The sun has set on the 2022 United Nations’ Climate Change conference in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt. These conferences have convened the nations of the world yearly since 1995 to address the causes and redress the effects of climate change. This year’s conference, COP27, primarily focused on increasing countries’ ambitions to curb emissions and determine what is owed to the countries that have lost the most as a result of climate change. But every conference negotiates consensus on a document that lays out what every party (nation) agrees to do about climate change.
Words matter, so the yearly battle to shape these documents is fierce. This year, language about countries’ loss and damage claims due to extreme weather events were finally included. But there were also many words left out of this year’s pact — most notably a call to move away from fossil fuels, the chief driver of climate destruction — because of petrostates’ geopolitical power and the oil industry’s influence on the proceedings. In fact, this summit saw a slew of fossil fuel lobbyists in attendance, twice as many as the entire UN constituency for Indigenous peoples. There were more fossil fuel lobbyists at COP27 than all of the combined delegates from the 10 countries most impacted by climate change.
All this to say, COP27’s final consensus document is not where we will encounter the most revolutionary language concerning climate justice.
For that, I suggest we listen to the voices of young women activists. As the COP27 conference ended, I found myself moved by their powerful words and was reminded of the revolutionary language of Mary’s song in Luke 1:52-53:
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
This Advent season, I want to invite you to meditate on Mary’s words alongside the words and deeds of these climate activists. This is not to say that each one of these young leaders should be compared to the mother of Jesus — especially as there is already a tendency to make youth activists (and especially women) victims or mascots, thereby neutralizing their real power. I bring up Mary’s prayer only to emphasize the revolutionary power of language and the way it can ignite a shared desire for a just world.
In recent years it’s become clearer how young women are leading the global movement calling for climate justice, even as government leaders fall short at global talks. Young women and girls have been shown to be catalysts for linguistic change — experimenting, gradually updating norms, and leading linguistic disruption. Children in general, but girls especially, have been shown to be more effective climate messengers to older generations.
Three young women who are using their words and their platforms to call for a better climate future are Helena Gualinga, Vanessa Nakate, and Nakeeyat Dramani Sam.
At COP27’s closing plenary, Helena Gualinga, a Kichwa woman from the Ecuadorian Amazon and a land defender like her sister and mother, brought forward a clear vision for the future: “I envision a world where the children — your children, our children — do not have to fight for the future of humanity,” she projected to the room of world leaders.
Specifically, Gualinga is imagining a world where poisonous oil spills are no more and her people live without fear of floods, typhoons, fires, or death. She imagines a future where the inaction of the powerful no longer dictates the material well-being of children.
Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate regularly calls out rulers for their extractive practices and for depriving the most vulnerable communities of the material aid they are owed. She is not afraid to bring down fossil fuel-funded rulers with her words: “You are sowing seeds of coal, oil, and gas while frontline communities are reaping havoc, devastation and destruction,” she said in Sharm el-Sheikh. This critique is stark, but Nakate insists that we must keep faith and look toward a “world that we cannot yet see.”
Nakeeyat Dramani Sam, the 10-year-old Ghanian, also paints a picture of reversal, suggesting in her speech to COP27 delegates that maybe the youth should be in charge of global climate proceedings. She has also advocated that rich and powerful nations be required to provide material aid to those who are suffering the most from disasters they did not cause. The rulers must be cast down from their thrones and the rich must be sent away empty.
When I hear these three young activists — or many others like them — using their voices to call for climate justice like this, I hear echoes of Mary’s song.
Their words, like Mary’s words, are a protest against an extractive economy that crushes the marginalized. Whether it is Mary’s voice or the voice of these young activists, their words force the listener to ask: Will we imagine a future where the rich are sent away empty and the poor are filled with good things? Or will we blithely continue down a path determined by those who exploit people and resources, amassing wealth without regard for who they harm in the process?
Drawing a parallel to today’s climate activists has serious limits, of course. But those of us who claim Mary’s song amplifies God’s priorities should be receptive to other testimonies of social reversal and visions of an era beyond this one.
As climate impacts increase around the world, and narratives of doom are spun, our world badly needs people of faith to employ language that points to newness and imagines a future for the entire community of creation beyond present injustices.
For moral clarity and courage in this era of climate crisis, we’d do well to listen to and imitate the young women leading the way. Not to ask them to shoulder even more of the burden of climate leadership, but to recognize that they are showing us a better way. Just as Mary’s older cousin Elizabeth was audience to her song, those of us from other age groups, genders, geographies, and classes must listen to what these young climate leaders are saying.
That visionary words are being spoken through those who don’t have structural power shouldn’t surprise those of us who know the gospel accounts. Instead, this should lead us to active listening. And as we wait and watch with Mary in Advent, we listen to and stand with those who similarly envision newness.