“You can develop vaccines for Covid-19, but there is no vaccine for climate emergency.” So reads the Twitter bio of “China’s Greta Thunberg,” Howey Ou, who has over 11,600 followers on the platform to date.
This past weekend, China’s first and only climate striker was due in Berlin, where she plans to study for the next six months while bringing “more international solidarity and [demanding] our governments do more for our future.”
Before leaving, the 18-year-old from the southern Chinese city of Guilin had toured the country to raise environmental awareness and — following the lead of Thunberg — had been on strike from school since early 2019. Every Friday, she had taken to the streets or given speeches to advocate for the environment and demand action on climate crisis.
“Wherever I am, I am going to strike for climate every Fridays and not letting go of our common future,” she wrote in one of her last social media posts before leaving China.
Inspired by Thunberg’s example, Howey Ou became the first (and only) climate striker in China while in high school. After seeing thousands of young climate activists lead protests in their home countries, she decided to try and bring attention to our shared climate crisis in hers.
It has not been an easy battle.
When Ou first started her public activism, she quickly experienced run-ins with local authorities — she was barred from school, and her parents were put under great pressure from the local public security bureau to stop her demonstrations.
But such measures only helped Ou’s activism reach a wider audience. Though international media coverage can often be a double-edged sword for protestors in China, in her case it actually helped result in her school not only allowing her to return, but also to present on environmental advocacy on campus.
Not that she was especially interested in going back to being a normal student, however. “After learning how urgent the problem of climate change is, I can barely afford to continue any high school courses anymore,” Ou tells us. “To address this crisis, we have to create a nonviolent disobedience campaign, and use the power of social science to let more people know the urgency of this problem.”
Speaking with Ou over the phone, we are struck by her maturity — she is both passionate and authoritative in addressing her stance. More than once, she backs up her statements by citing recent academic papers and reports published by international environmental organizations and universities.
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For Ou, who is the same age as the Swedish climate activist and clearly inspired by her protests, it was somewhat inevitable that she would be branded “China’s Greta Thunberg.” And while Ou is clearly her own person, she doesn’t shy away from the comparison.
One of her most recent campaigns was to organize screenings of the documentary I Am Greta across China, touring to major cities such as Shanghai, Chengdu and Kunming.
“The power that Greta exhibits is truly amazing,” says Ou. “She was the first one to go on climate strike and has inspired millions of teenagers worldwide.” The two have been in touch on occasion, says Ou, with Thunberg sending her messages of encouragement.
Given her passion and depth of knowledge today, it’s hard to imagine that just five years ago, Howey Ou didn’t even know what the Paris Agreement was, let alone understand why it was important.
“At that time, I was a seventh grade student. When I saw over 190 world leaders convene in Paris to sign an agreement, I felt it was kind of ridiculous,” she says. “I don’t think any of my classmates were talking about it, nor did I have any idea what the conference was about.”
The change came in 2018, when Ou’s love for animals drove her to embrace vegetarianism. As she learned more about the ecological advantages of a plant-based diet, Ou came across an article about plastic waste in a National Geographic magazine. “At first, the plastic content didn’t interest me that much. However, I felt obligated to find out more about it after leaving the library that day. So I came back to finish the magazine and started to tell friends around me.”
— 欧泓奕Howey Ou #FightFor1Point5 (@howey_ou) December 4, 2020
Shortly afterwards, she watched Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which proved to be a crucial turning point. “I finally understood what climate change was,” she says of the film.
Although it took this series of events to bring climate change to the forefront of her mind, Ou says it felt like a natural cause for her to engage with. “I realized my care for the environment was a result of my strong connection with nature, which I discovered through meditation, she says. “I’ve always felt like nature is a warm harbor that constantly gives me power and filters all my anxiety and negative feelings. Nature has selflessly provided with us everything we need — food, water and air. Not only that, but it has empowered us to move forward in every way.”
Today, Ou’s central appeal is to demand world leaders implement a radical systematic change in their economical models and development paths, in order to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees celsius.
This figure comes from the 2018 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Special Report on “Global Warming of 1.5°C” — undertaken in the wake of the Paris Agreement — and is declared to be a dangerous threshold for global warming.
The report also stated that reaching this goal requires countries to work toward net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. For reference, the world average carbon footprint per capita is currently around four tons, while the US and China’s averages were 15.5 and 7.2 tons respectively in 2016.
Last year, the Chinese government announced that it had set goals to be carbon neutral by 2060, and Ou believes that such top-down efforts are imperative given the difficulty in calling for people to adjust their personal habits. She adds:
“It is not a question of how to make personal behavior greener. Whether we can avert a fatal disaster now totally depends on an immediate systemic change.”
She references a friend, who works at an environmental NGO in France, that carried out a one-year experiment tracing his carbon footprint. Over the following year, after making a concerted effort to reduce his environmental impact, he only ended up cutting his carbon footprint by 11%.
“Most people won’t bother changing their lifestyles, let alone calculating their carbon footprints,” she says. “So we really need a top-down approach from the leadership side.”
Ou believes that pushing governments to put climate change at the top of their agendas will come by convincing them that climate change is the biggest threat that humankind has ever faced. And this is where she believes individuals and the general populace can play a role: “We don’t need more climate scientists, but rather more climate activists.”
Although Ou believes there is still a lack of urgency worldwide when it comes to climate change, she does see hope — even in her home country, where she initially met with resistance. Awareness is increasing, and Ou says that in a short matter of years, she has seen more students her age form clubs dedicated to climate change awareness in dozens of cities all over the country.
Yet as she has built a Twitter following of thousands and gained international media coverage from the likes of The New York Times, The Guardian and VICE, Ou’s journey in China has been far from smooth.
She recently opened a new account on China’s most popular microblogging platform Weibo after initially being banned, though it has struggled to amass a following. And although she was portrayed in a positive light by Chinese state media publication The Paper a few months ago, discussions around her story on Chinese social media have been on the whole negative.
“Compared to empty slogans, what environmental protection truly needs, perhaps still, are doers?” reads one comment on an article about her from November 2019 on major Chinese media platform Sohu.
“Why not use your free time to plant trees?” writes a user on the video-sharing site Bilibili in response to her school strike.
Ou confides that she even had to avoid the internet for several months at one point after becoming overwhelmed by the trolling she faced.
“When facing these kinds of conflicts, I feel sad, worried and wronged that I am being criticized for doing advocacy for the whole of human kind,” she says. “But if you think about it, it is actually pretty understandable. Nobody has really notified them of the urgency of the situation. And the media plays an extremely important and irreplaceable role in reporting on the danger of climate change.”
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Given the impact that inaction on climate change will have on young people’s lives, Ou still feels like helping more of her peers understand the urgency of the situation is key.
A pinned post at the top of her Twitter account, reads: “There’s an old Chinese saying, ‘Everyone is responsible for the world’ [‘天下兴亡, 匹夫有责’ ‘tianxia xingwang, pifu youze‘].
“This taught me to take a stand when the world is in crisis, and [climate change] is the biggest crisis in human history.”
Cover photo: Scott Norris
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