In the face of an unprecedented threat, they have the most to gain from action and the most to lose from complacency. That made one global demographic group worthy of a multicontinent reporting project that spanned nearly a year. An editor and two writers take you inside the making of “The Climate Generation.”
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If it’s Tuesday, this must be Namibia. No, wait, the Arctic. Or, maybe Bangladesh. Wardrobe considerations, alone, could be a story — one of many humorous and touching tales of reporters on the job that were implied, but rarely told, in a project like the Monitor’s series “The Climate Generation.”
Our writing team — environment correspondent Stephanie Hanes and Toronto bureau chief Sara Miller Llana — joined the Monitor’s “Why We Wrote This” podcast to talk about their global reporting odyssey. For most of 2023 — between packing bags and kissing their kids goodbye — they pulled at threads of connection and possibility among young people born since 1989. This generation is the first to grow up facing the reality of a changing, heating, disrupted environment.
Our findings are a window on the transformative nature of a warming world.
“We found this generation that was really growing up fundamentally differently than generations of the past. This reality of a heating, changing world is in the background of everything that they’re doing,” says Stephanie. “And this comes out in these really surprising and interesting — and I think we found really hopeful and exciting — ways.”
Clara Germani: I’m going to say two words: climate change. But just wait a beat before you think we’re going to talk about “climate doomerism,” that idea that nothing can be done to stop the melting, drought, flood, and fire caused by global warming. Today, we deliver some perspectives you haven’t heard before.
Assembling them was a major undertaking. The Monitor sent a reporting team to four continents, including such places as the Arctic, the Namibian Desert, the Rockies, a Caribbean island, and the waterlogged delta nation of Bangladesh. Our team profiled members of the global demographic that has the most to lose — and the most to gain — from our shifting environment.
We call this “The Climate Generation.” These are people born since 1989, the first to grow up facing the reality of a changing, heating, disrupted world. And we’ve discovered that climate change is shaping a mindset revolution, powerfully driving innovation and progress. These young people are leading the transformation, seizing on a crisis moment to tackle the inequalities and injustices that have long saddled their nations. They’re crafting a new ethos about consumption, progress, and what it means to have a good life.
This is “Why We Wrote This.” I’m Clara Germani, the editor of "The Climate Generation" project and this week’s guest host. We’re talking with our project correspondents, Stephanie Hanes, the Monitor’s environment reporter, and Sara Miller Llana, our Toronto bureau chief.
Welcome, you two.
Sara Miller Llana: Thanks. It’s great to be here.
Stephanie Hanes: It’s great to be here, thanks.
Germani: We’ve just come off this month’s UN climate summit in Dubai [formally the United Nations Climate Change Conference, this 28th one was called COP28]. It’s an annual event and the headlines can feel like Groundhog Day every year: the sounding of the alarm that Earth’s inhabitants aren’t doing enough to stop destructive warming.
When you read headlines about the state of children in this environment, it’s all about loneliness, depression, eco-anxiety. And I just wonder: There are two sides to this, the alarm bells and [also] the hope that we can respond to the alarm. What did you find at the intersection of climate and young people?
Miller Llana: I’d say that the very first conversation we had about this project was about eco-anxiety, because that’s what you hear about the most. But as we started meeting the folks that are in this piece, most people in this series felt very hopeful. They had to make change, and they were going to affect that change, and they don’t have time to wallow in despair. They have to move and take action right now.
Hanes: Yeah, this is Stephanie speaking here. I would say that we found this generation that was really growing up fundamentally differently than generations of the past. This reality of a heating, changing world is in the background of everything that they’re doing. And this comes out in these really surprising and interesting — and I think we found really hopeful and exciting — ways.
Germani: That’s a distillation of what you’ve found in general, but how did you land on this as a concept, the “climate generation” and the diverse cross section of people that you looked at?
Miller Llana: This project probably started 20 years ago. I was in Bolivia as the Latin America correspondent doing a story with a photographer, Melanie Stetson Freeman, about children growing up in jails and with their parents in jails. And so she told me about this project that she did in 1987 called “Children in Darkness” for The Christian Science Monitor.
