When Nanticha “Lynn” Ocharoenchai organized Thailand’s first climate strike in March, more than half of the 50 people who showed up at the rally in Bangkok were students at international schools and expatriates.
The same day, Ralyn “Lilly” Satidtanasarn, then age 11, and a group of fellow pupils submitted an open letter to the prime minister, calling for urgent action on climate change.
“The fact that Lilly and I can do this draws a lot from being in international schools,” said Lynn, 21.
There they received classes on the environment, whereas most Thai state schools do not teach the subject, Lynn noted in an interview a week after graduating from Chulalongkorn University.
The young pair are often said to be Thailand’s version of Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swedish activist who has inspired other children worldwide to skip school and demonstrate in the streets about the need to halt global warming and its impacts.
Lynn’s mission is to boost awareness among the Thai public about climate change in a country that is witnessing warmer temperatures, sea level rise, floods and droughts.
Its capital, Bangkok, built on the floodplains of the Chao Phraya River, is expected to be among the urban areas hit hardest as the climate heats up.
Nearly 40% of Bangkok may be inundated each year as soon as 2030 because of more extreme rainfall, according to the World Bank.
But Lynn said that while many Thais are directly experiencing the growing effects of climate change, some Asian social norms made it hard for her to achieve her aims.
“In Asia, we have a culture of seniority, and young people aren’t supposed to speak up for themselves and are not supposed to speak against adults,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a Bangkok coffee shop.
Local link lacking
Lynn’s interest in climate change was sparked through writing articles on the environment as a journalism intern.
In March, she read about Thunberg, which prompted her to create a Facebook event for a climate strike in Bangkok.
“I could truly relate to her frustration and depression, and just feelings of hopelessness,” said Lynn.
“For years I cried in my bedroom, and I’m sad and I’m just, like, no one’s going to do anything about it. But I figured if Greta can do it … I can probably do something too,” she said.
Since she set up the Facebook page “Climate Strike Thailand,” it has attracted almost 5,000 followers.
“Initially I had no idea about Thai social media and how to deal with Thai culture and Thai people and changing their mindset, but since March I’ve learned so much,” she said.
Tara Buakamsri, Thailand director for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said young people in provinces outside Bangkok have long campaigned on environmental issues affecting their hometowns, such as opposing gold mines or coal-fired power plants.
But there has been no networking platform to link them with groups in the capital, and Climate Strike Thailand has yet to spread beyond middle-class and international school students, he added.
“While the recent climate strikes are connected to climate change issues [at] the international level, they have yet to connect on the local level,” said Buakamsri.
‘Just the beginning’
Since the first March strike, Lynn has led two more, in May and September.
For the third, about 200 young people marched to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, demanding that the government declare a climate emergency and shift to 100% renewable energy by 2040.
In 2015, Thailand signed the Paris climate agreement and pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% to 25% by 2030, compared with 2005 levels.
But new coal-fired power plants have since been promoted both in Thailand and neighboring countries, which activists say contradicts climate change goals.
“These climate strikes are by no means methods to solve the problem,” Lynn said. “It’s just the beginning where you acknowledge the problem.”
Lilly, meanwhile, now 12, has been meeting with business and government officials, urging them to care more about the environment.
Her persistence over the last two years has paid off, and she is widely credited for a pledge by more than 40 national retailers to ban plastic bags by next year.
“I see no progress made by the government,” she told journalists recently. “I only see progress made by Lynn and me.”