Gen Z activists fuel Climate Express to Glasgow

·4-min read
Visitors stand outside on the first day of the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference at the Scottish Event Campus (SEC) in Glasgow, Scotland, on October 31, 2021.

One car was themed 'climate reality,' another 'transforming society' and a third 'stop talking and start doing' -- welcome to the Glasgow-bound Rail to the COP.

With more than 400 young climate warriors on board, many in their mid-to-late teens, the 10-hour trip from Amsterdam with changeovers in Brussels and London was shot through with camaraderie, determination and anger.

One thing these young activists did not bring on board was the illusion that the 13-day UN summit starting Sunday would by itself beat back what they called the existential threat of global warming.

"Politicians won't achieve the Paris Agreement goals, they won't keep the temperature under 1.5 degrees Celsius," said Johnny Dabrowski, an 18-year old high school senior from Warsaw, referring to the cornerstone target in the 2015 treaty signed by nearly every country on the planet.

But rather than simply joining the Fridays for Future student strikes launched by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, Dabrowski has put climate action at the centre of plans for his own future.

He has enrolled to become an environmental engineer to compensate for the failure of the world's major economies to slash greenhouse gases.

"We have to take carbon out of the atmosphere, it's simply a fact," he said with a poise beyond his years.

Elin Wilhelmsson has already dedicated her career to the environment.

Describing herself a Nature buff from the time she could walk, the 24-year-old is today a waste management engineer in the Swedish city of Aneby.

"I want what I do professionally to matter," she said, peering over the edge of a snug-fitting face mask.

- 'Panicky' -

Wilhelmsson was leading a small delegation of Swedish scouts, some with jackets adorned with merit badges and all wearing the signature striped scarf.

She has a coveted "observer" status at the UN negotiations and she said she would play a watchdog role as best she can.

The Rail to the COP journey, spearheaded by the non-profit Youth for Sustainable Travel, was also meant to send a message -- highlighting the low-carbon virtues of train travel.

At the station in Brussels, Eurostar Director General Jacques Dumas said that, on average, taking the train emits ten times less CO2 than flying.

Vinne Luyt, a 22-year old volunteer with Oxfam and a student in international relations from Ghent, Belgium, wanted to go to the COP26 talks in Glasgow in support of people from the Global South who could not attend for lack of a vaccine.

"A lot of young people would have come," said Luyt, who had become friends online with three activists in Indonesia, India and Colombia.

"They are getting panicky about the impact of climate change on their daily lives," he said.

Just over one degree of warming compared to preindustrial levels has been enough to unleash a deadly cascade of storms, wildfires and flooding, with far worse on the horizon, scientists say.

The more than 20 cars on the climate express were also crawling with journalists, including those from a new generation of news media run by young people for young people.

-It's all about networking -

Lucas Wicky and Florian Thomas, both in their early 20s, recorded testimonials of activists for Brut, a video-only platform that lives on, and through, social media.

"We do storytelling for young people," explained Thomas.

Some videos posted by Brut, which has editions in half-a-dozen countries, have scored more than 10 million views.

About half-way on the leg from London to Glasgow, the voice of a crew member from Avanti West Coast Trains pierced the bustle of animated conversation.

"My name is Fatin Abdalla, and I am so excited to be on this train," she said over the speakers.

Abdalla, originally from Sudan, it turned out, had gone to landmark Paris climate talks in 2018 as a youth delegate for an NGO, and the experience left a huge impression.

While working in Avanti's sustainability department, she is completing a PhD in mechanical engineering to develop ways to store heat generated by solar panels that can be used in developing countries -- like her own -- where most people don't have electricity.

For many on board, the trip to Paris was more to meet other young activists than diving into the details of the highly technical UN talk.

"It's all about networking," said one young woman to a new-found friend.

"Yes I've had so many good conversations," the other agreed.

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