And she traveled all over the world with a team of two reporters and herself. They were all women, and they looked at the absence of children’s rights at that time, and I just, when she told me about it, I had this moment of “I want to do some kind of follow up story to that project.”
And, you know, I lived in Latin America at that time, and then I moved to another continent, and then another continent, and that project never happened. And I woke up this year, in January 2023, deciding it was the year to do this, and I started with a stack of Economists that had grown over the year. And I just read it and I pulled out pages of anything that had to do with children, and there was so much there.
I mean, there’s children and working rights. There’s children in the pandemic, and of course, there’s children and climate change. And at that point, our managing editor said, “Hey, maybe you should talk to a partner about this because this is a very, very blank slate: children in the world.” And at that point I reached out to Stephanie and I think it’s important to say, not because she’s the climate reporter, but because she’s written a lot about children and we didn’t just immediately go to climate, but very quickly we realized that climate is the story of this generation.
Germani: Could you give a little context for “Children in Darkness” and how that came kind of at the cusp of the rights of children being defined by the UN and the effects of that, where it has left children today?
Miller Llana: Sure. So, the “Children in Darkness” series of 1987 looked at the absence of children’s rights before the UN adopted the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. And they went around the world to Iraq and to Peru and to Thailand looking at child prostitution and child labor.
And when we decided to focus on climate change, I personally got very excited because they were in the middle of a review to look at those rights with climate change in mind, because at that time, climate change was not really a topic. It was not something that we talked about.
So all of those rights, a child’s right to go to school, a child’s right to have leisure, to live in a home, had to be redefined through the lens of the climate crisis.
Hanes: You know, this is one of the things that Sara and I were talking about. I had written about children a lot for the Monitor and, like Sara, I had been a reporter in other countries. I was based in Southern Africa for a number of years and wrote about the intersection of children and human rights.
As we started talking about what to do with this project, we were both really taken by this paradox that since all of those international efforts to secure the rights of a child, children’s rights had really improved. Although certainly there were still real harms happening in the world, overall, children were respected and doing better than they had been prior to all those rights.
And at the same time, there was this new and unprecedented challenge that this generation was going to face. I knew from my work the heating of the world and all of the climatic impacts of that were going to start exacerbating all of those problems that children were facing before.
So whether it was poverty or hunger or migration, all of these were going to be affected by climate change as well. And so we wanted to start getting into this paradox. You had children experiencing more rights in some way than ever before, but also facing an unprecedented challenge.
Germani: So when you go to look at that and to examine it in person, you had the opportunity to go anywhere in the world. How did you pick the countries and topics that you chose?
Hanes: [Laughs] You know, this was a lot of conversation and one of the things about climate change is it is impacting everybody, everywhere. We could have gone anywhere in the world and written about this. But there were some things we were thinking about.
Miller Llana: In addition to just wanting to cover as much as the world as two reporters can, we also wanted to go somewhere where the stakes were really high. So, for example, our story about conservation work among Indigenous peoples; now, there’s 200 guardians programs around Canada. I could have gotten in a car [in Toronto] and driven 90 minutes away.
But we went to the Arctic, a 17-hour journey to get there. Why did we do that? Because we wanted to go where it would resonate with readers. The Arctic is melting at rates higher than anywhere else in the world. Arctic warming is having an impact on places all over the world.
So we wanted to tell the story of Tad and Hunter in the Arctic in a way that people would maybe not relate exactly to the way that they live their lives, but they would understand that what they were doing could affect their daily lives. And in Barbados, we were looking at entrepreneurs and that could have been done anywhere.
The prime minister is a huge advocate of climate financing. And I know that when I spoke to Deon, who’s the character in our Namibia piece, he asked me where we were going and I said, Oh, we’re going to Barbados too. And I’ll just never forget. We were talking over Zoom. It was before I traveled there and his eyes just lit up, right? Because [Prime Minister of Barbados] Mia Motley is a person who, you know, she’s a symbol for other people. So we chose to go to places where the stakes were really high.
Germani: Beyond just the places you went, can you just quickly describe the people you focused on in these profiles?
