Dec 22, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Exclusive: Youth climate activists get boost from Dutch tech billionaire

Climate activist Alexandria Villaseñor speaks in Copenhagen in 2019. (Photo by Ole Jensen/Getty Images)
Climate activist Alexandria Villaseñor speaks at the C40 World Mayors Summit on Oct. 11, 2019, in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo: Ole Jensen/Getty Images

Dutch billionaire Steven Schuurman, who co-founded and led Elastic, a data and analytics firm, is donating $1.5 million to two prominent youth climate groups: Fridays for Future and Earth Uprising.

Why it matters: Youth-led activism serves a unique and powerful role in the climate movement, acting as a moral voice for future generations while prompting sustained, widespread media attention.

  • The new funding could help two of the more prominent youth climate groups transform into more professional organizations with dedicated, paid staff and political strategies.
  • Until now, Fridays for Future and Earth Uprising have mainly relied on networks of volunteers, despite their high media profiles.

The big picture: The global youth movement that has sprung up around climate change, particularly the school strikers in Europe and the U.S., has coalesced from the bottom up, largely without major direct financial backers.

  • The most famous youth activist is Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, whose school strikes for climate went global during the past few years and coalesced into the organization Fridays for Future. This group has amplified teenagers' urgent calls for leaders to act to slash greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Schuurman, who recently signed on to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett's Giving Pledge, which commits him to give his fortune away via philanthropy, sees the youth climate movement as a unique way to put pressure on policymakers.
  • He recently donated $500,000 to Fridays for Future and told Axios that one of his aims is to enable the organization to bring more people from developing countries, where climate change is hitting the hardest, to U.N. climate summits.

Details: Schuurman's financial support helped Fridays for Future bring activists from the Global South to COP26, according to Maria Reyes, a 19-year-old Fridays for Future activist from Mexico.

  • "Once we were in the COP venue it was not possible for the so-called global leaders to ignore us, because we were there, right in front of their eyes. It was our opportunity to remind them that their decisions condemn our present and future and we will be there, putting pressure, as much as necessary," Reyes told Axios via email.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., 16-year-old Alexandria Villaseñor, was inspired by Thunberg and began striking outside the United Nations on Dec. 14, 2018. She went on to found the organization Earth Uprising the following year.

  • Earth Uprising focuses on youth-led climate education. Villaseñor said the power of youth-led groups is that they can channel the frustration and hopelessness so many young people feel regarding climate change.
  • "When a young person talks to another young person, it's so much more empowering because it's just a peer talking to another peer," Villaseñor told Axios.
  • During the past six months, Villaseñor has been speaking with experts about how to structure a global, youth-led climate education organization.
  • At COP26, she met with Schuurman several times, presenting him with her vision for change. He chose to donate $1 million to help the organization scale up its activities.
  • "Steven saw this vision and understood what we were trying to do," she said.

The intrigue: Schuurman sees youth groups as being critical actors in the battle against climate change, since they are the constituency that will be most affected by the decisions of today's policymakers.

  • "I think they are in an amazing position to basically create the right pressure points to expedite change," he told Axios.
  • Schuurman is not shying away from getting directly involved in climate politics, either. He donated 1.25 million Euros to the German Green Party this year, their largest single contribution on record, the Guardian reported.

What's next: Villaseñor is working to officially establish Earth Uprising as a 501(c)(3) before she can formally accept any of the new funds committed over the course of the next year. She said one-third of the new money will go directly to actions and campaigns.

  • "If we really want to amplify young people in areas that are being most affected by the climate crisis, we need resources and structure behind them," she said. "And so now we can build infrastructure and technology, we can hire experts for these things," she said.
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