In recent years, a global surge in youth protests, advocacy, and organizations around climate change and biodiversity loss has fueled momentum for climate action.
Young people worldwide have learned about the dire state of the planet and have refused to buckle under the weight of despair. Instead, they insist that current economic models can be transformed, our collective relationship to nature can be reimagined, and the environmental crises engulfing the planet can be overcome.
The nonprofit Action for Nature recently honored 17 pioneering youth as part of its Eco-Hero Awards for their efforts in protecting the planet.
"These children, pre-teens, and teens have shown that the next generation is refusing to simply stand on the sidelines but instead is turning its passion for helping the planet into projects that have tangible, positive impacts on the environment now," said Beryl Kay, president of Action for Nature. "Through their commitment, these young activists are shaping the world around them and inspiring other young people to take action to protect our Earth."
Kay told Global Citizen that the prize often acts as a jumping off point for youth winners, who go on to pursue broader careers of activism later in life. Getting recognition early for their action helps to instill a commitment to causes of social justice.
"People will listen to youth when they’re young, whereas if they gave the same speech when they’re an adult, people won’t listen to them," Kay said. "They have a great opportunity to be listened to and to make a difference."
"We want them to take action to be empowered," she said. "It’s a great feeling to get results, and you don’t always get results, but you have to keep persevering."
Read about five of the winners and their accomplishments below (view the full list here).
Rylee Brooke Kamahele / Mililani, US / Age 12
At the age of 12, Rylee Brooke Kamahele has already championed legislation that has become law in Oahu, Hawaii. The tireless youth activist helped lead the push to get the Promise to Our Keiki, Keep Hawaii Hawaii bill passed at the local level and is now working to get it enacted statewide. The law aims to promote environmental stewardship, restoration, and conservation throughout the state.
Kamahele has been a dedicated environmental activist for years, having founded the organization the Catalyst Club, which supports and empowers other youth activists, organizes beach cleanups, and rescues and rehabilitates animals.
She also travels to schools to teach kids about the importance of conservation and wildlife protection.
"I love what I do!" Kamahele told Action for Nature. "Every single program or project I create is sparked by a passion I have or experience I've gone through that called for change. I want to grow my organization to be bigger than the YMCA and give kids something to do."
Sofia Molina / San Luis Potosí, Mexico / Age 11
Sofia Molina believes that small, everyday actions of conservation can protect the planet, but only when they happen at scale.
The youth activist has organized more than 1,500 students through her conservation nonprofit Cococu, named for the first syllables of her favorite words: concientizar (to raise awareness), conocer (to know), and cuidar (to care). Molina travels throughout Mexico giving lessons on conservation, raising awareness for the United Nations’ Global Goals, and encouraging youth to take part in community actions.
Action for Nature notes that Molina was able to help secure 30,000 acres of land for conservation, a victory that will help her guide her peers through ecosystem renewal projects.
"I am sure that the climate crisis can be combated by children being guided in a simple and professional way, and above all by giving us a voice so that through a plan created by us, we can demand respect for nature," Molina told Action for Nature. "If children can fulfill our dreams, there will be a better world!"
Lazar Dukovic / Budva, Montenegro / Age 15
After visiting an science exhibit at a local museum, Lazar Dukovic was inspired to learn more about the engineering that undergirds electricity and water access.
A few years later, he put his knowledge to the test by scavenging parts, raising money, and ultimately building a water pump and a solar power system for a remote community in Montenegro. The pump uses gravity to provide water to houses, and the solar system supplies electricity to eight homes.
Dukovic maintains both systems and plans to expand them in the years to come. His early ventures have shown him that there is basically no limit to his ability to reduce poverty and expand access to basic human rights.
In addition to building new sustainable systems, he’s working on ways to protect bees and harvest rainwater for everyday use.
"When I started, I suspected that I, as an individual, can’t change much. I believe that is the global youth problem," Dukovic told Action for Nature. "I changed my mind on that after I acknowledged that every individual has to contribute for positive change to happen."
Duncan Jurman / Weston, US / Age 16
Duncan Jurman has been fascinated by butterflies since he was 4 years old. Early on, he learned that butterfly populations were declining globally due to human activity so he developed gardens and a vivarium at his home, where he raised more than 5,000 butterflies to be released.
In 2018, Jurman developed a large butterfly garden and vivarium at his high school, which has since attracted 28 species of butterflies, including two endangered species. The vivarium has also attracted other wildlife, including birds, lizards, and insects.
Jurman is committed to protecting butterflies by restoring natural habitats. He travels to high schools to share his knowledge and encourage others to help in his quest.
He’s now working with gardeners and local residents in the region to rescue endangered butterfly species and create better habitats in general for wildlife.
"From teaching, I recognized that most students don’t know the essential roles butterflies play in our ecosystems — as pollinators of plants and key food sources for numerous animals, such as birds and lizards — and the diversity of species in South Florida," Jurman said. "Most also don’t know that butterfly populations worldwide are in serious jeopardy. Students today as a whole are more technology-oriented and have far less concern for, and knowledge of, gardening, insects, and nature in general than previous generations."
"I want to change this situation and realize there’s an opportunity to raise youth awareness of the importance of butterflies, the many threats facing them, and the relatively little effort necessary to have an immediate impact on the future of butterflies," he added.
Lesein Mutunkei / Nairobi, Kenya / Age 15
Every time Lesein Mutunkei scores a goal in football, he works with his teammates to plant 11 trees. He started the Trees for Goals initiative when he was 12, when he first learned about the scale of deforestation globally.
Since then, he’s planted more than 1,000 trees and has spurred more than 5,000 peers to join his cause.
Mutunkei has also become an educator around issues such as climate change, deforestation, and plastic pollution.
"My goal is to have FIFA take Trees For Goals to world football," Mutunkei told Action for Nature.