Hanes: This was one of the best things about reporting this project. We met some great people doing this story all over the world. And so I’m thinking of somebody like Joshua in Barbados, who had started a compost company out of nothing and was now transforming the way that that country grows food in a way that’s much more climate friendly.
Joshua: Especially for us in Barbados, we are here in a position where, you know, we are affected by it. We are feeling it. We are experiencing and living the changes and the disruptions.
Hanes: Or there was Grace in Montana, this teenager who got involved with one of the first successful youth climate lawsuits that really was groundbreaking this year in the U.S.
Grace: To spend all this time and energy trying to get other people, especially our government, to work with us and finding such resistance really exacerbates the emotional intensity of everything I feel about climate change, like the anxiety, the fear, the loss, grief, like, all of that is heightened. Also, specifically with the government, it’s so frustrating to have the government actively working against your best interests.
Hanes: I met some people in Portugal, a lot of farmers, including a woman named Rute who had left her job in Toronto to come back to the land in Portugal and start a permaculture project to try to do a climate friendly lifestyle in that country and tons of others.
I know Sara met some great people, too.
Miller Llana: Yeah, I’m thinking of Mafiya in Bangladesh, who’s an eighth-grader who has learned about climate because she joined an after school club, which she joined because she wanted to avoid child marriage. There’s Tad and Hunter in the Arctic, they’re Inuit hunters who are trying to conserve their land up there, and there is, of course, Deon, who is this nonstop activist in Namibia who I spent 30 hours speaking with for this project.
Deon: African youth, we are very important to the global fight for various reasons, including our vulnerability, our exposure to this climate impact, and also our adaptability to respond.
Germani: As I was editing the stories and as you were doing the interviews, the echoes across the world were kind of remarkable. There’s this universal consciousness of climate change. There’s not a monolithic approach, but each of them seem to echo each other with the notion that in this extremity, there’s opportunity for a lot of these people. Can you tell us about that?
Miller Llana: The first trip that I took for this project was the Arctic, and I focused on Tad and Hunter as Indigenous guardians. Their lives hunting caribou and harpooning beluga whales, and their lives just felt so different than anything I’d ever experienced in my life. Then I very quickly traveled to Namibia, and I was sitting there talking to this guy Reinhold there, who’s trying to rebuild a rural desert-based economy, and he’s talking about conserving land and protecting elephants and rhinos, and talking about growing sustainable food and growing ecotourism opportunities.
Reinhold: My belief is that as much as, you know, the dystopian narratives about the future, you know, all this climate change, all this uncertainty, I believe it’s time we start building beautiful stories about the future and use those stories of the future to address our current problems.
Miller Llana: And I just remember sitting there thinking, oh my God, they’re doing the exact same thing. They’re speaking a completely different language. We’re dealing with ice melt in one place and drought in another place, but they are speaking the same language.
Hanes: You know, we had had an idea before we started off reporting what we thought we might find, but it’s always exciting when you actually get back and some of those initial questions or theories start to really pan out.
When Sara came back from that Arctic trip and was sharing some of what she found, it was connected with reporting I had just done in Hawaii, where people were really trying to reintegrate into ecosystems. And then, as Sara was saying, she found these same themes in the Arctic and Namibia, and I started hearing about them in Barbados and in Portugal, and we realized that there were these changes that were happening that weren’t place specific. They were really generational.
What we were finding was that, you know, it wasn’t that it was just that people in the Arctic were interested in reconnecting to Indigenous practices. Indigenous practices are something that we heard about everywhere and everywhere from people within that climate generational cohort.
Same with looking for new opportunities to invent new systems and to challenge old silos between, say, food and energy, different ideas of how to live. These were all things that we were noticing young people in all different parts of the world were starting to think about. And part of that is also because they’re super connected, right?
Miller Llana: So the first person we actually met for this project was a kid named Atlas, who’s 16 years old and he is suing the Turkish government to force them to comply with carbon emission reductions. And at that point, the project hadn’t really even started. I was there covering the aftermath of their earthquake in February.
We didn’t exactly know where we were going, but I mentioned that Namibia might be one of them. He lit up and said, “Oh, you have to talk to Mama Ina if you go there.” And I said, “OK.” And his mom was with them and she gave me the WhatsApp number. And then we get to Namibia, and I met Mama Ina and I met Jakapita and Jakapita.
