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Born to tackle the climate crisis: A young climate activist changing Turkey

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This profile feature by Merve Kartal (from HMKW University-MA Digital Journalism), was written as part of the Journalistic Writing module with lecturer Martina Kohl.

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Atlas Sarrafoğlu, now a 15-year-old climate activist pioneered the Fridays for Future movement in Turkey. This youth-led and -organized movement began in 2018 to protest the lack of action on the climate crisis. Atlas is also the youngest winner of the 2020 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) International Youth Award, given to young people under 30 for their contribution to nature conservation.

His inspiration from Greta Thunberg grows exponentially after meeting her and young people at the climate activists camp in Lausanne organized by Fridays for Future in August 2019. Young people from more than 37 countries, including Atlas, asked questions about the climate crisis during the camp. Atlas says that “When I first met Greta, I was in line for breakfast at the University of Lausanne. I clearly remember my knees shaking. We fell into the same group during our workshop. Our friendship started there”.

“We were 450 people in the climate activists camp, I can say that everyone I met there inspired me. Every new person I met continues to inspire me because everyone experiences the effects of the climate crisis differently and it is impressive to see it from different perspectives”, he says about the camp.

The biggest problem of Turkey is ecocide; the legacy you left us is unacceptable.

In 2019, he made the call for a global strike for the first time in Turkey, and many children sided with Atlas in the climate action held in Istanbul Bebek Park on March 15, 2019. He is currently actively working in Youth for Climate Turkey founded with inspiration from the Fridays for Future movement.

In 2021 together with his peers, he campaigned for adding a climate change and sustainability course to the curriculum in the schools, declaring a climate emergency in Turkey, and Turkey’s coal exit by 2030. While coordinating and communicating joint actions of the movement, he shares the demands of the youth on the international platforms through the campaigns he runs such as #RatifyParisAgreement#TeachClimateAtSchool#FaceTheClimateEmergency, and #uprootthesystem.

Expressing that the current education system doesn’t sufficiently address climate change issues, Atlas explained why his campaign to add the climate crisis to the curriculum is necessary:

“Students are not prepared to face the effects of climate change, the importance of carbon-free life for the solution of this crisis is not taught, and the empathy feelings that will enable them to connect with nature do not develop for these reasons.” He believes change is possible by teaching sustainability and climate change in the curriculum and making future generations be equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills for green jobs of the future.

Atlas underlines the rights of the child by emphasizing the “Declaration on Children, Youth and Climate Action.” It was prepared by the CERI, UNICEF, and YOUNGO and signed by 12 countries in 2019, at the 25th Conference of the Parties (COP 25) in Madrid, Spain. “It is very important for us that as soon as possible the climate crisis is included in education, which is one of the most fundamental rights of children,” he added.

Atlas regrets that ecocide, described as “what is happening to our planet, the mass damage and destruction of the natural living world” by the Stop Ecocide Foundation in June 2021, is Turkey’s biggest problem. He also criticizes the inadequacy of the actions in Turkey: “The Paris Agreement was finally passed by parliament, but we all know that these are very insufficient.”

“Young people are the ones who will take the future from adults, but the legacy left to us is a complete dump and destruction. We reject this legacy and know that a better future is possible. We are fighting this struggle not only for humans but for all living things,” Atlas says. “But we know that a better future is possible.”

Although he says that their voices are beginning to be heard in Turkey, Atlas thinks everyone needs to get out of their comfort zone for real change. This is how he defines the day when he can say yes, action taken: “One day when I wake up and know that fossil fuels are not used on the planet, I will know that action has been taken and promises made are true.”

He explains why he strikes “I strike because I am the future. I would like to see our fossil fuel emissions go down and explore different sources of renewable energy. We need to transfer job placements so we can get people that were working in the fossil fuel industry to more renewable jobs.”

Eco-anxiety is a form of motivation for him

Atlas recounts that the forest fires that broke out in Turkey in the summer of 2021 and could not be intervened for a long time affected everyone, and everyone is worried about it. He states that eco-anxiety, described as a chronic fear of environmental doom by the American Psychology Association, affects everyone. But Atlas draws strength and motivation from the physical and mental challenges of climate change. “Eco-anxiety is actually a motivator for me because I realize that I am working hard and more on climate to escape my worries,” he says.

Besides his activist identity, Atlas is a very talented teenager. In addition to his work with environmental and nature-themed organizations, he writes a weekly column and interviews change-makers, prepares, and presents radio programs. His interviews with different climate activists from Asia, Africa and the Middle East are published in Yeşil Gazete, which is the ecological, political, participatory internet newspaper broadcasting in Turkish and English. He publishes news about the events, strikes, and campaigns he organizes and joins on his website atlassarrafoglu.com to announce his work on climate awareness.

The contribution of young people in Turkey who have been joining school strikes for three years and believing in change is obvious. Being able to see the achievement and concrete actions of a young climate activist and young people who believe him is so gorgeous in a country where the freedom of expression and freedom of association are restrictive. While their demands are slowly being heard, people of all ages who believe in the reality of the climate crisis also need to take action. Atlas believes that with the increase in the number of people in solidarity, they can support each other. Everyone can do something, even small deeds:

“Not everyone has to be an activist, but they can take on being a part of a change in their own way.”

The young man has some suggestions about what we can do individually about the climate crisis. “Let’s take care of ourselves. What are we eating? what are we drinking? What do we consume? Do we generate waste from them? Then where do these wastes go, do they transform, are they burned, do they spill into the sea and cause a problem such as mucilage? We need to know and research them. This is a task that every human being should do.”

One day after my interview with Atlas, there was a very important development that we witnessed one-on-one that change is possible, but it takes willpower. “Teach Climate at Schools” campaign launched by Youth for Climate Turkey was concluded with success. Minister of National Education Mahmut Özer announced that MEB added climate change to its environmental education curriculum. Atlas expresses the determination of youth in his tweet as follows: “Youth United Will Never Be Defeated!”

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