Ahead of COP26, the climate change summit in Glasgow in November 2021, Ashley Lait talked to Zamzam Ibrahim, a vice-president of the European Students’ Union and co-founder of Students Organising for Sustainability UK.
AL: How has your experience as a student informed your work on the environment?
I first got involved during my time working for the National Union of Students, as sustainability fell under my remit. I remember feeling like the way that sustainability was spoken about didn’t translate to me as a young black girl from a low socio-economic background.
Environmental campaigning was presented to me as something that privileged individuals do. But I had a conversation with a friend who said: ‘if you can't relate to how sustainability is currently framed, reframe it and make it relatable’. That’s when I started thinking about it differently and wondering what I could do to address the concerns that I have and how they intersect with the climate crisis.
A lot of environmental work is presented as a feel-good campaign and something we engage with out of guilt or self-importance. But we have a role in reframing the way it’s spoken about. It’s not all about polar bears or saving trees: it’s also about saving lives and livelihoods. When I saw it through the lens of human rights, I realised that it does affect me and that there was a lot I could do.
AL: The climate crisis is also a socio-economic and racial justice issue. Do you think one can be addressed without the others?
To share a personal story: I’ve experienced racism and watched my parents struggle to be able to provide and give me opportunities, like going to university. I didn’t feel safe walking down my street to college. My everyday reality as a young person is living in crisis.
If you’re just trying to get by, donating your time to a green organisation or to plant a tree is a privilege. I felt like I had bigger worries, so many of the campaigns around greening the environment didn’t translate to my life. Even the knowledge and the political language that’s used – like net zero or carbon footprint – isn’t often accessible. I didn’t have a clue what those terms meant when I was at school. Political education and being able to express yourself in this area is a privilege in itself.
One of the first Black Lives Matter protests in the UK that I remember hearing about was when they occupied London City Airport to counter its expansion. This highlighted the direct impacts of the climate crisis here in the UK, and how it’s affecting people who look like me and have the same experience as me in the neighbourhoods near the airport. It brought it a lot closer to home.
There are other examples of how the climate crisis and systemic racism are quite literally intertwined. When we say we have ten years before places are underwater, in reality what that means is ten years until it hits the Global North. But it will be much sooner in places like Bangladesh.
People in the Global South have had the least impact on the situation we find ourselves in today but are seen as less valuable. It’s a colonial mindset that many still follow, and it’s our role to hold them accountable and make sure it’s recognised as a global crisis that needs global solutions. I think a lot of climate activists, especially younger ones, have a better understanding of these racial inequalities.
AL: Young people have been at the forefront of campaigning on environmental issues. What is your hope for your organisation and student campaigning?
I think young people have a much more critical view than their parents or environmentalists that came before them. To give an example, the UK climate strikers at the peak of organising were campaigning every Friday and then the announcement came about the UK’s new points-based immigration system. Immediately, the campaign message changed to focus on migrants and the link to climate migrants.
It’s a real understanding of how all these issues are intertwined and the role we play in advocating for change. Fridays for Future was about campaigning on the climate crisis, but shifted to migration as those involved understood the links.
AL: There are often difficult balances to strike between lower growth and jobs around the world. How has your experience as a student campaigner shaped how you think about policy?
There is always nuance around the right way to do things. I’ve come to understand and respect different viewpoints. But to me, it’s always clear that we have to be prepared to take the hard route if we’re serious about addressing injustices. Making small changes won’t make an impact. If we’re not putting people over profit, we’re going to remain on the bad path we’re on.
In the short term, making changes does have an impact on economies but it can even out over the long term. That is how change is implemented. As humans, we’re creatures of habit: we continue how things are even if it disadvantages us because we can’t see anything different.
For example, in the space of just a few years, students went from paying no tuition fees to £9,000. Now if you talk to students, they can’t imagine not paying for university. But it wasn’t always like that. If something is normalised, it’s just the way you’ve known it. It will take brave people facing resistance to be able to make changes, knowing that in the long term there is going to be a better outcome.
AL: You’ve spoken about the need for young people to develop transferable skills so that they can be agile in their approach to work. How might that be achieved?
What work looks like today will be very different in a couple of years. But our education system hasn’t changed sufficiently, which is a problem. We need systems that are agile. The ability to unlearn and relearn different knowledge and skills as we move through our working lives is important.
As a society, the way we come out of crises is by retraining people. Some jobs will be obsolete so people will need to relearn to provide for themselves and serve society. Building this into education is essential.
AL: Finally, if you could implement one policy to turn the tide on climate change, what would you choose?
It wouldn’t be one policy. I would reallocate the budget to focus on environmental issues: to create green jobs, invest in individuals and communities to enable them to reform and subsidise access to renewable energy. I would invest heavily in green initiatives.