At that point, we wanted to go to Bangladesh, but that was far from a sure thing because it’s very hard to get into Bangladesh. But she said, “if you go, you have to meet Farzana. She’s my bestie.” And we just started to realize how the same way that they don’t look at the drought that they’re experiencing in isolation, they also don’t look at their activism in isolation. They really are part of this global fight together.
Germani: One interesting thing about that global fight and the interconnectedness that we were all so surprised to hear about: I was really surprised also to find that Greta Thunberg, who is the person that’s perhaps most associated with youth activism, isn’t always the driving point behind what people are doing. Like, across the Arctic Circle from Greta are these Arctic guardians who, I think you said, had never even heard of her.
Miller Llana: No, they had not ever heard of her. They had no idea who she was, which I just thought was great. On the other hand, then you have Deon who said, “Oh yeah, I talked to her.”
Hanes: In some ways, Greta is more of a force for older people, I think. That was my impression. People in older generations, when they think about young climate activists, think of Greta. And while she certainly has inspired some younger activists, a lot of what’s happening in the climate generation goes way beyond what we typically think of as climate activism.
I see this generation taking climate change and transforming all sorts of systems. Some of it might be activism and [politics]. Some of it might be legal, but we also saw it in business and in lifestyles and in the idea of where and how you live or in food. And those people aren’t really thinking about Greta.
Some of them don’t even think of themselves as activists. And actually, I would say most of the people I met don’t consider themselves activists. And yet, they’re really transforming the world because of climate change.
Germani: Along the way, editing this and just following what you all are doing when you’re covering these stories, there are signpost moments where you remember things from this that you’ll always remember. And I can remember, in our Slack channel, Stephanie bursting in with “OMG, the kids won.”
And it was last summer when there was that unprecedented moment that underlined our whole thesis about this generation: It was the Montana kids who won their lawsuit against the state. And you talked a lot about how the kids there didn’t see themselves as activists. They were kind of challengers.
Hanes: That was an exciting moment for me — not for any political stance of mine, but just because it was such a moment of children changing things in a way that I think even two or three years ago, people would have just really doubted would have happened. And just to back up a little bit, this was one of the youth climate lawsuits that had been filed in the U.S. There are a number of climate lawsuits around the world; the number has been increasing pretty dramatically. But this was the first one where children plaintiffs had managed to get to trial in the U.S. And the U.S., just again, more context, is the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses historically.
This was the first time that young people had challenged a state government in the highest emitting country to change the way it was doing things to focus more on climate change. So it was a big deal.
Miller Llana: In some ways, we could have written any of these stories from any of these places, which was really fascinating to me. It’s also really important to remember the different environments and contexts in which they live. Being able to bring a lawsuit in the U.S. is very different than bringing a lawsuit in Turkey, for example, in an authoritarian country or protesting in the U.S. versus in Turkey, where Atlas’s mom says that she goes with him not because she’s, you know, he’s the puppet and she’s really leading it, which is a lot of the criticism that climate activists get, but because she’s his mother and she’s legitimately scared of what could happen to him at a protest in Turkey.
Another interesting point that I’ll never forget was Deon. It was actually in a video that I saw of him speaking, but he was talking about the difference between an African activist and Greta, a Swedish activist. And he raised this point and he said, you know, OK, so Fridays for a Future, the protest movement that she led, which was skipping school on Fridays and there were school children all around the world doing that.
It’s very different to skip school in Sweden than it is in many countries in Africa, where school is a girl’s ticket out of child marriage or genital mutilation. And that always stuck with me because we also have to remember that a lot of what this generation is doing is very challenging, and it’s not the same across the world.
Farzana in Bangladesh, she is part of the Fridays for Future movement there, and she said when this whole movement first started five years ago, there was this tendency for the Global North to look at the Global South and say, “Oh, the poor Global South, they’re the victims here.” And she said, … “no, we are the ones living climate change right now. We have the lived experience. We are the ones with the solutions.”
