Youth Activist Vic Barrett on Climate Anxiety and Community

Published Sep 25, 2023

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Climate and Energy

24-year-old climate activist Vic Barrett has been in the field for a decade. In this interview, he shares what he’s learned and what keeps him going.

24-year-old climate activist Vic Barrett has been in the field for a decade. In this interview, he shares what he’s learned and what keeps him going.

In 2015, 21 young people filed a landmark climate lawsuit against the federal government, now heading back to court as Juliana v. United States.

They argue that the government violated their constitutional rights by investing in fossil fuels; that federal subsidies and policies for fossil fuels fueled the climate crisis, jeopardizing these plaintiffs’ and everyone’s right to life, liberty, and property.

Eight years into the suit, the climate crisis has grown to new heights — but so has the climate movement. At this time of great fear, hope, and opportunity, we spoke with Juliana v. United States plaintiff and climate activist Vic Barrett.

How to Stay Energized in a Fight Against All Odds

Vic began working on climate issues a decade ago. He became a plaintiff in Juliana v. United States soon after, at the age of 16. Along with work on that case, the Bronx-based activist has spoken and protested at several international climate conferences and organized in local climate campaigns.

The road has been a long, steep one. Sometimes it feels impossible to climb. That may be especially true for young people like Vic, who will live longer in a world ravaged by fossil fuels. Gen Z is both lauded for and saddled with the burden of being the generation to save the world. 

Despite the challenges, Vic spoke to us about what keeps him inspired and energized:

People and experiences and moments. It might feel abstract, but just having a picnic with friends at a park, or going to the beach. Just living, honestly! And having a good time and feeling happy around other people. 

I’ve met some of my closest friends doing this work. And whether we were at a U.N. climate conference or just an afterschool program, just having people to do it with is what keeps me doing the work, and spaces that hold a lot of love.

Connecting Community, Care, and Climate Activism

After eight years of fighting in court and being an activist even longer, Vic has learned the importance of cultivating community and care. They are both antidotes to anxiety and crucial to changing the world for the better. 

In a time of not only crisis but deep divisiveness, Vic emphasizes empathy and understanding in his activism. This helps to build widespread support and bring more people into the movement. As Vic said,

What I like to lean into is that no matter how you feel about all these things going on around us, we all have things that we love, and we all have things that we want to protect, and we all have this shared experience of being a human being on a complicated planet. 

It’s not just the big work, like federal court battles and U.N. climate conferences, that make a difference. Work that’s closer to home, like community organizing and mutual aid, helps sustain our energy by connecting us to the people we love; the people we’re fighting for.

Moreover, these are the building blocks for systemic change. This close, tangible work helps shift our mindset ever more toward caring for one another and for the planet.

“What I’ve learned, as I’ve gotten older and as I’ve been doing this work, is that climate change is a symptom of a much larger problem, Vic told us. “I’m doing the work to solve climate change, and that’s just me doing the work to lessen the impacts of what are the symptoms of a bigger sickness, which is the way we treat each other, what we prioritize.” 

We’re excited to be working with activists like Vic to build a future that prioritizes people over profit; to ensure a livable planet for future generations, together. 

You can read our interview with Vic below. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Lessons From 10 Years of Climate Activism

You became a plaintiff in Juliana v. United States eight years ago. How have you changed as an activist, and what has the experience taught you about activism?

Working on a case on the national level, on the federal scale, taught me a lot about my values as an activist; making sure that I give myself time to work close to home, as well.

The United States government is no joke, right? Feeling like one person looking at this massive institution can be hard sometimes. It taught me to lean into community — working with my neighbors, doing mutual aid, and paying attention to what feels close and tangible.

In switching between large-scale work like federal court and U.N. conferences and smaller-scale work like community organizing and mutual aid, what lessons do you take from each that you apply to the other?

I’m not a person who is going to say that one is better than the other necessarily. 

I went to the World Economic Forum when I was 17, and there were not a lot of young, Black, queer Americans there. And it was definitely uncomfy.

But I know that being there is important because you can’t keep giving them permission to exclude people. So being there in the first place, to me, has always been important. 

At the same time, when I go and talk to young people, when I give speeches to high school students, I never end with “You need to join this organization,” or “You need to sign this petition.” 

My main goal is to encourage young folks, and so I always try to tell them to just, like, check in on your neighbor, look at where you can help people right next to you. Look at change that is tangible to you and be inspired by that. 

Because these big meetings and all of that, sitting in a room negotiating whether we’re talking about 1 versus 1.5 versus 2 degrees Celsius, I don’t think that’s how you engage people. I don’t think that’s how you get people to care. And in order to make a difference, you need to get people to care.

