Ilyas Khan is an 18-year-old Muslim-Latine climate activist. Originally from Buffalo, NY, Ilyas was the lead organizer for the Youth Climate Strikes there and helped establish the Western New York Youth Climate Council (WNYYCC) — a youth led organization dedicated to political climate action. The WNYYCC successfully passed a climate resolution in the City of Buffalo, and were later recognized by Erie County for their work. Ilyas moved to Pittsburgh, PA in 2020 and has since been an activist with Sunrise Movement Pittsburgh — a chapter of the national Sunrise Movement. Ilyas took part in the planning of the March 19th, September 24th and Earth Day Pittsburgh Climate Strikes and other local actions. They have recently helped establish the Pittsburgh Youth Climate Council (PYCC) and are currently working on the House on Fire Studio, a youth-led climate art collective. Ilyas is a Winchester Thurston alum, and will be attending CMU in the fall.
Gari De Ramos (GDR): How did you come to realize we were in a climate crisis? How did that make you feel?
Ilyas Khan (IK): I’ve known about climate change since I was about six, but I didn’t see the full scope and devastating reality of climate change as a global crisis until I was 14. Like a lot of young folks, I started my journey combating plastic and water pollution. My proximity to Lake Erie made plastic pollution, industrial waste, and later radioactive waste my main issues. Lake Erie provides water for millions, and the Great Lakes system for tens of millions more. As I began connecting pollution with carbon emissions and global climate change, my mentors and my mother introduced me to the idea of intersectional climate justice. As important as environmentalism is alone, I learned that we cannot have a truly green society if we aren’t focusing on racial, social, sexual and gender justice as well. Since then, intersectionality has been the lens through which I see the climate crisis.
But at first it was all really frightening. Climate change was this massive, intersectional thing and everyone would say “your generation is the one to fix it!” To me that meant “it’s all up to you.” That isn’t helpful, it isn’t productive. I know that the youth gives our elders hope, but depending on us to fight the battles of generations past isn’t just unfair, it is a constant hindrance to our work. When you’re scared that you’ll die as a result of the climate crisis, and that those you love will suffer the same fate, and it’s your fault because you didn’t didn’t do enough, it’s like wearing weights on your legs. Fear can be powerful and vulnerability is important, but more powerful than fear is love. So as I grew, I found that beneath the fear and anger lies a deep radical love for my communities and all communities, and a desire to protect and uplift them.
GDR: How has the climate emergency impacted you and your communities?
IK: In Buffalo, you can feel the climate crisis in the water. In Pittsburgh, you can feel the climate crisis in the air.
In Buffalo, the lake acts as a warning sign. Warmer waters year-round means more unpredictable weather and dangerous storms in the winter. In the summer, frequent beach closings and “no fishing” warnings remind us how Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO’s) – a system of combining excess rain water and sewage then dumping them into a nearby body of water – and rising temperatures are stripping us of our valuable public spaces and contributing to habitat loss. Cities like Buffalo just don’t have the resources to clean up the lake, nor the political will to put a hard stop to the polluters, so it keeps building. And as we keep developing and expanding, so too does our toll on the lake, and its capacity to provide for us grows that much smaller each year.
In Pittsburgh the air quality is among the worst in the country, and as with all things climate crisis, this is only exacerbated by rising temperatures and increases in humidity. The particulate matter here, which affects air water and soil quality, is a serious health risk especially in marginalized frontline communities. Low income communities and communities of color suffer disproportionately from a lack of adequate healthcare services and living and working near polluting industries. Many of those polluting industries are connected in some way to the fossil fuel industry. Cracker plants, coke works, as well as fracked gas wells all pose a direct threat to our air, water, and soil, making people sick and forcing them from their homes. Even after learning our lessons from places like Love Canal (just outside Buffalo) communities here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, bolstered by corporations and members of our state and local governments, continue to be willfully ignorant of the harmful effects of the extractive economy of our region. But there are a few brave exceptions, people who show us what public servants are supposed to be. The city of Pittsburgh recently banned the use of plastic bags in stores, and on the county level, we are very slowly moving towards an end to fracking. But the movement is not quick enough, nor do we have enough support from our neighbors to push our electeds to take more drastic action.
GDR: Have you encountered any bits and pieces of climate change misinformation? Can you tell us about what you saw and how that made you feel?
IK: I’ve seen a lot of misinformation in my four short years of doing this work, and not just bits and pieces, but entire campaigns. Fossil fuel leaders and politicians calling us derogatory terms and dismissing our work is the ground level. When they use that rhetoric to turn our communities against each other, that’s where things get difficult. There is so much misinformation being disseminated, particularly in areas further away from the immediate urban centers. As I’ve worked for many years in small cities, a lot of our opposition doesn’t actually come from the city itself, but from those folks coming into the city often backed by fossil fuel corporations, who purposefully misinform them.
