“I just want to do things without thinking the world is ending”

UN Development Programme
7 min readApr 21, 2021

On Earth Day, a young climate activist shares what inspires her

Meet Paloma Costa. This Brazilian climate activist, lawyer, and member of the UN Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change is gently shaking the world with her passion for climate justice.

In the last few years, young people around the world have changed the conversation on climate. They have elevated the urgency of the issue to a global emergency and spoken up to protect present and future generations.

I had the pleasure of meeting Paloma first in 2018 in preparation for the UN Climate Action Summit. She spoke at the launch of the Climate Promise, UNDP’s commitment to support countries in developing their national climate pledges to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. There, Paloma made it clear that youth climate activism can be difficult and dangerous in many countries but also incredibly rewarding.

Paloma leads from her heart. With her big smile and colourful earrings, she exudes radiant energy. During our conversation, we laughed, we cried, and we bonded over the power of activism to tackle climate change and the evolution of youth engagement over the last 10 years. We realized our shared experience and connection. The youth-led NGO called SustainUS that supported my participation as a US youth delegate to Rio+20 nearly 10 years ago, helped inspire the creation of Engajamundo, a Brazilian youth climate NGO, in which Paloma got her start. Such is the world of youth climate organizing, creating space for the next generation to flourish and move forward.

Paloma, right, with UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner at the 2019 UNDP Climate Summit Flagship Event: Global NDC Outlook Launch & Climate Promise.

I spoke to Paloma on what inspires her work, what she is proud of, and how we can all support young climate leaders.

What inspired you to enter climate activism?

“It started when I began to understand what climate emergency really means. Where I come from, we don’t actually have this kind of education in our national curriculum. I learned more about it in university and working with the Social Environmental Institute. While I was doing an internship at Instituto Socioambiental, where I still work today, I started learning about climate emergency and the role of indigenous and traditional communities from Brazil. I work in law, and it is difficult to have things done very fast; it takes a lot of time to make decisions in the judicial system. So that’s when I found Engajamundo and started climate activism.

Engajamundo is a youth led organization from Brazil. We work across Brazil and have over 2,000 volunteers in our network. I started in 2017 and coordinated the working group on climate from 2018–2020. Through this group, we started Fridays for Future Brazil, climate strikes, and the activism we are well known for now.

Paloma, far right, speaking up for the Amazon.

Engagamundo started during Rio+20 with some young women from Brazil who were not feeling represented in the UN system and UN conferences. Now we have advanced into youth mobilization, workshops and engagement. Participating in conferences is not our main objective now — we are much more focused on empowering youth on the ground.”

What are some of the challenges you have faced through your work?

“I really focus on participation because if we have a problem like the climate emergency, we at least have to decide on it together through true participation, diversity, and inclusion. When I started entering the UN system and spaces youth can occupy here in Brazil, I realized that there was no inclusion. We, as youth, always take a delegation to the climate COP and we put a lot of effort in ensuring the delegation really represents diversity. You can see in the photos — we have young people from different parts of Brazil, representing different youth groups because we are also diverse inside the youth movement.

Paloma with her fellow youth activists at COP25. “We, as youth, always take a delegation to the climate COP and we put a lot of effort in ensuring the delegation really represents diversity.”

We tried our best with limited resources and limited access to accreditation to bring young people to these spaces. When we think about participation, it is really hard because we don’t have formal spaces that we can engage in. Most of the time when we are invited to participate in speaking engagements, we are tokenized to say what the audience expects young people to say like, “Take action right now!” but this is not the only thing that we have to bring to the table. We work on the ground, we specialize in certain areas in our new career. We don’t have 50 years of experience, but I know my 5 years of experience still adds a lot to the conversation.”

Why do we need voices of young people and marginalized groups in climate policy? How do you think we make this happen?

“When we include marginalized voices, especially those that know what is happening on the ground, it is easier to make decisions that make sense to the collective. As a lawyer, this also results in fewer judicial demands further down the line — because when people participate in the process, they will know what to expect from the decisions and process.

Paloma, eighth from the right, at the 2019 Abu Dhabi climate meeting, with the Secretary General, center.

We need to create formal spaces within structures of every state that include young voices in a deliberate and binding way — not only as a counselor or advisory board. When we think about democracy and how democracy works in a representative way, it comes from down low and goes up. The decisions have to come from a local basis and then engage with and inform states and national government. Having diversity, young people, indigenous communities (we have indigenous communities in every state here), and the marginalized in all aspects of the social, environmental and climate agenda is important.“

Paloma speaking with fellow youth climate activist, Greta Thunberg.

What are some notable or unexpected observations you have made in your work?

“When I entered activism, I really believed that at some point conversing with decision makers would change things really fast, but the reality is not like that. I learned that the most valuable thing I am doing for the world is to empower and unite with all of these young people all across the globe. I have had the opportunity to meet so many young people that are doing so many amazing things. If I still have some hope in my heart, it is because of them.”

How has your experience as a member of the UN Secretary General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change been so far?

“I think it really says a lot that the Secretary-General of the United Nations built his own group of youth advisors and I appreciate the support of the team and the UN agencies that always help us in every activity we want to do. I hope this inspires other decision makers to do the same and include young people in action that they are leading. But we still have to face the reality that more could be done. We need to not have only advisory boards, we need formal seats at the table where we could help in the implementation of the plans. For now, we are able to recommend and give our thoughts and the Secretary-General is keen on listening and engaging with the things that we do. But I feel like if we don’t have a formal seat, then it’s just us and the Secretary-General, and we need everyone on board to take and lead this forward.“

Paloma is a member of the UN Secretary General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change.

What are you proud of?

“I think what I am most proud of is empowering young voices, especially marginalized ones who never thought they would speak at a place like the UN. If I ever tell the whole story of how we got all of these young people on the delegation, everyone would say “you are the superheroes of the world!” because we do so much crazy stuff just to get to the conference. I see those young women who, after participating in events, find the opportunity to engage in jobs here in Brazil because of that opportunity and the visibility. When youth participate, when we have visibility in formal spaces that have the attention of the world and of decision makers, people believe what we say and they think what we are saying is not that crazy.”

What do you do outside of climate activism and organizing?

“I like painting and being in nature. I just want to do things without thinking the world is ending and about all the things I have to do!”

What brings you joy?

“When I travel to communities because cell phones don’t work there and no one can reach me. I’m just there in the present and enjoying the work. It’s my dream to do this all the time.”

Paloma shares what brings her joy, “When I travel to communities because cell phones don’t work there and no one can reach me. I’m just there in the present and enjoying the work. It’s my dream to do this all the time.”

Read the most recent report from the UN Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change here.

Find out about results of Peoples’ Climate Vote, the largest climate change public opinion survey, which will bring voices of the people, including youth to decisionmakers — here.

Written by Sameera Savarala, UNDP climate change specialist

Photos courtesy of Paloma Costa