have to work in your lab or you have to write these grand proposals every few months, just to keep doing what you really want to do, which is to explore science and to explore the world of ideas.
And so at some point in my PhD I decided maybe the right thing to do is to try and see if I can convert my hobby which is writing into a job and stay in the world of ideas.
Bill Loveless: Well, the field and the profession certainly is that much better for you having made that decision. Well, let’s talk about this book, how did it come about and how did you become involved in it?
Akshat Rathi: It started in September last year. So, even before that we had seen this movement of young people grow rapidly and these protests were swellings in sizes and cropping up everywhere. And September last year, in some way was a culmination of what this movement had become. And during that time and in the lead up to it, we had a lot of journalists cover the protests, cover what activists were doing. But I felt like the stories that were being told were a little bit same. And it didn’t really represent the diversity and the size of the movement, both in people but also places. And so I put out this essay in my newsletter saying that, that we have and Greta Thunberg, this inspirational teenager that has started this movement who wants us to listen to other stories.
And so, I linked to a bunch of other people’s stories and my book editor at that time said this is actually a very interesting idea. Do you think you could bring a few of these voices and make a book out of it, a short one? So that’s how it came.
Bill Loveless: Interesting. And you mentioned Greta Thunberg, you describe her as the face of the youth climate movement, what do you mean by that?
Akshat Rathi: Media has – as I've learned about the industry has its biases when you, you create heroes as you go along, because when somebody does something good and interesting you write about them. And when somebody else writes about them you also as a journalist who’s not written about them wants to write about them. And in that creation of a hero, so many other heroes are lost. And so in a way Greta has become the face of it and she tells everybody that she isn’t the leader, she isn’t the face of this movement. This movement is so big and vast and the impact of climate change is so big and vast that we should listen to others. And so that’s what I wanted to try and do, bring out the other heroes that we don’t usually see.
Bill Loveless: She’s such an inspiration to them as you say; I mean, any number of them among these 60 essays mention her, praise her and call her their inspiration. You write that the youth climate movement has sprung up from the grassroots; it’s brought millions into the fold and changed the global conversation. How is it done so?
Akshat Rathi: I think we think about generational change in bringing about cultural change, in bringing about a change of mindset, but we don’t really always figure out how exactly it happens. And in some way with respect to climate change this generation of young activist is showing us what that change looks like. Many of the stories in the book talk about their specific experiences of natural disasters. Many of them we can now link directly to climate change and those experiences stay with you for life. And now these are happening at scales affecting millions, perhaps billions of people around the world on an annual basis. And so we are starting to see this experience now percolate into frustration and eventually action and I think that action because young people don’t have the means to change the world is -- the way to do it is through strikes and through protests.
Bill Loveless: Yeah. And they can be or at least some of these young folks are encouraged that what they are doing is powerful, I mean, one was Leah from the United States, she’s 19, she wrote, “we made it clear that we are not simply bodies holding up signs. We challenge the political incompetence. We organize tactfully and we help bring forward the solutions. Youth has power,” Leah writes. What does she mean by that?
Akshat Rathi: Leah story is a very interesting one, where she has indeed not just understood that youth has power but also made something of it. At her age of being a teenager, she’s been able to work with a Representative in the Minnesotan government to put forward a bill which didn’t get passed, but it got to the floor. And to be able to do that at that young age, gives you a tremendous amount of confidence in your own abilities and perhaps hope that this system can be changed if you have the right people doing the right thing.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, and I think it’s impressive, Akshat, you bring up that her involvement in that legislation, because some view protests as, no, some view them as a lot of noise, right or sincere activities that you know, may not go anywhere but in a number of these instances you can point out or the writers point out that they’ve done something tangible to help change the world we live in.
Akshat Rathi: Yeah, and I think it’s one of those things where a lot of these young activists have also been introduced to climate change through the science itself. We’ve – there are still challenges in the education system, but our ability to understand how climate change happens and what it – what impacts it can have and what impacts it will have is filtering through in the education system. And so these young people are able to connect the dots in a way, my generation which is, I'm not that much older, I'm 33, but my generation we didn’t have that, as a teenager I don’t, I remember I know, I knew about climate change but there wasn’t the sense of urgency that now the science is so clear on.
Bill Loveless: Does the movement get the sort of attention that in the press and elsewhere that you think it deserves?
Akshat Rathi: It is starting to certainly. And I think you’ve talked to a number of people here on the podcast, you had Justin Worland from Time earlier and the conversations that our climate story is now ending up on the front page, yes they are. And even during a pandemic, even during another crisis that we are facing, the interest and the importance of the subject certainly hasn’t been lost and that’s a hopeful sign.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, but the youth movement, do you think the youth movement is getting the same sort of attention?
