By Lilah Raptopoulos
Jun 14, 2015
Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez is 14, but has a confidence beyond his years. He carries on his back an organisation that his mother Tamara founded almost 10 years before his birth, created to inspire young people to defend the environment.
Roske-Martinez is its spokesperson, its youth director, and a self-defined eco hip hop artist, activist and change-agent. He raps. He lectures children younger and older than him at schools around the United States. He rallies before state politicians. And he has addressed world leaders in the United Nations.
Speaking to the Guardian, Xiuhtezcatl explains how his age works to his advantage, and why young people are the fossil fuel industry’s greatest threat.
How old were you when you got started?
Well, when I was six-years-old, I gave my first public speech about climate change in front of about 300 people. I talked about how we have to take responsibility as individuals. I remember saying, “When I was younger,” – yes, I was six – “I wanted to go to all the factories with my brother and shut them down. And when I turned six, I found out that it was us that were supporting the factories. We’re the ones fuelling the destruction of our environment with our money.”
Then, when I was nine, I discovered the Boulder parks department was going to start spraying two new unhealthy chemicals in public parks. So about 50 of us brought it to City Council – and it was a bunch of kids going in and telling these adults how to do their jobs. They listened. They gave $50,000 [£32,692] to rewrite the Pest Management programme for our city, and banned the use of those chemicals in public parks in Boulder. That was huge. We were so fired up after that.
When a city council comes face to face with you at six, or even at 14, are they shocked? How is the response to you different than it is to an adult?
People listen to me more, because I stand out. They see a young person addressing issues that adults are afraid to talk about. There’s a lot of cowardice in adults speaking up about issues that matter to them.
But when people hear this stuff from me, you see them realise, “So every problem that we see in the world is going to be left to this kid and his peers? How can we change that?”
Tackling climate change can feel like an impossible task – or a boring science-heavy one – to a lot of children. How do you get people to give a damn?
Stressing urgency is one of the most important things you can do. We are the generation that will suffer the most. A lot of kids know this is a crisis. But especially in first world countries, there’s a disconnect between the problem and the impact it’s going to have on us. We’ve got to bridge that.
Also, young people are not empowered these days at all. Look at the message we teach almost every child on the planet: you have no voice now, and what you say is basically irrelevant until you graduate from college and get some diplomas. We learn that we’re not going to be able to influence our society until we pass certain milestones. We’re not being given value. We need to shift that thinking and show the world that this generation, we are the leaders.
I also want kids to know that it’s not too late. Even though it may seem like it, it’s not.
What has been the biggest struggle?
Trying to shift human lifestyle. We choose what’s familiar and easy. When we start to tell people, “Hey, that easy way is destroying the planet!” Then they kind of ... still don’t want to change.
What about people who disagree with or downplay your causes? How do you respond to, for example, people who defend the need for natural gas as a fuel source?
I mean, yes, it’s very important in the way that our society functions currently – we cannot survive without electricity. And every system that we have in place depends on the transfer of energy. Now how do we get that energy? People say we need oil, coal and natural gas, but if you look at the future of energy, we should not be looking down a hole at a bunch of dead things.
The future of energy comes from the sky, natural sources, things that will last forever. Fossil fuels are finite! We’re going to run out of them, soon. It’s just a matter of when at this point. The only thing in our way are multi million dollar industries that don’t want to put aside their dough for the greater good of the planet.
You mention in your video that you’ve got threats. Can you talk more about that?
Yeah, pretty scary stuff. So I gave this presentation to about 200 kids at a middle school in Evergreen, Colorado about fracking. And the kids there were super into it. They were intrigued by the content, energized by the music we performed, all the teachers and principals were there, it was incredible. So afterwards, a lot of the kids went home, excited, and told their parents about it. And it turns out that some of the parents worked for the natural gas industry. So those parents were pretty pissed off that we were talking to their kids about why fracking is one of the most dangerous things happening in our backyards. It’s how they made their livelihood.
What happened next was pretty immature. They went onto our YouTube channel and said that we were communists brainwashing their children, that we forced them to watch our presentation and sing lyrics of our songs. It was total bull.
It was intense. There were some crazy threats. I’d say my mom’s pretty overprotective about this stuff. She was kind of freaking out a little bit.
The UN climate conference is coming up in Paris. What would your message be to negotiators there?
There’s a good chance that I’ll be able to go there and address world leaders. I want to show them that my generation does give a damn, and is going to be waiting for them to make the right decisions, not because we want them to or need to beg them to, but because it’s their responsibility.
I want them to know that my generation is not going to sit idly by while they bicker and argue and fail to do their job as leaders, because in all honesty, we, the youth of the planet, we are the leaders. If you look at the movement about climate change now, it’s being led by youth. So if they don’t make the right decision, we’re going to stand up as leaders and be there to make the right one.
What are you working on now?
I have a legal suit against the state of Colorado and the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission that is going to be heard soon, for an immediate moratorium on fracking until it is proven to not adversely impact land, people, water and air.
We also recently successfully campaigned to get citizens to resign a 20-year contract with Xcel Energy, which provides our electricity, so we could move towards renewable infrastructure. The transition hasn’t completely happened yet, but we are moving in that direction. It has been pretty freaking huge to be able to accomplish that.
We also have over 100 Earth Guardian crews in dozens of different countries throughout the planet, fighting against some of the biggest climate issues in their own communities.
How can people get involved?
You can check out earthguardians.org and get involved, but I’m not here to tell people what to do. That’s not my job. So check out what we have done, but realise that there is a movement going on filled with hundreds of thousands of young people. Look to things that you’re passionate about and that excite you. Engage with those things: music, sports, art, whatever. Use those things to make a change. Because right now, a passionate, empowered, inspired, educated young person is the fossil fuel industry’s greatest threat.