Youth protesting for a green future

First, there was Greta Thunberg. Today in Johannesburg there is Raeesah Noor-Mohamed. Two teenage girls – one Swedish, one South African – engaged in protest action over climate change.

Raeesah Noor-Mohamed, a 17-year old Parktown Girls High School student in Johannesburg, began what she calls an ‘indefinite boycott’ of Friday classes just over a week ago, demanding that the national Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environmental Affairs declare climate change a national emergency and to introduce a swathe of ecologically friendly reforms into the country. These reforms include a ban on single-use plastics, transition to using recycled paper, wide use of solar power in government buildings and public places, introduction of public recycling bins, use of eco-bricks, as well as mandatory recycling and the introduction of climate change education in schools.

Ms Noor-Mahomed, writing to the Department minister Barbara Creecy, puts her point bluntly: “My demand is that you declare a climate emergency and listen to what the scientists and activists, and youth have been saying for years about the changes that need to be made. I am in matric this year. It’s a crucial year. But what’s the point of investing all my effort into a future that I will never have because of climate change?”

She is right, of course. The evidence that we are headed to a climate catastrophe, locally and globally, is overwhelming. Yet opposition to climate activism is extensive, ranging from denialism to utter indifference.

Denialism comes in two forms. First, there are those who are unconvinced by evidence that it is a problem. For whatever reason they would like absolute certainty before supporting a change of lifestyle that will, we know, be costly. I understand this but submit that in reality absolute certainty about anything is rare. The best we can expect, especially in science, is a level of probability that is convincing. At 97% of climate scientists agreed on climate change, methinks the claim is more than convincing.

There are also those who basically know that climate change is an urgent problem but deny it because it goes against their political or economic interests. This is pure selfishness, a mentality best summed up (in another context) by France’s King Louis XIV: “After me, the flood.” (He was right. His grandson Louis XVI was beheaded during the French Revolution).

Finally, there are the indifferent, folks who assume that since they are powerless – or have so many preoccupations of their own, like getting a job or feeding families – they might as well not bother. They may well accept that climate change is a crisis, but do not act. Note the paradox: their sense of powerlessness is reinforced by inaction.

And then, along come a few brave young people like Greta and Raeesah.

Many climate activists in South Africa hope that she will be the first of many young people to challenge what they believe is the at best half-hearted lip service the South African government pays to the crisis. For all our sakes I hope they are right!

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.
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