Interview. We spoke with Federica Gasbarro, a Roman biology student, who is in New York City this week to present her proposal to reduce climate change. ‘No more investments in a diseased system! They should invest in green projects, they should fund those who want to change, to convert.’

Fridays For Future storms New York City: ‘Wake up’

The UN has called climate “the defining issue of our time” and has convened the Climate Action Summit on Sept. 23 in New York City. Nation states, economic actors and social organizations will be presenting new initiatives aimed at reducing emissions by 45% over the next decade and reaching zero net emissions by 2050. 

Meanwhile, in the US city and around the world, millions are taking part in a week of action under the banner of the Global Strike for Climate, fighting for “the end of the age of fossil fuels.” Young activists will play a central role, both in the street initiatives and in the Youth Summit which will take place on Sept. 21 at the UN headquarters. Among the guests from around the world who will present climate-related proposals, we find the Italian Federica Gasbarro, a 24-year-old biology student. She is an activist for the Rome branch of Fridays For Future, a movement born from the school strikes for the climate pioneered in 2018 by the 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

How were you selected by the UN to take part in the Youth Summit together with 100 other young people, and what project will you present?

The UN Climate Action Summit, of which our summit is a part, is very pragmatic at every level, going from words to actions. The UN Secretary-General told the member states to either come up with concrete projects or stay at home. The project for which the UN selected me involves microalgae, which are photobioreactor organisms: it’s simple, an organization can implement it with just a few thousand euros. I did not invent it, as microalgae are already being grown to produce sugars, polysaccharides, fatty acids, etc., but they are not being exploited for their ability to absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide. The photobioreactors could be cultivated in areas with large emissions of greenhouse gases, for example close to industrial centers.

The UN says we need concrete plans to reduce emissions by 45% within a decade and reach zero emissions by 2050. What should the countries that have declared a state of climate emergency actually do, in terms of laws, technology, production systems or culture?

I’ve got a purely scientific background, so I can’t delve deep into the law and economics. But those who are running the world must listen to the science, which is saying loud and clear that fossil fuels are the problem. So, no more investments in a diseased system! They should invest in green projects, they should fund those who want to change, to convert. The climate has been under attack, and it is demanding its due, in the near future. Obviously, we expect drastic measures by the member states, at all levels, from local to global. The message from us, who are students, is simple: “Wake up, to make sure that everyone has a future.” This is why we are pushing for more states to declare a climate emergency, a measure that would help set things in motion, because it would also have an effect at the psychological level: the citizens would take it more seriously.

How did Fridays For Future get started in Italy, and what does it do?

In Italy, the movement followed the path already seen in other countries in the previous months. From Sweden, Greta posted photos of her own actions with the hashtag #fridaysforfuture. People started to come together, and, after a while, many local branches were established, also in our country, starting with very few people at first, including in Rome—at the very first strike I took part in, we were no more than 20 people. Then, there was exponential growth in February and March, thanks to the involvement of the schools, and on March 15, for the global strike, there were 30,000 of us. Those who are part of the movement—which anyone can join by sharing the posts on social media and coming to the protests—keep in touch via the Internet and social media, which is how we also coordinate for global actions.

For over a year now, Fridays For Future has been taking to the streets, with a great echo in terms of media coverage; however, it doesn’t seem to have secured major practical progress from the political sphere. Do you agree?

There is very little time: the science—which doesn’t give out numbers without serious backing—is saying 11 years. The commitments must be measured on a global level. And we are still not seeing results: the emissions keep rising. So, we thank those who have given us such a powerful voice and resonance, as otherwise the movement might not have gone so far; but those who should be doing their duty are still failing to do it. Of course, these are slow processes, many negotiations have been started, and some states have made stronger commitments. According to the Paris Agreement, developed countries should cut their emissions, also in order to allow others to grow. The question is: why not work to ensure that the less-developed countries can avoid the mistakes we have made? The new forms of energy can also bring many jobs.

Isn’t it puzzling that Greta—although she calls everyone out in harsh terms—is also being applauded by politicians at the highest levels, the business world, multinational media, celebrity billionaires, all social categories which would lose many of their privileges if we were to take the climate seriously?

Right now, Greta is at the center of many people’s attention. So, for some, supporting her means showing that they’re on the right side of things. It’s positive publicity. However, I must emphasize that a political leader who is supporting her in words must also follow it up with action. Another part of it might be that these adults know that they’ve done bad things in the past, they have a guilty conscience, and after they’ve conducted themselves shamefully in their life, they’re now saying: “This little girl is right, I support her.” And maybe they are serious in supporting her, for example by supporting the green economy.

The core strength of the movement is pragmatism—but how will it be able to guide its own future in concrete terms?

We are a horizontal and fluid movement. Some of us say that we should be protesting in the streets and nothing more, while others argue that it’s necessary to listen to the proposals made by those in power, answer with our own proposals, and so on. It will be essential to find a point of convergence between these two tendencies; this is necessary because we can’t ignore the fact that the institutions hold the power. We’ll also see what will happen in New York.

The majority of both young people and adults in wealthy countries are still showing indifference in their behavior. Isn’t anything able to touch their hearts, not even the Amazon burning?

The Amazon is being seen as something far away, as the only contact you have with it is in a 30-second news segment. In other respects, the reason is people’s lack of knowledge. Now, things have changed a little bit, even if it’s only a matter of coming more into fashion. But the urgent and total change that we young people are asking for isn’t happening. It’s difficult, when you’re an adult, to change your well-worn habits. You only do it if you have to. Then, we either wait for the Earth to force us, or—more wisely—the institutions should introduce measures that would lead to changes in the way people live. For example, using a bicycle in the city should no longer be a danger to your physical safety.

The UN’s ActNow campaign suggests 10 moderate ways for individuals to act: not eating meat, taking shorter showers, driving less, buying local produce, recycling, turning off the lights, unplugging electrical equipment, reusing items, making use of canvas shopping bags and adopting zero waste fashion. What about the young people from FFF, what are their lifestyles like?

Of course, we are for using public transportation. Many of us are vegan or vegetarian; I’m eating much less meat, and I’m thinking about it much more. We talk a lot about growing our own produce, as well as using bicycles and reusable water bottles. Some are reusing old clothes. Then, there are also other things that are not so well-known: using pencils for highlighting, table mats made from polysaccharide as an alternative to plastic, even washable make-up removal pads made from bamboo. And many others.

What forms of financing does the FFF use?

When we need to, we launch crowdfunding campaigns. When Greta came over, we received €25,000 from small donations, which we spent mostly for the stages, one of them powered by stationary bikes, for the security services for her, for an ecological van… We don’t argue over money.

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