Sixteen teen and tween activists are suing Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey for violating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, each with heartbreaking stories of how climate change has affected them.

By Libby Ryan
September 25, 2019
KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images

Sixteen youth climate activists—including 16-year-old Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greta Thunberg—filed a human rights complaint with the United Nations stating that five countries have violated their basic human rights by not acting on climate change.

The complaint targets Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey for not taking sufficient action to stop the climate crisis, saying the countries have violated the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It cites government inaction on rising global temperates currently causing heat waves, forest fires, floods, and sea-level rise and states that "because children are among the most vulnerable to these life-threatening impacts, physiologically and mentally, they will bear the burden of these harms far more and far longer than adults."

"Petitioners, children from around the world, already carry that burden," the complaint continues. "Climate change is exposing them to life-threatening dangers and harming their health and development. For the indigenous petitioners, their thousand-years-old cultures are threatened by climate change. The climate crisis is a children's rights crisis."

Why is the U.S. not one of the nations addressed in the petition? "It's because they didn't ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child," explains Alexandria Villaseñor, 14, an activist from California, in a tweet. "They are the only U.N. member state not to do so." But youth activists are still pushing the U.S. to make changes in its climate policy, even as they push the entire world to do better.

The petitioners range in age from 8 to 17 and are from Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, India, Palau, Marshall Islands, Nigeria, South Africa, Sweden, Tunisia, and the United States. In the complaint, the 16 activists explain how climate change has affected their lives and their worries for the future—and their stories will inspire you to take action.

Greta Thunberg, 16, and Ellen-Anne, 8—Sweden

Thunberg ignited a global movement when she began her “Skolstrejk for Klimatet” (“School Strike for Climate”) in August 2018. She recently sailed to New York from London to avoid the carbon emissions released by plane travel. Thunberg addressed the United Nations shortly before the complaint was filed, asking the world leaders, "How dare you?"

"You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words and yet, I'm one of the lucky ones," Thunberg said in her speech. "People are suffering, people are dying."

Thunberg's fellow Swedish activist is 8-year-old Ellen-Anne, whose family is Sami, an indigenous people who traditionally herd reindeer—but climate change is destroying the arctic ecosystem where reindeer live and threatening the Sami culture and livelihood.

Alexandria Villaseñor, 14, and Carl Smith, 17—USA

Inspired by Thunberg's strike across the ocean, Villaseñor started the U.S. school climate strike in December 2018 after experiencing a wildfire in California (where she grew up). She has protested outside the U.N. every Friday since, as well as started her own nonprofit, Earthuprising.org. “I’ve been forced to organize a revolution instead of doing normal kid things,” Villaseñor stated on the petition's website.

Smith is a member of the Yupiaq tribe who grew up using traditional methods to hunt, fish, and gather food not far from the Arctic Circle. Smith has been vocal about the dangers facing the Yupiaq if global temperatures continue to rise, criticizing industry and government leaders for their inaction.

"I think they're acting slowly because they don't want to lose money," Smith said at a press conference after the announcement of the complaint. "And I think they should go see what climate change is doing to little villages and cities."

Chiara Sacchi, 17—Argentina

Sacchi has witnessed extreme weather patterns in her home near Buenos Aires, noticing more homes using air conditioning and fierce winters sometimes breaking into heat spells. "I think we are all quite desperate," she says in the petition. "It feels like we are alone, like no one knows what to do, and when you know what to do, nobody takes action."

Catarina Lorenzo, 12—Brazil

Lorenzo is passionate about Brazil's forests and oceans, which face deforestation and coral bleaching—something the 12-year-old has seen first-hand while surfing. Parts of Brazil also have severe water shortages, meaning sometimes the water supply to Lorenzo's house in Brazil shuts off without warning from the government. Her message to world leaders? “It is our future and world leaders should hear us," she says on the petition website. "If they don’t act to stop the climate crisis it is our future that will be affected.”

Iris Duquesne, 16—France

Born during the hottest summer in hundreds of years and having lived through additional heatwaves since, 16-year-old Duquesne says she thinks about climate change every day. “It just makes me angry… They don’t realize it will cost less money if we act now than if we act later," she says on the climate petition website and in the petition. "There will be climate refugees everywhere in Europe and the US. There will be tension and pollution and geography will be completely changed. There are islands that are going to disappear...I don’t want to have kids if they’re going to live in a world like that."

Raina Ivanova, 15—Germany

Hamburg resident Ivanova has been striking on Fridays—throughout intense heatwaves hitting Central Europe this year. She's also experienced extreme weather and says in the complaint that she worries for the rest of her family, saying climate change “is something that really scares me when I talk about it with my little sister."

Ridhima Pandey, 11—India

Pandey sued the Indian government at age 9 for not acting on the climate crisis, asking for the government to move away from fossil fuels and start reforestation projects. In the petition, she reports seeing the Ganges river flood near her home (leading to sewage contaminating the water) and watching the rainy season shorten—signs of increasing extreme weather patterns.

“Climate change is not a problem which any country can solve on its own. All the countries must join their hands together to solve this crisis as it is a global issue,” Pandey says in a statement.

David Ackley III, 16, Ranton Anjain, 17, and Litokne Kabua, 16—Marshall Islands

Ackley, Anjain, and Kabua all live on the Marshall Islands, islands in the Pacific that scientists predict could become unlivable within just decades as sea levels rise. Climate change is a constant threat to residents of the islands, both from rising tides that threaten homes (Kabua's family had to evacuate from their home) and new diseases spreading to the region (Ackley got chikungunya and Ranton got dengue fever, both sicknesses that used to be rare in the islands).

"I feel lost. I like to keep my mind off it because it scares me, but it still pops up a couple of times a day," Ackley says in the petition.

Deborah Adegbile, 12—Nigeria

Twelve-year-old Adegbile has experienced worsening asthma attacks due to the combination of rising temperatures and pollution in her home in Lagos, Nigeria. “Whenever I have an attack it takes about five days to get over it, and I’m usually hospitalized," she explains in the petition, saying she often misses school from the attacks. She also now gets malaria multiple times a year, which her family credits to increased flooding during the heavier rainy seasons—more flooding leads to more mosquitos, which carry malaria.

Carlos Manuel, 17—Palau

Originally from the Philippines, Manuel started his own Heirs to Our Oceans chapter at his school and became a local leader in climate change education. He reports seeing neighbors abandon beachside homes in Palau, and in his home of Koror the hospital must be moved due to risks from rising tides and storm surges.

Ayakha Melithafa, 17—South Africa

Last year, Cape Town residents followed strict restrictions hoping to prevent the city's municipal water supplies from running out. "We had to be really cautious so we don’t reach Day Zero," Melithafa says in the petition. "There were a lot of water restrictions. There are other people who grow their own food where I live, and it was really hard on them. It was hard to see them unable to feed their families because of the water restrictions."

Melithafa also recruits other young people to be part of the African Climate Alliance and says in a statement, “People who are older aren’t paying as much attention because they will not be as affected. They don’t take us children seriously, but we want to show them we are serious.”

Raslen Jbeili, 17—Tunisia

Jbeili has survived wildfires, floods, droughts, water shortages, and regular summer temperatures well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, although he has seen members of his community die from the fires and flash floods. "Sometimes I have nightmares that climate change is destroying our world," he says in the petition. "If we don’t do something, maybe we will face extinction. That is scary. It is not fair that my generation has to experience this."

What Happens Now

The U.N. will review the complaint and if they find that Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey have violated the rights of the child, they will advise the countries on how to create more aggressive plans to combat climate change.

How You Can Help

Youth strikers will take to the streets again on Friday, September 27, and are inviting adults to join them to make a statement that it's past time to take action on the climate crisis. You can also contact your local representatives and elected officials to see what their plans are to support climate action on local and federal levels (and vote!), as well as think critically about your personal carbon consumption and waste—buy local produce, use reusable containers, and recycle anything that can't be reused.

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