One of the worst incidents of this I remember in Buffalo was when Erie County almost banned putting wind turbines off-shore in Lake Erie. From climate change being a farce to pseudo-scientific excuses, indoctrinated constituents made a case out of absolute nonsense. During the hearing I was sitting in the audience and I remember one man arguing against wind-power suggesting he was doing it in the name of the generations to come. If a friend hadn’t told me to be quiet I probably would have been escorted out of the room.
In Pittsburgh, we are, much like Buffalo, an island in a sea of climate denial. A funny not-so-funny billboard I’ve seen on the way out of Pittsburgh a few times, in a couple different directions actually, is one by the CO2 Coalition, which sounds like bad satire, but what they do is dangerously stupid. They provide “educational material” about the “importance of carbon dioxide in our lives” and seem to be trying to spin climate change as a good thing. Their mission statement sounds all scientific and nonpartisan on their website, kind of like your uninformed relative at a dinner table before you call out their ignorance. But the billboards they’ve put up in my region are far from “dispassionate” and “empirical.” The one I’ve seen most often reads: “Sleep well, there is no climate crisis.”
Sadly many people buy into the idea that global warming and the negative impacts of the extractive economy are really a political issue constructed by the “left.” Those who don’t dismiss it based on politics may see it as an urban issue, an issue of communities of color, an issue of immigrants and refugees and they really believe the climate crisis is not going to affect them. That’s been extremely challenging to get around and it’s consistently frustrating.
GDR: Can you tell us about the dangers of climate misinformation you’ve seen firsthand?
IK: One of the main goals of misinformation is to create divisions, particularly among marginalized groups. If corporations can manipulate people to dismiss the work of climate advocates because we’re a bunch of “stupid dems,” and keep us at each others’ throats, they can keep raking in our money while we fight. Allegheny county is, in its entirety, a frontline community and the fact that there isn’t a greater groundswell of concern here and across South West and Western PA is mind boggling. Misinformation keeps the mostly Republican voters far away from any table where we could have a deep discussion about what is happening in their communities. This misdirection, putting the blame for their problems on people of color or immigrants or activists is key to the project of climate denial. As a corporate tool, it is intended to keep people from demanding the change needed to repair our communities and make our lives better, which incidentally would be disastrous for these companies profits.
While there’s misinformation circulating all over the internet, on our highways, in our elected offices, even in the local news sometimes, there’s no similar capacity to populate these places with information. So people will just pick up denialist views from around them, and without anything to counter them, people are easily misled. One of the most difficult forms of misinformation that I’ve run up against is that we, the people, do not have power. To hear that inspires indifference and apathy. That is the hardest mountain to climb, because there is no denial stronger than the denial of your own power. It’s hard to educate people who don’t want to hear or don’t want to care, but it becomes almost impossible once they have been politicized into climate denial.
Polluting industries and social media organizations have the funds to influence the government directly or indirectly as they spend millions keeping factual information out of the hands of as many voters as possible. The goal is to hinder any kind of policy change to protect or adapt our communities, and makes it near impossible to mitigate existing emissions. This is a kind of disenfranchisement that so many have grown complacent to, and one that some electeds count on to keep them in office.
GDR: You’ve been involved in several groups like the Western New York Climate Council (WNYYCC) and Pittsburgh Climate Council. (PYCC) Can you tell us about the work those groups did and your role in them?
IK: I am a founding member of both groups. At the Youth Climate Action Summit in Western New York in 2019, myself and a number of these youth sat down and created what would be the WNYYCC. I was the main leader of the WNYYCC for about a year in 2019 and 2020, and co-leader after that, running meetings and organizing protests and events. The WNYYCC’s major role at first was to promote youth advocacy, but we soon turned to policy and began the campaign to Declare a Climate Emergency in Buffalo. We drafted a resolution and submitted it both to the city and county. Despite a number of setbacks and serious cuts, the resolution was passed by Buffalo Common Council in October 2020 unanimously. Since then, the WNYYCC has continued in its mission to fight for youth representation and climate justice. I always enjoy hopping on a call with the current leader, Valerie Juang, and talking with her about the strides they’re making. I left the WNYYCC a year after I moved to Pittsburgh.
