Amplifying Young Voices In The Fight Against Climate Change
By James Levelle
My name’s James Levelle. I’m a British filmmaker and adventurer on a mission to share inspirational human stories in nature that help us rediscover our vital relationship with and respect for the wild. Working in the world’s wildest places can be a risky business. I’d diced with death before but chasing hurricanes for a BBC series was something else. I was with a fisherman, Stephen, and his wife, Stephanie, on the south Florida coastline that was being smashed by a Category 5 hurricane most others had had the sense to flee from. The mission was to save their fishing boat from the storm, and I was there to capture it on camera.
We had to abandon the boat in a sheltered bay only to find ourselves stuck in a pickup truck with the third most powerful hurricane in American history on top of us. The engine roared furiously to power us through the 150mph winds that were snapping trees like matchsticks, sending power pylons crashing down around us and razing steel-reinforced concrete buildings to the ground.
“We’re gonna die in this damn truck!” screamed Stephen as electrical wires whipped menacingly across the tarmac. I’d seriously underestimated this cyclone. Hurricane Michael was a full-blown maniac who had us driving for our lives.
Spoiler alert: we survived. But experiencing climate chaos at its most extreme rocked me to my core. There is solid scientific consensus now that weather-related disasters such as hurricanes, floods and fires are becoming increasingly devastating, but as the climate crisis escalates, nowhere near enough is being done to stop it. Flying home from Florida on a jumbo jet, it was impossible for me to ignore the fact that I am part of the problem.
So, what to do? How could I help as a filmmaker and adventurer? Inspiration came in 2019 when millions of young people, many still too young even to vote, banded together in the biggest climate protests the world had ever seen. However, despite the phenomenon of seeing millions unite across time zones and cultures, our leaders and politicians didn’t seem to be listening. And then a lightbulb lit up in my brain. The next United Nations climate conference was due to be hosted in Chile that December, and I was going to make it my mission to amplify young voices by videoing their climate messages and delivering them in a film to the politicians at the UN summit in Santiago. I would use the power of film to offer them each their own ‘Greta moment’.
The journey – all 9,000 miles of it – was to be undertaken fossil fuel-free, and it turned out to be the most extraordinary and inspiring adventure of my life.
I set sail from the south coast of England, landed in northern France and cycled to Paris where young activists were demonstrating in the capital. They explained how their sense of powerlessness had been vanquished by meeting like-minded youths, coming together, and using peaceful protest to make their concerns heard. That afternoon, I found dozens of children had flocked to a nearby Parisian housing estate to meet an ‘urban shepherd’ and his flock of fifty sheep, who were happily munching away at the lush grass growing between the tower blocks. The shepherd was not only offering an extraordinary alternative to industrial animal agriculture – one of the biggest contributors to the climate crisis – but also a joyful way for local kids to learn about where their food comes from.
I raced on south to the Spanish border to meet the formidable barrier of the Pyrenees (which were even more gruelling to cross after a wrong turn forced to carry my bike and over 40kg of kit up a rocky mountain footpath!) before dropping down into San Sebastian. Here I met more young activists who, frustrated by the lack of climate action of local leaders, had taken it upon themselves to formulate planet-friendly plans and policies and deliver them to the regional legislators. These local leaders with the power to affect change were inspired by the proactive youngsters and working with them they were pushing the needle forward. Next came Madrid, where two entrepreneurial young women were pioneering their own hands-on solution to fast fashion industry with their sustainable label Aatma, before reaching Seville to board the Bark Europa, a remarkable 100-year-old tall ship that would be my floating home to cross the 60 million square miles of Atlantic Ocean between southern Spain and Latin America.
I stopped off on the island of Tenerife to meet yet more enterprising youngsters, who were working on an impressive permaculture project creating a sustainable, organic, and hydro efficient farming model to counter the fossil fuel-dependent, water wasteful intensive agriculture that dominates the island. Their circular, nature-based system was incredibly resilient, sensitive to the island’s ecosystem, and produced super tasty food, which I wolfed down in anticipation of the ocean odyssey to come. However, over a month later my satellite messenger pinged with an urgent message that nearly made me fall overboard. Civil unrest in Chile sparked by social injustice, human rights abuses and environmental crime had led the United Nations to cancel the Climate Conference in Santiago and relocate it to Madrid. I imagined the diplomats, government officials and politicians scrambling to handle this curveball, rescheduling travel plans and jumping on jets to Europe. That wasn’t an option for me. My ship has quite literally sailed. I was sailing a sluggish 4 knots south to Uruguay with no option to change this. The question was what to do when I got there?
Two weeks later I made landfall in the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, and made a beeline for a youth climate protest being organised by local Fridays For Future activists in the city centre. Feeling slightly deflated, it was the group’s go-getter leader, Clara, who insisted my mission to Chile was now more important than ever.
“Our message is not being heard,” she said. “South American voices are being silenced”.
Just as in Europe, I had promised the youth of Latin America I would amplify their voices by delivering their videoed climate messages to the UN Climate Conference. Clara revealed that even though the UN had moved to Madrid, a public climate festival was continuing in Santiago regardless. I made my decision. I would complete my journey and deliver on my promise to record and amplify as many young voices as I could.
