“Youth is the future.” We often hear this spoken by people around us. However, hundreds of thousands of youths who speak out are claiming they are not only the future but the present. To make their voice heard on the issue of climate crisis, more than 4 million youths gave up their education to hit the streets in their home nations, united under the cry, “There is no planet B.” In Korea, one seventeen-year-old high school student, Kim Yujin, is demanding immediate climate action from the government. While she may give the impression of an ordinary high schooler, she stands strong on her determination to protect the world.
As a youth activist for Climate Action, please introduce your action group to our readers.
In August 2018, a number of us started a club under the name Youth Climate Lawsuit, but we have revised it to Youth for Climate Action because we are broadening our spectrum of climate action. We believe youth play a huge role in change regarding the climate crisis. We urge the government, companies, and individuals to act on many things. Recently, we participated in three mass school strikes and campaigned weekly on the streets of the cities throughout the months of August and September. Lately, we held the ‘Youth Climate Change Conference,’ a gathering of youths determined to band together to resolve climate issues.
What compelled you to work for the environment?
In the past, I often went to the mountain with my family, and I felt happiest out in nature. This led to concerns for ecosystems and then to concerns about endangered species and the destruction of ecosystems. Until middle school student, I felt a need to reduce my power consumption, limit the amount of meat in my diet, and do daily activities related to my beliefs. However, after becoming a high school student, I realized that big change cannot come from me alone. Climate change was an issue since 10 years ago, but in the decade that has passed nothing has changed looking at the statistics or research. I felt hopeless. I wanted to study earth sciences such as coral reef, tundra, or primeval forest, but they won’t be around in 10 or 20 years for me to study and learn from, so I decided to take control of my future. After participating in the nationwide school walkout protest, also known as School Strike, on May 24, I’m working with Youth for Climate Action.
You planned the September 27 School Strike, held at Gwanghwamun. Would you please tell us more about that protest?
The Youth for Climate Action held class walkouts in March and May, but we organized another on September 27 because it coincided with the last day of the UN Climate Week. We wanted to spread the message that “We are watching you and will continue to fight for our future until you respond to our voices” to the Korean government. Our protest was planned in partnership with other youth all over the world. During the week, more than 4 million youth and citizens took to the streets.
What was the most memorable part about the protest?
Two things: the scale and the characteristic of the protest. I wanted to have as many people at the protest as possible, but I didn’t know how many fellow youths would join our campaign. Moreover, we really didn’t feel the impact of youths until we experienced firsthand. Besides the scale of the strike, the form and messages at the protest were impressive and were much stronger than those at the protest in May. It was impressive to hear the various voices of youths during the free speech.
You awarded the government “The Most Irresponsible Prize” in Climate Action during the protest.
Yes. We planned the protest under the idea of Fall Field Day. We organized performances such as coal-kicking with a gym ball and played traditional sports such as hacky sack or ‘Jegi’ as well as calling for a limit to global warming at 1.5 Celsius degrees. We also graded the government’s response to climate change based on problem identification, will and initiative, and reliability and concreteness. The final assessment was F. The government has a duty to protect its people, but it has remained a spectator throughout the climate crisis, and this threatens the lives and future of youth. Therefore, we awarded the government “The Most Irresponsible Prize”. In the morning, there were various performances, followed by a march towards Cheong Wa Dae in the afternoon to pass along the report card and prize.
Has there been any change since the School Strike?
On September 27 for the school walkout protest, we had about 6 hundred youth gather, which is a lot more than the protests before. More youth have started to become actively involved in the climate crisis, and they contacted us through social media, saying that they wanted to act for the climate together with us. Moreover, I think the older generation is just as concerned about the problem because the September walkout hit the headlines. Especially, civil rights groups are starting to act and speak out on climate change. Sadly, I have yet to see any movement among political circles on climate change, which is what we are ultimately demanding. We have yet to hear from Cheong Wa Dae. Before the September youth protest, the Ministry of Environment and the Superintendent of education asked to meet us. At first, I considered this a big change because I thought the purpose of the meeting was to listen to the demands of youth. However, nothing happened at the meeting. We just received statements that had no practical value such as “You should lead the change.”
You have participated in the UN Youth Climate Summit. Could you tell us a bit about that?