So I’ve pivoted more toward just telling people what might seem abstract, but just learn to care about something, and then do something about it. Let’s not get caught up in this other stuff, because that’s not what’s gonna change the world. 

We’re on the, what, 28th COP? [referring to the annual Conference of the Parties of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change] They’ve been meeting for like 28 years! What they’re doing there isn’t necessarily what makes a massive difference. 

What will make a massive difference is encouraging people in their own world to care more. And I know that’s not gonna lower the parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere tomorrow, or even the next day, but it’ll change the attitude that got us here in the first place.

That reminds me of Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer [a Potawatomi author and botanist]. She talks about how in a society built on greed and wanting more more more, just being able to focus on the people around you and care about them deeply is itself a kind of radical act.

That’s a great book! It’s awesome that you bring that up because I think people forget — it’s not like there’s no blueprint for this, like there’s no guidance. 

There’ve been people living for centuries who have implemented this way of living, and if more of us took a second to just listen and recognize — it’s not like it’s never been done, to live in harmony [with the earth]. 

Climate activist Vic Barett has served as a plaintiff in Juliana v. United States for eight years and has worked as a climate activist for a decade. Photo © Ken Schles.

“Climate Change Is a Symptom of a Much Larger Problem.”

A few years ago, you wrote in The Guardian: “I was born into a world in which my future and my past are uncertain. Born into a world where my inheritance is slipping into the sea. Born into a world where my people are going extinct.” 

It powerfully gestures toward your indigenous heritage and your intersecting identities. So I wanted to ask, how do you see the different parts of your identity and all the different injustices in the world intertwining with your climate activism?

When I first got involved in climate work, I was like 14, just going to afterschool programs. When they brought up climate change, I didn’t understand necessarily how it intersected with justice. 

But mentors taught me, and I learned alongside peers, how much of a justice issue it is, especially in the context of New York.

We were talking about how low-income housing is more likely to be built in areas that are susceptible to flooding. And I remember being young and just thinking, Well, that’s absolutely wrong. That was just such a clear violation of fairness.

And then at the same time, I was going home and seeing Ferguson on fire on the news. Those two things happened at the same time for me: the Black Lives Matter movement kicking up and me learning about climate justice. 

And so it was like this really visceral, terrible violence on the news of how Black people are treated, and then meanwhile I’m learning about this slow, insidious, but intentional violence committed against people of color. 

It kind of just became impossible to ignore, especially considering all the identities that I hold. And I feel like what I’ve learned, as I’ve gotten older and as I’ve been doing this work, is that climate change is a symptom of a much larger problem. 

I’m doing the work to solve climate change, and that’s just me doing the work to lessen the impacts of what are the symptoms of a bigger sickness, which is the way we treat each other; what we prioritize. 

As a young, Black, indigenous person, I know that a lot of my identity is impacted by anti-Blackness, is impacted by racism, is impacted by extractive tourism, and all those things are also symptoms of a world that has decided to prioritize profit over people. 

So it’s never been difficult for me to see climate change as an intersectional issue. It’s all related to how we decide to care about each other and care about the planet.

And whether that means you’re a climate activist or whether that means you’re working on Black Lives Matter issues, or gender justice, or LGBTQ rights, it all comes down to the same thing — trying to combat this system we have that takes advantage of people.

I’ve seen comparisons, including from yourself, of Juliana v. United States and Brown v. Board of Education [a landmark Civil Rights case, which ruled that segregated schools are unconstitutional]. That case had a similar legal strategy and was youth-led, too. 

You’ve also written about learning from previous movements and your ancestors. What has the past taught you about the future? How do you take those lessons into your work today?

I think that as a young activist, looking at the past is so important because we’re looking at so many issues that seem impossible to overcome. 

But when we look back at the Civil Rights Movement, for example, Black people were able to get their rights after 300, 400 years of being literal property. 

The Civil Rights Movement is so inspirational because even though we have really, really far to go, Black people were actually treated as chattel, as property, and then were able to stand up and use the same water fountain as someone else, eventually.

And I think it’s just a testament to the fact that nothing is totally impossible when you have such a massive motivator — whether that motivation is to be treated like a human, or whether that motivation is for humans to cherish our existence. 

And there are ways of changing people’s minds. We spend so much time focusing on division, and right now, I think that’s a massive issue we’re having to stare down every day. It’s like we’re living on different planets, almost! 

But that doesn’t mean that things can’t be different, and I think movements of the past teach us that for sure. 

How do you lean away from division and toward bringing people into the movement, and how do you stay inspired to do that?

