World Economic Forum

The 'Climate Kids' and #FridaysForFuture: "There is no Planet B."

“One voice can change a room, and if one voice can change a room, then it can change a city,” Barack Obama famously said in his stirring, still memorable speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. “And if it can change a city, it can change a state, it can change nation. And if it can change a nation, it can change the world. Your voice can change the world.”

Little more than a week before the planned worldwide strike on March 15 by students and grade-school pupils protesting the effects of climate change on future generations, support is surging for the legal case Juliana v. United States, in which 21 young people have sued the US federal government over climate change. A “Young People’s Brief” amicus brief was filed in US court last Friday, alongside briefs filed by environmenatlaist, women’s groups, business leaders and eight members of the US Congress in support of a case that has been before the courts for months now. On two separate occasions, US federal administrations — first under Barack Obama and again under Donald Trump — have tried to have the lawsuit tossed out of court. The government has lost both times. A early, lower-court ruling by an Oregion judge, giving legal reasons why the case should be allowed to continue, was appealed to the US Supreme Court twice. Both times, the Supreme Court sided with the climate activists over the government.


Students and school pupils from some 50 countries have said they will rally together in the March 15 demonstration, even as the strike is being dismissed on both the right and left as a cheap publicity gimmick — so much hot air, if you will — and an excuse to skip school for a day.

As it is, school students in Australia, France, the UK, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Thailand, Colombia and Uganda have already skipped a day of school to demand stronger climate action from their governments, as part of 16-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg’s #FridaysForFuture climate campaign. Thunberg, who started the whole process as a solo campaigner outside the Swedish parliament last year, has become a lightning rod for both praise and controversy, and has been mentioned as a possible Nobel Peace Prize candidate, and was recently invited to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Some saw this as a cyncial ploy on the part of fat-cat industrialists who have already done their part to wreck the planet, but the truth is that — whether useful idiot or Nobel material — Thunberg herself couldn’t really give a (compost heap) how she’s perceived. The issue is what drives her, and that’s what has made her such a compelling voice for climate activism. She really couldn’t care whether she wins the Nobel Prize or gets to dine at Davos (don’t feed her lobster!) or not, and she’s the first to lash out sharply at soothing but empty feel-good words from those in power. Words don’t count anymore, actions do. She’s told people on her own side that. Actions deferred, whether it’s the Paris Agreement or tepid promises at the climate conference in Rio de Janeiro to scale back carbon emissions by 2050 mean nothing, she says. We need action, and we need it now.


That this argument was first made by a 15-year-old would have seemed laughable a year ago, and the truth is that many people did laugh at the time.

Well, they’re not laughing now.

In a stroke of good timing — though, knowing the way the media works, I suspect it was planned that way all along — 60 Minutes’s Steve Kroft presented a news segment, The Climate Kids, on North America’s most-watched news-magazine program this past weekend. The amicus brief this past Friday was co-signed by 30,000 young people. Now, all of a sudden, those 21 students who filed the original court case have swelled in number to the tens of thousands.

That number will only grow on March 15.

Will any of this make any difference? It’s hard to tell. I’ve commented here about how the 1973 Hollywood thriller Soylent Green, itself based on the dystopian sci-fi novel Make Room! Make Room! by the American novleist Harry Harrison, eerily foreshadowed a world overrun by too many people and choked by carbon emissions, where fresh strawberries are a near-priceless luxury that only multi-millionaires and captains of industry can afford — until they’re murdered as part of a corporate coverup, in case the proles — i.e. us — find out what’s really going on and rebel against their masters.


Soylent Green proved popular in its day, and has endured enough to be referenced even today— but as Greta Thunberg would point out, so what? What’s actually been done? 62 million American voters voted for Donald Trump to be their president, and this is a man who doesn’t even beliheve there’s a problem.

Xiuhytexcatl Martinez, the 19-year-old indigenous environmental activist and youth director of the self-explanatory Earth Guardians, is one of the lead plaintiffs in the suit, alongside climate scientist Dr. James Hansen. The suit — which many dismissed at the time, remember — argues that the US federal government has failed itd responsiblity to safeguard the health of future generations. The very air we breathe is at risk from rising carbon-dioxide emissions, which in turn affects global warming, a now-unfashionable phrase that most if not all legitimate climate scientists agree is the prime driver behind climate change. “What’s at stake right now,” then-15-year-old Martinez told the UN General Assembly in 2015, “is the existence of my generation.”

climate6 Xiuhytexcatl Martinez.jpg

Hyperbole? Perhaps. Possibly . . . probably, in fact. We can’t say we weren’t warned. Soylent Green went over this same ground in 1973, after all.