Hanes: And that’s what we found in Barbados as well. It was this idea that sometimes the best innovation comes from challenge. So these countries like Barbados or other small island nation states that are really facing existential crises right now because of climate change, they’re also coming up with some of the solutions that the rest of the world is going to need.
One of the women that I spoke to in Barbados who was working on trying to turn seaweed there into a new type of biofuel to run cars ended up going to California to work with American researchers to try to help them figure out how to do the same with American materials. So you’re seeing this big shift where some of these countries that have sort of traditionally and stereotypically been portrayed as, you know, “victims,” are really the solution-drivers right now. And I think that’s more apparent within this climate generation.
Germani: So when we’re working on a project like this that spans almost a year, there’s so much that goes on that never gets in the stories, but it’s the background that keeps you chugging, and it’s the color that gets lost a bit, because we can’t share it in the stories. But I just was wondering if there were things that you might like to talk about.
I mean, there’s everything from, you know, not having adequate wardrobe for some of these places that you went to, or the dramatic shifts in wardrobe that you had to do to get to these places, to being the moms of kids in the climate generation.
Miller Llana: Well, packing was a nightmare for this project. I am notoriously bad at packing, but I don’t think I’ve ever done a worse job. When I went to the Arctic, I did look at the Weather Channel several times, and it was hovering around, you know, zero Celsius to about 5, and I thought, “OK, I’ll take the coat that I wear at zero,” and I heard that I should have rubber boots, so I bought rubber boots, city boots, with like a floral print on them, and I get to the Arctic, and I did not account for the Arctic wind, or the fact that we would be out on the land literally all day, so by the end of that trip, Melanie and I were both in seal-skin parkas and mitts that we had to borrow.
I also, thankfully, at the very end decided that those rubber boots were probably not a good idea, and I did buy some sturdy ones that I could wear, but Mel had to borrow boots because she did not have proper boots. And then in Bangladesh, there is a historic outbreak of dengue, and I did not want to get bitten by a mosquito, so I spent the whole week before I went spraying, like, this toxic spray all over my clothes.
And I got there and then just realized that it was so hot, and I was covered from head-to-toe both to avoid mosquito bites and because of cultural norms there, and I was just sweltering. I’ve never been so hot in my entire life, and I’m so mad at myself because the day that we were leaving, I bought a traditional Bangladeshi outfit, which is pants, a long shirt, and a scarf, and I put it on, it was my last day as I was heading to the airport, and it was so comfortable, and I thought, why was I not wearing this the entire time?
Hanes: I think the thing for me with a project like this is just trying to keep everything straight. One of the things with reporting, especially when you’re trying to find these big macro trends, it’s a lot of coordination, it’s a lot of checking ourselves and making sure that what we think might be the story is actually the story, and it’s a lot of following random leads that might turn into something but don’t end up in the stories.
And so we did a lot of that. And I’m glad we did because all of that, like you said, Clara, informs what we write and proves that what we think is the story is the story, but it doesn’t end up in print.
My kids were really excited about the Montana story because I had told them that there were other children who had filed this lawsuit. And I think for my kids, who are super aware of climate change, the idea that grown ups were listening to kids was really exciting to them.
Miller Llana: I mean, we have to juggle a lot of reporting all the time, but this was just like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my life.
Because at the end of the day, we both did about four cover stories. We did one together and three each on our own and it’s a lot to go to different parts of the world. And you have to buy books about that place and learn everything about it in a very short amount of time, but we both write a lot of cover stories. So we were trying to figure out, like, why is this killing us?
I think it’s in part because the three of us were talking all the time about each one of these stories so it wasn’t just that I was working on a story about Namibia. It was also, by the time we were traveling, it was just in such a short amount of time. I went to the Arctic and then I arrived in Namibia. And by the way, that was two overnight flights in a row, which at a certain age is a killer.
Throughout this entire process, we were having Namibia, Portugal, Barbados, the Arctic on our minds the entire time. I mean, for many, many months.
Germani: So, Sara, I thought it was interesting the interplay between your daughter and your own experience while you were dealing with teenagers in other parts of the world. What kind of insights did that bring you?