It was the first Youth Climate Summit held by the UN. I thought it was a great opportunity for youth climate activists all over the world to come together, to talk about climate change and to discuss ways to make our voices heard. However, after the summit, I couldn’t stop thinking that it had been only a one-time event; real change had not occurred. Participants spent their time mostly listening to various speakers rather than listening to the voices of fellow young people. Still, I got the chance to meet other young people fighting for the same cause, and it gave us a chance to bond together globally. Especially, on September 20, I participated in the school walkout protest in New York and discussed seriously the situation with other young people who planned the protest. I learned lots about organization and solidarity. Though the summit was disappointing, the event did highlight the fact that the UN is paying attention to the voices of young people. The event paved the way for a platform for our voices.
What do you think the government should do to solve many of the environmental problems?
First of all, the government needs to face up to reality. When the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, the 'National Climate Action Plan’ of the Republic of Korea was a merger a 3-4 degree decrease plan, significantly lower than the treaty's goal. However, even that plan has yet to be realized. Despite this disappointing reality, the president of Korea continues to say, "Korea is faithfully implementing the Paris Agreement." The government needs to investigate how poor the current climate response is and what actions are needed to meet a 1.5 degree mark, which is the mark set for a safe future. Government-level action is essential because the climate crisis is a social structural problem that cannot be solved by individual effort alone. Also, there must be a right transition in which the socially weak are not ruled out.
What has been the reaction of people around you regarding your activities?
While some adults say, "That won’t change the world," my parents have always supported and stood behind my right to speak out for what I believe in. Also, many of my friends have joined me. Though not many of my friends have helped with activity planning directly, I can feel their numbers slowly increasing. At the moment, those friends who are outspoken members of the Youth for Climate Action are ordinary youths speaking out for the future they want to live. Nevertheless, I’m regretful that many of my peers respect our endeavors because youth participation in social matters is not universal.
You work hard to protect the world for all, but surely that work has not always been easy. What are the difficulties that you have encountered as a teenager?
Yes, it wasn’t. The biggest challenge I’ve faced is balancing my campaign activities with school life because I’m a high school student. It takes much time and energy, so I often have to sacrifice my studies and private life. Especially, the School Strike in September coincided with midterm exams, which made a lot of members feel anxious. Many peers faced opposition from their schools. The protest was held during school hours, so most participants had to apply for a field experience study official absence or leave school early. The walkout protest on May 24 was scheduled from 3 to 5 p.m, but I couldn’t join until 4 p.m. as I couldn’t leave the school that day. Therefore, I protested on school grounds by carrying a paper pickets all day long and talked continuously all day to other students about climate change. Since it was also the first time I planned the protest, there were a lot of preparation difficulties, such as reporting the protest as I’m underage.
Some adults would say that teenagers should focus their attention on their studies rather than on environmental movements. How do you respond to that?
As an active member of Youth for Climate Action, I’ve often heard adults saying, “I understand your plight, but now is not the time, you need to focus on your studies and enter university.” I know that my studies are important. However, the climate crisis cannot wait; there’s not much time left if we don’t act now. Teenagers are the ones mostly affected by climate change. Therefore, it is important to speak out now as citizens of the future, living in the present.
Please tell our readers your plans for further action.
I will continue to speak out with Youth for Climate Action. Also, I am planning a climate crisis lawsuit that is headed by teenagers. The government’s inaction to properly respond to the climate crisis is an infringement on our rights. Therefore, we plan to renew the "Reply National Assembly" campaign to force parliamentary candidates to make pledges concerning the climate crisis in next year's general elections. I also plan to continue with the "Reply Cheong Wa Dae" campaign. In addition to seeking solidarity with teenagers across the Korea Peninsula, we also plan to increase our online campaigns and activities globally.
Last, please leave a final word for Sookmyungians.
I hope more young people will acknowledge the need for our activities and join us. I think it is important for us to work together to save our future and the planet. There are various ways to do this. On the streets, through social media, and in schools. Please raise your voices high on the issue of climate change. Talk to your neighbors about the seriousness of the climate crisis and agonize together. You can also support companies that are taking the lead in climate action and stop supporting companies that are investing in fossil fuels or are inclined to resource extraction. It is important to do whatever is necessary in daily life, as well as to speak out so that the government acts and social-level system changes take place.
- May 24, 2019 participated in the School Strike held by Youth for Climate Action for the first time
- June 9, 2019 worked with Youth for Climate Action to plan school Strike and campaigns
- September 18-23, 2019 participated in the UN Youth Climate Summit
- September 27, 2019 participated in the School Strike for Climate Crisis Awareness
Kim Ma Seunghee / Editor-in-Chief
Kim Han Yujin / Reporter