Can a single image change the planet? Just ask Brent Stirton, winner of 2017’s Wildlife Photographer of Year award.

Brent Stirton’s haunting image of a dead rhino, killed and butchered for its horn, was already widely known before it won Tuesday’s top honour at the 53rd Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards.

Stirton, a lifelong documentarian and senior staff photographer with Getty Images’ Reportage unit, photographed an eye-opening spread for National Geographic — both the magazine and the website — before rhinos became the tipping point of the worldwide conservation movement.

Stirton won the top award after earlier winning in the photojournalism category before a black-tie audience at London’s Natural History Museum.

Winners in each category faced off for the WPOTY equivalent of best-in-show, capping a confusing process in which a dozen semi-finalists were released to the media last month. The fact that Stirton’s image was even in the running — it was curiously omitted from September’s selection, along with several other finalists for the top award — would have been a clue right there as to the eventual winner. As jury chair Lewis Blackwell told the assembled audience, the final decision was unanimous.

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

That in itself may well be a first for a photo contest involving a panelled jury — judging photography is subjective, after all, and subject to individual, personal tastes — but then hardly anyone looking at Stirton’s image, either for the first time or after multiple viewings, can fail to be moved.

Stirton is no dilettante who got lucky. Luck plays a huge role in wildlife photography — that, and patience and a willingness to put in the hours — but in this case Stirton called on a lifetime of placing himself in life-threatening situations, camera at the ready.

His CV reads like a modern-day Robert Capa of combat photographers. Stirton works on a semi-regular basis for the Global Business Coalition for HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, the Ford, Clinton and Gates foundations, and the World Economic Forum. He’s on the road an average 300 days out of the year. His work has been published in Time, Newsweek, The Sunday Times Magazine, Geo, The New York Times Magazine, as well as by Human Rights Watch andCNN.

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

A Canon ambassador, he has won the prestigious World Press Photo seven times, as well receiving citations and plaudits from the Overseas Press Club, Days Japan, the Deadline Club, China International, Graphis, the American Society of Publication Designers, Germany’s (news) Lead Awards and the London Association of Photographers. In addition, Stirton has two United Nations honours to his name, for his exposés on the global environment, and for his photo essays on the worldwide fight against HIV/AIDS.

He has said photojournalists strive every day to find new ways to tell an old story. And the trade in illegal wildlife trafficking is an old story indeed.

In his own work, Stirton consciously looks for images that will move people and galvanize them to action, in ways that extend beyond the 24-hour news cycle.

The single image that changed his life, he said, came in 2007, when he witnessed park rangers with Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s Virunga National Park anti-poaching unit hauling the bodies of four mountain gorillas — one of the world’s most critically endangered animals — following their deaths under suspicious cicrumstances. 

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

One of the gorillas was a silverback alpha male and the leader of the group. The others were females, two of them with babies and the third one pregnant at the time. The babies were never found; it is thought they probably died of stress and dehydration.

Stirton went about his work clinically andprofessionally, but deep down he was both shaken and angered. He resolved then-and-there to use his camera to expose and document the illegal wildlife trade, for the rest of his career in photography.

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

“The image of the dead silverback gorilla in Congo transformed my thinking about photojournalism and the environment,” Stirton posted on Getty’s InFocus page.  “It got a huge reaction that I totally wasn’t expecting. The reason that image affected me so much was that it was a genuine crossover photograph that talked about both conflict and the environment in a single frame. It made me realize how connected those two things are.”

Though based in New York, Stirton’s recent work has focused on his home continent of Africa, everything from unexplained mass die-offs of hippos to the massacre of elephants for their ivory, to the recent, dramatic spike in rhino poaching for their horns.

It’s not often that Stirton is caught at a loss for words, he told his audience Tuesday, after the top award was announced.

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

“I have huge admiration for all those of you who go out and spend months in a single place, in tremendously difficult conditions, trying to take a unique picture of wildlife,” he said. “I look at these images as the reason behind my work. . . . My job is to reinforce the magnificence of these creatures.’ These pictures are evidence of their magnificence.

“I always think that photojournalism is the red-headed stepchild of the photography world, when it comes to wildlife. I always have that in my mind. So for you to think this of me, for the kind of work I do, in this space — I’m blown away.”

‘Blown away’ is as apt a way as any to describe his image of the dead rhino.

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton