From The Straits Times    |

In the last of this four-part Earth Day series, we speak to environmental studies student and climate activist Kate Yeo about the impact of climate change on our everyday lives.

When we think about climate action and sustainability, passionate Gen Zs like Swedish activist Greta Thunberg invariably come to mind. However, Kate Yeo opines that older folks are just as environmentally conscious – perhaps even more so than Gen Zs and millennials.

“In my experience, a lot of people, like senior citizens, are very environmentally friendly. They won’t buy new things unless they really have to, or they’ll just repair and reuse. People always say that it’s the younger generations who are taking action and leading the way. I think that is a very unhelpful narrative,” says the 21-year-old, who is currently an environmental studies student at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, US.

Kate is also a co-founder of Re-Earth Initiative, a global youth-led non-profit that organises climate action dialogue and demonstrations. The group’s 2020 Earth Day campaign reached an audience of over 300,000 globally, and was supported by human rights organisations such as Unicef, UNDP and Amnesty International.

Despite her youth, Kate communicates with an easy confidence. She is, after all, no stranger to speaking up about climate action on public forums, whether it’s on the streets or as a youth constituency member with the UN Environment Programme, where she participates in dialogues and assemblies with participants from around the world.

“Last year, I attended a few conferences to really try and bring youth voices to the forefront of international environmental legislation. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have seen myself here. Growing up, I wasn’t particularly interested in environmental issues, although I was interested in issues like poverty and inequality, ” she says.

This changed during junior college in 2018, when Kate observed that her friends were bringing their own lunch boxes to school to reduce the use of disposable plastics. At the same time, the environmental movement was gaining international traction.

Kate’s interest in the impact of single-use plastics grew, and she eventually launched Bring Your Own Bottle (BYOB) in 2018, an initiative that aimed to encourage the use of reusables – it even partnered with over 200 hawker stalls across Singapore.

“Climate change can seem like a very big and broad concept, so I really wanted to make it relevant to each person,” she says. “Climate change affects Singapore’s heat, rising dengue cases, and our food supply chains. It’s even threatening coffee production – half of the land best suited for growing coffee could disappear by 2050! Many of the decisions we make in our day-to-day life, right down to the plastic cups we use for bubble tea, contribute to this crisis, unfortunately.”

While the BYOB movement ended last December, Kate is still keeping busy with other initiatives, including an environmental policy workshop series with Singapore Youth for Climate Action, which was held in five parts from August 2022 to February this year. She is also currently working with the Energy Justice Clinic at Dartmouth on making energy systems more equitable in New Hampshire.

The clinic conducts ethnographic and policy research about decentralised electricity systems, as well as how low-income communities can best reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.

She says: “The fight [for climate action] has always belonged on the ground, because no movement in history has ever succeeded without mass mobilisation. That’s why it’s so important for everyone who cares about environmental issues to just keep showing up and letting our voices be heard.”

She adds that her ultimate hope is for people – be it Gen Zs or seniors – to realise that climate change is a bread and butter issue that affects everyone: “It’s not going to impact your bank account tomorrow, but it will sometime in the near future, when our ecosystems reach a tipping point, and this sends the prices of food soaring.

“It’s true that issues such as the rising cost of living will always take precedence, and I definitely recognise that not everyone feels strongly about the environmental cause, but my goal is to help everyone see why they need to be interested, and how these issues will affect their daily lives,” she says.