When it comes to overcoming division, what I like to lean into is that no matter how you feel about all these things going on around us, we all have things that we love, and we all have things that we want to protect, and we all have this shared experience of being a human being on a complicated planet. So I try to lean a lot into discussing empathy and understanding. 

And that doesn’t mean I have a tolerance for what can be hate, a lot of times. But I do have a patience for trying to let someone be a human being, and discussing everything that’s going on. It’s not radical to want to protect what you love, so how do we figure out how to do that together?

“No One in This Movement Should Have to Be Lonely.”

Do you feel a lot of pressure as a Gen Z activist to “save the world”? 

I would say that there has been pressure for sure. I’ve had to deal with excitement, and I’ve had to deal with a certain level of resentment, of being approached in different places and different contexts about how our generation is going to save the world. 

I think people feel like that’s an exciting thing to say, but also — I’m 24 now, but when you’re 17, 18, 19, whatever, it can also put a lot of pressure on you, absolutely.

I’ll never let go of the fact that I really do believe that our generation has the capability to make a massive difference. But I think that sometimes what I’m looking for, and what probably other young activists are looking for, is help from other generations. 

You can tell us we’re doing a great job, but it would also be great if you helped out, considering the fact that we just got here! You guys have had a lot of opportunities to make a difference. Why do you need a 13, 14-year-old to tell you that you should be protecting the planet? Isn’t that a little embarrassing? [laughs]

I have this tattoo on my arm, and it says “370,” because that’s the parts per million of carbon that was in the atmosphere the year I was born. So we were really popped out onto an earth that was already unsustainable, and they already had the facts to know that. 

And we’re gonna be here, and we’re gonna show up and protect things as best as we can, but there has to be an acknowledgment of the fact that it’s a little unfair. 

I said this once, which is not totally realistic, but it’s a thought that I had: If I have kids, I don’t want them to have to be activists. Not to the extent that we have to be right now. 

Vic Barett points to his tattoo, which reads "370c" enclosed in three diamonds.
Vic’s tattoo reads “370c,” referring to 370 parts per million. That was the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere the year he was born. Photo © Ken Schles.

Despite the climate anxiety, the uncertainty, and the resentment, how do you sustain the hope and the energy to keep going?

People and experiences and moments. It might feel abstract, but just having a picnic with friends at a park, or going to the beach. Just living, honestly! And having a good time and feeling happy around other people. 

I’ve met some of my closest friends doing this work. And whether we were at a U.N. climate conference or just an afterschool program, just having people to do it with is what keeps me doing the work, and spaces that hold a lot of love.

That reminds me of something I read recently about how climate anxiety is really partly about loneliness. When we have solidarity and community, it’s much easier to keep going. 

Yeah, absolutely. I feel like no one in this movement should have to be lonely. And that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people that are, and that’s completely valid, but we should all as a community be doing the work to make sure that no one feels that way.

Was there a time when you really felt the weight and didn’t feel like it was worth it, and you had to flip the switch, or something flipped the switch for you?

I feel like recently it’s something I’m coming out of. I had this idea in my head for a long time, like, Burnout? That can’t happen to me! And then it wasn’t until after that I realized that it had, I had felt burnt out. 

It’s this idea of, if I’m not filling my cup, how can I fill others’ cups? If I don’t have anything, how can I give anything to other people?

I think what’s important is just recognizing that that’s where you’re at and trusting your community by being honest and letting folks know that. And then, in an ideal community that you’ve built, people will respond the right way, whether that means taking on tasks that you don’t feel you can do, or whether that means just calling and checking on you. 

And I’m insanely guilty of never wanting to ask for help at all. So I will admit, as I’m giving that advice, I still struggle with it. But I know that that’s the right answer.

When I have challenged myself to do that, it has worked out. You’re not a burden, people care, and it’s really hard to convince yourself of that sometimes. But it actually is the truth.

You’ve spoken before about your love of stories and storytelling. What stories give you strength, inspiration, or ideas?

I think that I’m just really inspired by the lived experiences of everyone. I know that I have lots of stories to tell and lots of unique experiences, and what I think is so awesome is I know everyone else does, too.

And just walking around with that level of perception… I think the big thing about storytelling is seeing the potential in every single person you walk past to convince you of something, or change your mind, or just make you think, make you laugh, make you cry, any of that. 

I’m a big watcher of Vice, of documentaries on YouTube; just deep dives into a very niche thing where somebody tells you a story about it. And then suddenly, you care!

If we could replicate that by 8 or 9 billion or however many of us are on this earth, the impact that can have would be immeasurable. 

Watch Vic, Jane Fonda, and Other Climate Activists Speak at Our 2023 Against All Odds Annual Benefit!

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