A young Black woman leaning on a fallen tree trunk and looking into the camera. The field behind her shows environmental degradation with dried grass.
Image credit: Houcine Ncib on Unsplash

“A lot of people living within the Global South are specifically affected by countries like the US who are the biggest polluters of our planet, and they are facing the negative consequences of our actions.” That’s according to Emiliano Juarez, a 2023–2024 New York Fellow with Our Climate, which centers and empowers young people to take on climate issues.

In global climate discussions, a transformative narrative is emerging, one that champions the leadership of the Global South and emphasizes the power of youth-led movements. The Global South, which includes Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and much of Asia and Oceania, bears the brunt of climate change’s impacts. For the most part, this area has historically had low rates of greenhouse gas emissions and yet is often disproportionately impacted by the effects. These regions face acute challenges, from rising sea levels threatening the very existence of island nations to prolonged droughts jeopardizing food security in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite adversities, the Global South is a wellspring of resilience and innovative solutions to the climate crisis, driven by a deep-seated connection to the land and community-centric approaches to environmental stewardship. It’s crucial for our climate crisis solutions to be led by people of color. As Juarez said, “We need leaders from the Global South to hold the US accountable for our actions and to fix and protect our planet all together, for everyone’s survival.” 

Importance of Diverse Leaders

A nuanced understanding of climate issues can often only be gained through lived experience, and diverse voices mirror the complexity of the ecosystems activists strive to protect.

The executive director of Our Climate, Catherine Mongella, who stepped into her role a year ago, hails from Tanzania. Her journey is a testament to the perspectives climate leaders from the Global South bring to the table, with personal insights into the tangible impacts of climate change. Mongella described her nonprofit leadership role as an opportunity to “make sure I can represent the organization at its best, as well as make sure I stay true to my heritage and values as an individual.”

Before joining Our Climate, Mongella was the executive director of Earth Guardians. This nonprofit trains youth to be influential leaders at the intersections of environmental and climate justice, using art, storytelling, on-the-ground projects, civic engagement, and legal action to address the issues we face as a global community.

“Their stories tell their ‘why’ and how they came into the climate space, and we use this as momentum to decide on which bills to advocate for.”

A leader from the Global South understands what it means to work locally to address climate and environmental degradation affecting communities while also influencing the world climate movement as a whole. The climate movement’s strength lies in its diversity. Youth from varied backgrounds must be engaged to ensure the movement represents the global community. In Our Climate, young people ages 14 to 24 nationwide are encouraged to participate—particularly in the partner states of Florida, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and Washington. The majority of the youth involved are people of color.

This inclusivity is crucial, as the effects of climate change are not uniform, varying dramatically across different regions and communities.

Empowering the Youth Vanguard

In recent years, frustrated by government leaders’ lack of urgency, youth have turned to the courts as a potential path forward for climate action.

Since 2020, Our Climate has celebrated the passage of 22 climate justice policies advocated by youth. In the last two years, the nonprofit has mobilized over 4,000 students from communities across the United States to fight for climate justice through legislative advocacy, media engagement, and campus organizing. In that same period, the nonprofit organized over 112 legislative activities to build power for climate justice policy at state and federal levels and supported students to organize over 113 legislative actions.

In New York, Our Climate’s team of youth leaders, including fellows, field representatives, and field advisors, work to hold the state accountable for implementing the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. They also advocate for climate action, good green jobs, and environmental, economic, and racial justice with the Climate and Community Investment Act.

Our Climate leaders in Florida mobilized young voters across the state by hosting youth outreach events on college campuses leading up to the midterm election. The youth team also advocated strongly against a harmful anti-solar net metering bill that was eventually vetoed.

Some of the power and strategy behind this work comes from youth in the fellowship programs telling their personal experiences. “Their stories tell their ‘why’ and how they came into the climate space,” says Mongella, “and we use this as momentum to decide on which bills to advocate for.”

The Communities Most Impacted

In Washington, youth leaders collaborate with frontline communities across the state and advocate for climate justice bills. The bills include:

    • The Growth Management Act’s HB 1099, which improves the state’s climate response through updates to the state’s comprehensive planning framework
    • HB 1220, which supports emergency shelters and housing through local planning and development regulations to protect vulnerable communities from the effects of climate change
    • SB 5042, reforming the Growth Management Act to protect forests and farms from harmful development

“We cannot advocate for what we do not understand.”“Our key priorities are to firstly empower our team to do more outreach in frontline communities which are impacted by the climate crisis,” Mongella said. “Through engaging the frontline communities, we ensure that the policies we lobby for will be sustainable and have an actual impact to those who need it the most.”

Leadership teams and youth supported by climate justice organizations must represent the people and communities most impacted by the climate crisis. Bringing together a mosaic of perspectives fosters a richer, more effective discourse on climate justice and sustainability.

“We have seen the gap in our communities with lack of understanding of the concepts and how they directly impact the state our climate is in,” according to Mongella, citing the Carbon Dioxide Removal program (CDR), which advances multiple approaches to removing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Our Climate is training youth in five states and doing a pilot program to gauge both interest in and understanding of CDR.

This support is not just financial; it’s about providing platforms for these voices to be heard, fostering collaborations that transcend geographical boundaries, and championing policies.

Mongella described youth organizers as “eager to learn more.…We cannot advocate for what we do not understand—and for youth to take a stand for CDR, we are starting with giving them the knowledge needed to make such a decision.”

The Role of Nonprofits in the Climate Narrative

The vision for the future is clear: a transition from extractive economies to equitable and regenerative systems. This vision champions not just environmental sustainability but social justice, recognizing the interconnectivity between the health of our planet and the wellbeing of its inhabitants.

Nonprofit organizations have a pivotal role in this evolving landscape, including amplifying the voices of the Global South and the youth, ensuring that the climate movement is as diverse as the world it seeks to save. This support is not just financial; it’s about providing platforms for these voices to be heard, fostering collaborations that transcend geographical boundaries, and championing policies that reflect a commitment to justice and sustainability.

Another way to get involved is to support innovative programs that keep youth leaders engaged and uplifted. One such program is Our Climate’s Resilience as Resistance, which Mongella describes as “our effort in prioritizing the mental health aspect—which has been overlooked in the climate space….We are putting in an effort to create a safe space for our team, our fellows, and youth in general within frontline communities to identify when they need support, and provide them with professionals who can support them, along with a community of youth in the climate space who can resonate with their challenges as well as [their] coping mechanisms.”

Such support will help foster a new generation of environmental leaders committed to a sustainable and just future. As a clarion call for collective action, the climate crisis demands a movement that is inclusive, collaborative, and driven by a vision for a just and sustainable world. Leaders like Mongella show the power of diverse, youth-led activism in shaping our environmental future. As we stand at this critical juncture, the question is not whether we can afford to embrace this new paradigm but whether we can afford not to.