Here, I started the PYCC with folks from my school, Winchester Thurston, and other schools in the area which had been connected through the Pittsburgh Youth for Climate Action, a part of Communitopia, a local nonprofit. Since the founding of the PYCC I’ve been the partnerships coordinator for our group, mostly connecting us with outside groups and opportunities, establishing a coalition so that the PYCC is surrounded by strong partners as it grows. In Pittsburgh, we’re more focused on uplifting highschool youth voices and educating the population. By connecting clubs with one another across schools and districts we’re proving to one another that there are hundreds of youth in this area ready to make change, and our individual schools are not alone anymore. The PYCC is a high school only group right now, and as a result I’ll be phasing out next year as I move into college. But I am sure that they will continue building this network and solidifying the presence of activism in our regional highschools.
Both YCCs sprung out of youth groups that are parts of much larger adult organizations, but we made an effort to distinguish ourselves from them and pursue a youth-led path. This would have been impossible without the unwavering support of our adult mentors like Emily Dyett and Lauren Palamara (WNY and Pittsburgh, respectively) whose work in guiding youth advocacy is crucial. In both cases, I started by planning a climate strike. Actions are a great way to bring people together, but a lot of people wrongly believe they’re an end-all be-all. I tend to think of them as moments of growth, where we can all learn and be educated by one another, and come away from it with lasting connections.
GDR: Talk about a time you felt proud of the impact you had made through your climate activism.
IK: After the passage of the resolution to Declare a Climate Emergency in Buffalo in October 2020, you can imagine I was pretty ecstatic. We had worked on it for a year, meeting with legislators, holding actions, gathering petition signatures. It was intense. Towards the end of the process, we were spending six hours a day for two weeks workshopping the language. There were maybe six or seven of us all on zoom calls, myself, Emily and Valerie among them. It was tough work but we’d gotten it down to a science. A bit over a week before it was to be voted on we submitted it to the Buffalo Common Council. And it passed! That was the greatest wave of relief I’ve ever felt.
Just as meaningful to me was when I found out that a friend of mine, who wasn’t an activist, had decided that he would be majoring in environmental studies because he was inspired by the work myself and my peers had done, and wanted to do his part his way. I think that it’s one thing to be proud of passing a law, and another thing to see those around you doing climate justice work because you worked hard and they saw that and said: “yeah this is something I can get behind,” on their own. That stuff makes me melt. I’m so proud to be someone whose work people are inspired by, and in turn I’m inspired by how much further my peers continue to go. We feed off each other, inspiring in turns, and that keeps me going.
Climate activism is not just protest but a multi-pronged movement for change in the very soul of our society.
GDR: What is your advice to young people who want to get involved in climate activism?
IK: Every activist is different. Do not feel that you have to go and plan climate strikes or speak in front of crowds. There are so many issues, so many options for you. My advice is find something you’re really good at, and use it for climate activism. You like public speaking? Use it. Comedy? Use it. Art? Use it. Science? Use it. Find a group, or a few groups to work with, and look for ways to use your talent. There are so many organizations out there that need a diversity of outlooks and skills. Climate activism is not just protest but a multi-pronged movement for change in the very soul of our society. It requires that we care for people and the world around us — something that has fallen by the wayside with partisan politics. To get people to understand and take the climate crisis seriously we need all forms of activism, from social media influencers to beauty pageant winners, chemistry geeks and history buffs, nurses and doctors, artists and musicians. The message can take many forms, some direct, some indirect. Find yours, find a group, and make your own path. We all have contributions to make.
Heck if you’re down to make a climate anime, I’ll help write the script! It’s on my to-do list.
My friends say “we come for the protests but we stay for the people.” Remember, as you’re taking your first steps on an activist journey, your fear and anger are valid, but there is nothing in this world that is more powerful than a united, loving and trusting community. Take breaks, rethink your path, hold true to why you care about this fight. Once you find a community that values and validates you, that shows real kindness and care for its members, you’ll realize that your activism is stronger when you draw from that kindness than from anger and fear alone.
GDR: How can others uplift or support the work you do?
IK: Do it too! There’s nothing more uplifting and supportive than joining hands, linking arms, and sharing the load. I try to do that for my peers here in Pittsburgh, just as they do for me. We need to start building networks across the United States and the globe of young and not-young folks who are doing climate work on the local level together, in communication, in coordination, each town like a link in a chain that will drag the fossil fuel industry and other polluters down and hoist up a better society in a just transition.
It’s incredibly difficult to maintain that kind of coordination and contact, but if we truly want to see change, we better wise up, sit down, and get talking and planning. If we can link together and share in the idea of a just transition for our communities, you will see that the grip of corporations and stagnant power structures will begin to loosen. When we are all organizing and mobilizing together rather than separately, across cultures and classes, we can change anything. We only need 3% of a population to make political change. Let’s make it happen already!
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