In the lead-up to the United Nations Climate Action Summit this month, young climate activists from more than 150 countries led a wave of protests on September 20 to call for action on the climate crisis. Fridays for Future, a youth climate movement started by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, is leading the global strike which is set to last for a week, until September 27.

Allie Rougeot, a third-year economics and public policy student at U of T, is the head of Fridays for Future’s Toronto chapter. She sat down with The Varsity to talk about her climate activism, U of T’s role in addressing the climate crisis, and starting a small revolution.

Growing up as an activist

Reflecting on the run-up to the establishment of the Toronto chapter of Fridays for Future, Rougeot said, “I started seeing in Europe what they were doing… and I thought: ‘This is great, I can be super French and start striking as well.’”

Rougeot’s activism career started when she was 10 years old. Growing up in the south of France, Rougeot was a fierce advocate for wildlife protection and biodiversity laws. She gave presentations and asked her teachers to put up posters; “I was that kid,” Rougeot joked.

Climate activism was a natural next step from her early environmental work and interest in human rights, which developed as the Syrian refugee crisis reached France in 2015. Though her activism remained in the confines of her high school, Rougeot focused her efforts on the climate crisis as its impacts became clearer.

The pressure to act mounted month by month during Rougeot’s time at the Victoria University’s Students Administrative Council Sustainability Commission in her first year: “Every month that passed by, we were closer to… those targets that we weren’t hitting, in terms of emission reduction.” When the Progressive Conservatives won a majority government in Queen’s Park in 2018, led by Doug Ford — a staunch critic of climate policies, whose government has cut environmental protections — Rougeot decided: “We need a systematic approach to this.”

Where are all the students?

Protests in Queen’s Park have become a monthly occurrence for Rougeot, as she continues to push for action from the federal, provincial, and municipal governments, as well as the university. Despite her efforts, Rougeot says that climate activism from U of T students is lacking. Younger children and teenagers are more vocal and present at her Fridays for Future rallies than university students. “This school doesn’t feel like it’s resisting at all.”

But there has been a slow shift, with more students asking questions and wanting to be involved in her work.

“I think it’s mostly [that] U of T putting so much stress on us academically, that we don’t have the space to [engage in climate activism]. Part of it is cultural. Part of it is [that]… a lot of people are international students, so either they don’t feel as connected to the issues here, or they’re scared to protest.”

[pullquote]“This school doesn’t feel like it’s resisting at all.”[/pullquote]

Rougeot also expressed her outrage over U of T’s continued investment in the fossil fuel industry following President Meric Gertler’s rejection of his own divestment advisory committee’s recommendations in 2016.

“It’s our school preparing us for our future and, yet, contributing to the destruction of that future. So, really, it intuitively makes no sense.”

To Rougeot, the university not only fails in investing in the future of students, but also in preparing them to enact the big structural changes that are required to address the climate crisis.

Can the system change?

Rouget credits her parents, who both studied economics, for her original skepticism of a revolutionary, rather than transitional, approach to climate change. But, as commitments to emission targets were missed and anxiety around the climate crisis intensified, she became increasingly supportive of a revolutionary path.

“We have to be… realistic on what can actually save us… we really have to do a 180 [degree turn] at this point.”

“I mean, coming from France, I’m surprised how [Canadians], in general, [are] very trusting of their government… It can be good in so many cases to have trust in your institutions, but in these cases it’s kind of deadly.”

Caught between psychologists who warn of ‘eco-anxiety,’ and Thunberg’s plea for action to the Davos World Economic Forum because “our house is on fire,” Rougeot reflected on how panic, fear, and guilt play into climate justice advocacy. While the urgency of the climate crisis weighs on her shoulders, she still sees both hope and fear as being integral to the conversation on climate.

“So I think it’s like: hope by concrete solutions [and] examples, not hope of  ‘it’s all gonna be okay,’ cause those vain things just make you apathetic.”

But, what does change look like, and who instigates it? To Rougeot, individual action is just as important as structural change: “individuals can also create a systematic change, cause the system, really, is a bunch of individuals.” 

Activism, for the outspoken advocate of climate justice, is essential to bring about change at the local level. “Small acts of revolution,” Rougeot argues, will set in motion systemic change. 

“It’s pretty impossible to imagine [what structural change looks like], but then again…  it might be what it takes.”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.