Akshat Rathi: It did for a while and again, now that the strikes can’t happen because of the struggles of the pandemic and our measure to control it. It has a little – it has lost a little bit of steam, I mean, one of the things I've had the pleasure to do is not just edit this book, but also keep in touch with many of these activists and it’s a struggle to be able to do things online is not the same as being able to organize in person. But I think it’s going to be resilient, because they haven’t stopped, they’re still talking about it. And if we know one thing about the next generation they are very well connected to the internet and they have learned how to use it to their advantage. And so I think even though it’s sort of fallen off the radar, the youth climate movement specifically because we aren’t seeing the pictures of people on the streets, does not mean that it’ll go away.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, you mentioned the student strikes and many of us are familiar with them, but some may not be, can you tell us a little bit about what the strikes were about? And what's happened with them?
Akshat Rathi: So, when – they started out of a place of frustration but one of the things that they all want and the common thing that emerges is to get governments and increasingly companies as well to listen to the scientists, that there are clear signs that we need to be cutting emissions and before this year, we know that this year, because of the pandemic and our decreased amount of energy be that flights, be that electricity, before this year we hadn’t really seen a major decline in emissions, and we need that decline. We can argue about the magnitude of what that decline needs to be, but the science is very clear on that. And that’s the demand that they’ve made. And I think that’s a very strategically interesting and important decision that rather than making demands that the students themselves have, they’ve said listen to the scientists because they’ve been doing this work for decades and you really haven’t acted according to what the science wants us to do.
Bill Loveless: Right. And they demonstrated on a regular basis, it began with Greta, but it spread around the world and students struck –
Akshat Rathi: Yes.
Bill Loveless: -- to make their point.
Akshat Rathi: Yeah. And I wanted to read an excerpt from one of the things that gets lost in this – in our coverage of climate change is it tends to be from where we are, where the journalists are. And the bias then tends to be that we talk about climate issues in the West or in rich countries because that’s where the media is the strongest, the loudest. And one of the goals I had with the book was to try and showcase stories from so many other parts of the world that deserve to be heard. So one of the contributors I had was Marie and she’s from Senegal, she’s 24 years old, she’s also a novelist and she wrote about these two towns, one whose coastline is being eaten by sea level rise and the villagers who depend on fishing for their livelihoods are losing it. And another town which had a severe devastating flood and hasn’t really recovered.
And so she goes on to say and I quote “Is there a two speed climate reality, are there two planets? Or are we the pieces of one and the same planet. Why then is the situation on the Senegalese coast, not worrying? Why are our climate refugees left stranded and why is their situation totally ignored? Have you thought about the future of my country? We the southern countries produce less than 1% of global emissions, but we are suffering the full brunt of the disasters effects of climate change.”
Bill Loveless: She makes us think about things that we may not be aware of, we don’t take the time to look into, that we may be uncomfortable with.
Akshat Rathi: Yeah. And that’s the other aspect, it’s – I come to journalism not just from a route of being educated as a scientist, but also as somebody who grew up in India who’s seen poverty and who’s seen suffering and who’s able to connect with the issues that vast majority of the population still experiences. And as I've worked in journalism for the last eight years and mostly here in London, in the UK, I've traveled of course, but my base has been the UK, is this lack of representation from countries that are being effected and perhaps just because I come from India that strikes me as something that is a big loss for, Oh! It’s storytelling, but also of our understanding of the world and so my hope was that with this book which we have young and climate leaders from 40 different countries we’d be able to show the breadth of what climate change and what its impact feels like.
Bill Loveless: You mentioned storytelling and I think it’s just so important because so often our reading about climate change and our following the course of events involving the environment, is done in – on the basis of strictly scientific terms, of political terms right, where we’re looking at, we’re trying to understand some new report or we’re struggling with the politics of the issue at the moment then it would be totally ignorant of science and often overlooked is just some good stories, and that’s what this book is about. It’s – they’re good stories, I mean, some of them are difficult to read because as you mentioned the one that you just brought to us, others are just inspiring you come away saying well, I mean, these young folks are doing some interesting things here. So, yeah, it’s an aspect of storytelling and I think as journalists we need to be reminded of that all the time.
Akshat Rathi: Yeah. And these stories stick with people so, another excerpt I wanted to read was from Ted who’s 18 years old and he’s from Myanmar and he writes, “In May 2008, Myanmar was hit by Cyclone Nargis which was the worst disaster that country has ever faced. Thousands of people lost their lives and millions became homeless. At the time, I was about six. I remember witnessing the cyclone with my family from the small window of my house, the wind uprooting trees, tearing roof tops apart. Although there were only a few casualties in the city of Yangon where I live, compared to the other delta regions, we witnessed scenes no one had ever imagined. Even today I can hear the sound of the wind in my ears when I think about that tragedy.”
