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18-year-old climate activist shares how she finds courage, resilience


Natalie Sweet right before she met the core strike planning team group for the September 20th, 2019 global climate strike.

Vivien Sweet

Almost half of young people (45%) say their feelings about climate change negatively impact their daily lives. Over three quarters of four (77%) young people believe that climate change is threatening their lives.

That’s according to a survey of 10,000 young people across 10 countries released this month by academics at Stanford, Oxford, and the University of Bath, among others.

CNBC spoke with Natalie Sweet, an 18-year-old climate organizer, in August about her experience living with and moving through climate anxiety. Sweet became involved with Zero Hour, a youth-lead climate activism organization, as a freshman in high school and worked her way up to become the communications director. Sweet is now focusing on her first year at Wesleyan College, and will continue to be part of Zero Hour’s communications team.

Below are extracts from Sweet’s telephone interview with CNBC. These have been removed to ensure clarity and conciseness.

‘We were not the ones who started Shell and Exxon’

There’s a different sense of urgency with youth because we hear things like ‘Miami will probably be underwater in the next century,’ ‘these heat waves and storms will just become all more frequent.’ It’s not an issue for them, but it is something that older people are more aware of. This frustrates me as I believe this is my generation’s mess.

Exxon, Shell and other companies were started by us. This was not our generation. We now find ourselves in this huge mess caused by rapid-fire, anthropogenic climate changes since the 1950s.

Even if youth are appreciated for their efforts in combating climate change, the feeling is often, “Wow! I’m so proud!” All of you are doing a great job. Please help us. Come join us.

If adults cared about climate and teens care about it, I would love to see them join forces and leverage the collective power and influence of a multigenerational movement. It is inspiring to have the older members of climate activism work together and help us achieve our goals.

While we’re determined to continue convincing the adults, it’s hard to stay focused and keep going.

Burnout is real. Is it worth all the effort?

When I was in high school, Zero Hour was something I became involved with. It was May 2018.

I had never heard of principles for climate justice before that. When people talk about climate change, most of them are talking about adults and wilderness conservation. However, Zero Hour was the first place I was able to see a group prioritize climate change human rights.

Although my parents are eco-conscious and have been for a long time, I don’t think they were as well informed on climate justice or how it affects all of us.

Natalie Sweet, youth climate organizer

Photo courtesy Ava Olson

I joined the national communications team in January 2019 in my sophomore year.

My national presence was amazing, and I did social media work like sending out press releases, working with reporters, and coordinating online campaigns. I started getting really involved and eventually just became the communications director — the director of the team — after a previous director stepped down. It was December 2019. From that time, I was a communications director. Since then, I have managed the social media and press teams. My team consists of approximately 14 people.

At its peak, it was possible to spend anywhere from eight hours to twelve hours per week doing Zero Hour Work, which includes calls. It was extremely busy.

It causes me a lot to feel burnt out, frustration, and even anger when I push for policies that aren’t being passed. It makes me very emotional and burnt out.

It’s very distressing. It is because not only does it feel like my work has not paid off, but we are also fighting against what seems like a ticking bomb. There is no time like the present to save this planet.

No more time. Sometime I feel exhausted from the amount of work that I have done and I don’t really see the benefits. Sometimes it feels like I was wasting my time. How can we make our points heard if politicians won’t listen?

How to stay engaged: Find your people, take breaks

The community of people that I’ve met through organizing has been so wonderful and joyous.

We held a retreat together in Washington, D.C., December 2019. There we shared our goals and created a timeline for 2020. Unfortunately, Covid made it obsolete. This feeling of belonging and being in community, and also knowing there are others who share a love for organizing and care about the environment and people, is what keeps me going.

It would be difficult to find the motivation to continue organizing if this was a solo battle, where you feel like you are alone and there is no one to help you. It was amazing to have people who motivate and push you. They also shared your fears, worries, and hopes. That is how Zero Hour has helped me to connect with others.

It is important to take regular restful breaks.

Zero Hour requires that all directors have a minimum of two weeks off, as we recognize that youth can find it very draining to fight for climate justice. Understanding that it is necessary to have restful breaks from time-to-time is crucial.

My closest friends include climate organizers. We have a shared passion for the planet and its people, as well as our mutual desire to see justice for all.

A caring, supportive group that gets burnout is crucial to your well-being and the wellbeing of others in it is a great thing. Many of my climate activists friends and I are like “Yes! You need to stop working right now!” It is very affirming to hear that validation.

My fight is for a livable future