There was no time to lose. This people’s Santiago climate summit kicked off at the same time as the UN, leaving me less than three weeks to race across the continent. There wasn’t time to cycle across Uruguay and Argentina and make time to record youth climate messages, so in Buenos Aires I persuaded Renault to lend me an electric vehicle, stuffed my bike in the back, and hit the road. With no charge points in the middle of the country, I was told the journey was impossible. The only way I’d succeed was if I could find local Argentinians along the route with industrial 32-amp power sockets I could adapt to fast charge my car. The locals didn’t disappoint. I was welcomed with open arms in every town and village as I charged across the continent. In one remote rural village, an entire school offered their support, and with local news crew cameras rolling, the kids told me how they were shifting to solar power and recycling all their waste. Even in the middle of nowhere, the next generation wasn’t waiting for adults to act. They got to work implementing solutions themselves.
After four days’ driving, I arrived in the drought-stricken city of Mendoza – the first person to drive an electric vehicle east to west across Argentina. A massive public protest was underway in the city and when I asked one young girl why she was demonstrating, her answer was simple – “water”! With a little more digging, I got to the crux of the matter: unconventional oil extraction operations were pressuring politicians to permit the expansion of ‘fracking’ in the area with claims of providing jobs, making Argentina energy self-sufficient, and generating wealth to end the nation’s ongoing economic crisis. However, for people suffering a seventh consecutive year of drought the colossal amounts of water these fracking operations would consume was untenable, and they simply didn’t believe that ‘fracking’ would make Argentina rich. The business model requires such enormous infrastructural investment that fracking operations rarely if ever break even, and only by constantly borrowing massive amounts of money can they produce the oil which is often sold at a loss. If that weren’t reason enough to dismiss fracking, renewable energy experts estimate there’s enough wind power in Patagonia to power the entire Latin American continent, and then some. Young people saw straight through the bullshit to a greener future they knew to be feasible with enough social and political will. By taking to the streets, they were trying to catalyse social change and pressure the politicians into responsible action.
My final obstacle between me and Santiago de Chile was the Andes Mountains, whose 4000-metre-high peaks were sadly too big a challenge for my little electric vehicle and so I jumped back on my bike. To cut a long story short, I narrowly dodged death by truck, scrambled over landslide strewn tracks, was whipped within an inch of my life by vicious winds, and pushed my lungs to the absolute limit. I took only a precious few moments to celebrate the ascent and then raced on down the other side headlong for Santiago and the climate summit. I found it to be in the grip of unprecedented public protest – the reason for which the United Nations had skipped town and moved the climate conference to Madrid. What I discovered, however, was an awe-inspiring and incredibly inspiring movement. Chileans from all walks of life had taken to the streets to make their voices heard concerning almost every conceivable social and environmental issue – climate change, women’s rights, clean water, education, wildlife conservation – and the nature of the protests was joyful, colourful, creative, and inclusive.
Meanwhile, I received a text message from Uruguayan activist, Clara, who incredibly was in Madrid! She’d received last-minute sponsorship to represent the youth of Uruguay at the UN conference and could present the video climate messages to the UN whilst I delivered the film to the People’s Climate Summit in Santiago. I sent her the video and then searched for the biggest platform I could find for me to deliver the film. My opportunity arrived at a climate festival in the city park. A huge ‘rock star’ stage had been erected in front of thousands of Santiago’s citizens, but the line-up was fully booked. I talked my way backstage and introduced myself to the organisers who amazingly had heard of me through local and national news, and promised to do what they could to squeeze me in. I waited nervously backstage and with only minutes left until the day’s end, I was ushered on stage. Thousands of miles away in Madrid, Clara was doing the same at the UN conference.
I’m not ashamed to say that my eyes welled up. After more than three months’ backbreaking travel and despite the devastating UN climate conference curveball, I’d done it. In that moment I realised that, in a way, I’d travelled over 9000 miles to go backwards – back to a younger, childish me who had believed as a boy that anything was possible. The young people I met championed vital imaginations not yet been blinded by adult cynicism and they refused to view the world from a narrow-minded, negative and apathetic perspective. Instead, they chose to focus on what they could do, and started doing it. And, in my opinion, the truth is they are the ones seeing things most clearly. Almost anything is possible if you really focus on your goal, put the work in and most crucially, truly believe in what you’re doing.
The success of my own mission was testament to this way of seeing the world, but it was the repeated examples of all the young people I’d met on my journey, refusing to bury their heads in the sand and instead pushing forward towards a vision they so clearly saw of a brighter better future that was the proof in the pudding. And that in a nutshell is the moral of this story. We humans have an extraordinary capacity to create any reality we can imagine. So, I say, dream big, work together, and watch the dream of a brighter future become real.
By James Levelle
James is a Nature-centric award-winning filmmaker, adventurer and storyteller – Discovery, Nat Geo, BBC – working in some of the most extreme and remote environments on the planet. He’s an ambassador for all things wild and an advocate of Nature-based, adventurous, and fun solutions to the ecological and climate crisis.