Bill Loveless: Well, yeah, yeah. And we can hear it too, if we take a moment to listen.
Akshat Rathi: Yeah.
Bill Loveless: There are some dire messages like that about the devastation that’s already occurring for example I recall Stamatis from Greece he’s 22 and he wrote, “I am campaigning for a future, not a better future, but a future of any kind. Humanity as a whole is at risk” he writes. But there were – there were hopeful signals too, it’s not all gloom and doom in this book and I guess that’s an important point to make. I recall Federica from Italy, she’s 25 and she wrote, “I believe that we young people are strong force in the fight against the climate crisis and that we will prevail.”
Akshat Rathi: Yes, and it’s – it is difficult reading, I mean, to me even editing it was hard, but also in some way the climate beat itself is hard, and we’ve talked about this amongst journalists but this is true of others, being able to cover disasters day in and day out is a hard job to do, it’s difficult on people’s mental health, and that’s why in some way this book isn’t just about the stories of disasters, much the book is how the stories of disasters have shaped these people to try and find solutions to the problem. And that’s also being the bias on my own journalism, now we don’t – we do need to understand the climate problem, but we don’t need to understand it to act, we definitely need to act, that’s very clear.
And when we start thinking about all the solutions that we have in front of us, there are so many of them and these kids are showing us that we can adopt many of them very quickly.
Bill Loveless: How did you find these young folks, Akshat?
Akshat Rathi: So, luckily I got assistance from the publisher and so with an assistant editor at the publisher we were able to mine the internet to be able to find these people. So, because this generation is so active on online, mostly Instagram and to use hashtags and you are able to go and explore and find these people and message them and say here’s what we want to try and do, would you be interested? And we were hoping and aiming for maybe 20, 25 essays, we were flooded with responses. And I can’t be happier than being able to have 60 which is less than half that wrote to us.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, you mentioned all these – all the things we’re living through right now, I mean, how does the book play now, I mean, the pandemic and heightened concerns over environmental and racial justice?
Akshat Rathi: That’s another aspect which I don’t – in some way the stories speak for themselves, right, a lot of the kids, most of the countries represented here are developing countries and there is this feeling that comes through in the book and I'm sure you realize that they feel slighted, they feel that they are being left behind. They feel there is injustice done to them, one that they had no control over. And in some way to really grapple with this issue, we must first listen and in some way that’s what this book tries to do with the essays, it lets the climate activists speak for themselves and why they are so passionate about doing what they want to do.
Bill Loveless: And we talk about science too and some of these writers remind us that some of the solutions are right in front of us in terms of how we treat nature and the environment, I recall Harley from Scotland, she’s 15 writing, “scientists talk about future technologies that will capture carbon di-oxide from the atmosphere, but these technologies already exist. They are called trees and peatland. These are the natural solutions that we must not forget.”
Akshat Rathi: And it’s not just that, there’s another story in there of a young man from Togo, who says in his town that majority of the tree cutting is happening because people needed charcoal to cook and he wanted a solution and the solution for him was to try and get cooking gas which is a fossil fuel to more people. And that itself is a climate solution in the space that they live in that use of fossil fuels if you’re saving trees is not a bad thing as you transition away to even cleaner fuels.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, some solutions and some of them are difficult ones that we are dealing with. Well, what impact has this book had on your reporting on energy and climate issues? You touched on that a bit a minute ago, but gosh, it must have had having edited and read and staying in touch as well with these – many of these journalists, it must have had some impact on you?
Akshat Rathi: Certainly. One thing that has definitely showed up and I continue to use it as a resource is if there is a natural disaster in any of these countries, I am able to get in touch with these activists and to be able to know on the ground what's the reality and then connect them, to other journalists here where I work now at Bloomberg, because there are 2700 journalists in this newsroom and to try and tell these stories of disasters as they come out. I think that is the other aspect of climate journalism. We are going to see actually two speed realities, one speed in which climate impacts get worse and another in which climate solutions get bigger. And those will play out because of the inertia in the system, warming is going to continue to happen for quite some time even if we start cutting emissions now.
And so to be able to have this group of young motivated climate leaders is such a resource.
Bill Loveless: Yeah and do you think any differently in terms of what you are reporting on, what you are writing about, perhaps your selection of topics or the way that you are portraying them?