Miller Llana: Our story in Bangladesh centered around these girls in Mongla who joined an after school program, and they were in 8th grade, and my daughter in Toronto is in 8th grade. As a reporter, you’re always fascinated in other people’s stories.
But I just couldn’t help but compare and contrast. I’m spending time with these girls who really have nothing. I mean, they live in homes with roofs that are leaking and the biggest priority in their lives is to be able to continue studying and avoid child marriage. And I have my teen at home, who I love dearly, but I talked to her after I was with these girls and she was just pouting.
We were talking over FaceTime and I’m like, “what’s wrong?” [And she said] “I hate my science homework.” And I just, you know, and I’m like, “OK, well, you know, let’s take a break and talk.” [And she said] “Hey Mom, when I come back, can you take me to get these leggings everyone has?”
I was angry with her, but I was just angry with the world that there’s just all of these injustices really. And I didn’t talk to her about it at the time, but when I got home, I did, because Mafiya, who’s an 8th grader, had made these paper flowers and she gave me one and she gave me the flower to give to my daughter and so we talked about it and I explained it with more calm and patience, but it just really helped me see just children’s rights through many different lenses and how climate change is not equal.
Hanes: Well, my kids right now, after hearing our stories and reading them, too, which I think is super cool. It’s like the best feeling to have the magazine come to your house and have your kid pick it up and read them all the way through, but, now she’s using your stories as an excuse for pushing me towards ethical food choices and ethical clothing choices and “mama, you realize you do have a gas car.” And so we have got a lot of that going on in my house now.
Germani: In any audience, there’s going to be various degrees of embrace of the climate situation. How do you all talk to people on the end of the spectrum who may feel ambivalent or skeptical about climate change? And, do your findings about young people transcend the whole argument?
Hanes: From a climate-reporting lens, we’ve found from public opinion surveys that the number of Americans who doubt that any change in the atmosphere is happening are pretty low. Most people acknowledge that there is some warming and that there are changes to the environment.
There continues to be some argument about what causes that, but more and more people recognize that there is environmental change happening. And when you look internationally, almost everybody acknowledges that. So, we’re not really in the same situation where people get angry about talking about a heating world, or more storms, or more floods, or more fires.
So when we’re looking at the climate generation, a lot of these stories aren’t about pointing blame. Some are, but a lot aren’t. And so I find that talking about these positive stories of creativity and innovation and adaptation can transcend political beliefs.
Miller Llana: I also think denialism takes a lot of different shapes because in Bangladesh, for example, you’re not going to find any of the, “is the planet really warming? Are we really … is this flood really climate change?” I mean, I think that there are a lot of reasons that there are floods, but climate change is, you know, unanimously agreed to be part of the problem there.
Hanes: As much as there are real challenges and real harms of climate change, this young generation is showing that there’s also a lot of opportunity and there are some shifts that can happen that might create a better, kinder world in some ways. It’s easier to unite people around an idea of a better, kinder, more community-based, happier world, than it is to really focus on the challenges.
And this isn’t to soft pedal. I think it’s important that we recognize that there are going to be harms and we don’t ignore those, but I think there’s a lot of hope here and in a lot of ways this project and this generation are leading us towards that.
Miller Llana: And I think nobody said that better than Deon, who said: “There is opportunity in crisis.” And this is his generation’s struggle. He said, you know, if he were born in a different era, it would be slavery, it would be apartheid, but the climate is his generation’s challenge to face.
Germani: Thank you for everything you’ve done, Sara and Stephanie, in the past nine months on this project and for coming on to talk about it today.
Hanes: Thanks so much, it’s great to talk about it.
Miller Llana: Thanks. It was great.
Germani: Thanks for listening. To find a transcript and our show notes, with links to all of the stories in this series, visit CSMonitor.com/WhyWeWroteThis. This episode was guest hosted by me, Clara Germani, and produced by Mackenzie Farkus, with additional editing by Clay Collins. Jingnan Peng is also a producer on this podcast. Our sound engineers were Noel Flatt and Alyssa Britton, with original music by Noel Flatt. Produced by the Christian Science Monitor. Copyright 2023. “The Climate Generation” series was supported by the Pulitzer Center.