Akshat Rathi: I think it’s, again just from my background itself, I've always been biased to try and bring in as many voices from as many places as possible. And so I do think of doing that, I mean, I write mostly on the interface of climate and energy. So, most of my day job I'm spending talking to executives, to analysts, to academics but those are only one side of the equation for how we deal with climate change, very influential side but there’s another side of how people and social change will have to happen alongside all these policy and technology changes that we have to make. And so my hope is to try and represent those social changes as they happen alongside the massive movement that we have going.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, and some of these folks will emerge as leaders either political leaders or thought leaders of some sort, educators, you probably – you mentioned that young activist in Minnesota who came up with a piece of legislation, that’s pretty cool. You’ve probably seen the potential in some of these folks who are doing much bigger things going forward.
Akshat Rathi: Yeah, and some of these projects they spawn their own interest so, one of the young climate activist Alexander Whitebrook from Australia who’s featured in the book is starting his own podcast. And he wants to be able to tell these kinds of stories in podcast form. And so he’s going to launch his podcast alongside the book, which to me is just wonderful, to be able to see that there’s a multiplier effect in being able to tell these stories of people in different places.
Bill Loveless: And you’re staying in touch with these folks as well?
Akshat Rathi: Yes.
Bill Loveless: You talked to them, you see follow up, you see some of the things that they are doing even since they have finished writing these and probably getting more attention in their own countries, their own hometowns.
Akshat Rathi: Yeah, and that’s the other aspect which is that you try and not just tell these stories which is of course coming out in a book form, but also enable the climate leaders to then tap into their own journalistic networks within their own countries. So one of the first pieces that came out about the book came, came out in Seychelles, where there’s an activist and who knows a journalist who was able to get a copy for a journalist. And so those are things. these are organic things that I didn’t expect to happen but they’re happening and it’s just wonderful to watch.
Bill Loveless: Yeah, I've been introduced to some countries, I have to be honest that I wasn’t even that aware of or maybe not aware of at all, Eswatini in Southern Africa, right. And Comoros an island nation in the Indian Ocean, I know about them now. It was like a geography lesson, in many, many ways. By the way, you are working on another book, can you tell us anything about it?
Akshat Rathi: So, I mentioned the book editor at the very beginning and that’s because that was the first book I was working on, the book went out in an auction last year and it’s about climate solutions and how to scale them. And the idea is to look at every aspect of the emissions pie and how we can shrink it to get to zero. And it tells stories both historical and current of people trying to scale those ideas and solutions to be able to solve the climate problem, so it cuts across technology spaces, across policy landscapes and across geographies. It may not have 40 countries in the book, but it certainly has more than five.
Bill Loveless: You mentioned the need for a good storytelling we talked about that, but what else do you think is missing in coverage of news coverage of energy, the environment and climate change these days. There’s a lot of good reporting, there’s certainly more of it now, than there was even a year or so ago and that’s good. But what's still lacking? I mean, what should others in the profession be thinking about?
Akshat Rathi: One reason I joined Bloomberg was because everybody I talked to at some point mentioned that finance is a bottleneck when it comes to climate solutions. Financial journalism can be hard to read, and is, like science journalism can be pretty heavy in jargon and is read by a very small set of people. But I feel like that is one aspect of climate journalism that deserves more storytelling, that deserves more interest from journalists across the board, because how the money moves is how our solutions will come to reality. And hopefully through my work here at Bloomberg but also just broadly, I hope that we see more climate finance stories or really finance stories that connect climate change to solutions.
Bill Loveless: Yeah that is always what's lacking. I think often having been a creature of Washington myself and worked there for so many years as a energy reporter, we often think in terms of policy and politics without making the connection to the reality of the marketplace and what's actually – what can actually be financed, what can actually be built in a reasonable period of time.
Akshat Rathi: And these don’t have to be stories of just large finance corporations and banks and executives. These are stories that will impact and are impacting the wallets of every person living on the planet. If you have a mortgage in a flood prone area, your mortgage is going to go up. You might struggle to find insurance at all. Those are small ways in which your life is being affected. All of us in some way we have a pension and we are exposed to the stock market and the stock market is all the companies in the world and they are struggling to tackle all the impacts of climate change. And so there is this need to be able to connect the big movements and the big trends back down to individual impact and individual storytelling that I’d love to be able to do more of and see more of.
Bill Loveless: Well, you certainly made some advance and more importantly some 60 young people around the world have done so in an impressive way, the book is called “United We Are Unstoppable”, it’s a collection of essays by these 60 young people about their determination to save the world from climate change. Akshat Rathi, thank you very much for sitting down and telling us about this book and these impressive, amazing young people.
Akshat Rathi: Thanks so much for having me.
Bill Loveless: For more on Columbia Energy Exchange and the Center on Global Energy Policy go to our website at energypolicy.columbia.edu or find us on social media @ColumbiaUEnergy. For Columbia Energy Exchange I'm Bill Loveless, we’ll be back again next week with another conversation.