The Cover Story

Mikaela Loach: “The only thing that will ensure our survival is a mass movement of people to come together and get active”

As part of a special Earth Day celebration this week, Mikaela Loach makes history as the first-ever climate activist to feature on the cover of Kerrang!. We find out how she became involved in social and climate justice, and why the only way out of this mess is to come together…

Mikaela Loach: “The only thing that will ensure our survival is a mass movement of people to come together and get active”
Diyora Shadijanova
Juan Ortiz-Arenas

Mikaela Loach’s work calendar is not for the weak. The in-demand climate activist is perpetually busy juggling back-to-back media interviews, curating her Instagram feed, carrying out longer-term climate projects, joining Zoom meetings, replying to Signal group chats, creating exhaustive Google Docs, tallying things up in spreadsheets, making placards, protesting, as well as writing and performing speeches. “It's actually not as exciting as people probably think it is,” she says earnestly. “I mean, I enjoy it, but being an activist isn’t being on the streets every day and having your fists in the air and chanting – a lot of it is doing admin. I tap on my laptop, hoping it will change someone’s mind.”

She might be too modest to say it herself, but there’s no doubt that the 24-year-old works incredibly hard behind the scenes. Watch any of her recent interviews on Sky News’ Daily Climate Show and you can see that Mikaela speaks at an even pace, looks directly to camera, and never stutters – a surefire sign of someone who has done their research and understands it to the nth degree. “I think we need to be clear that this strategy is nothing short of a scandalous failure. This government is sacrificing many ordinary people – many of our futures – for profit," she boldly tells the Sky News presenter when asked to analyse the Conservative Party’s energy strategy just last week.

A few days after her fiery TV appearance, we’re on a video chat with Mikaela for this interview, putting a climate activist on the cover for the very first time. She answers the call from sunny Colombia, wearing a frilly white top, a slicked-back hair bun and we can’t help but notice her colourful pastel nails. “I’m trying to connect with Afro-Colombian and Afro-Indigenous groups here and [learn] what climate work and resistance is happening here,” she explains. “I think Latin America is leading the way in the radical work happening here. Colombia has an election coming up in May, which could see a big shift from a very far-right government to a cool left-wing government and the first Afro-Colombian person to be in power.”

Before relocating to Medellín in Colombia, Mikaela had moved to Jamaica for six months, where she was born, to reconnect with her heritage and see her grandmother. “I want to spend time with my family and on this island whilst we still can,” she wrote on Instagram, sharing a wholesome picture of her and her grandmother walking on the beach.

Her immediate family left Kingston for Surrey when she was aged three, with no real connection to the leafy county outside of London. Her mother chose it because it was considered the safest place in the UK at the time.

“I don’t think my parents realised the impact of living somewhere where everyone is white, and you’re the only non-white family around,” she says. “My mum grew up in Jamaica, where she didn’t experience racism because she was part of the majority. So growing up was a bit difficult for all of us because of racism. I think it was the safest Tory seat in the country.”

But reflecting as an adult, the activist differentiates between institutional and interpersonal racism. “Being in a white area meant that systemic racism impacted me less because I lived in an area that was funded more; my experience would have probably been much more severe if I’d grown up somewhere where there was more of a Black community. So I think it’s nuanced and contextual.”

Despite spending her formative years in the London commuter belt, Mikaela was raised to be aware of and connected to her Jamaican heritage, which has undoubtedly helped to form her character today. She fondly remembers watching documentaries with her parents about Nanny Of The Maroons, “who was this radge freedom fighter in Jamaica who would wear the teeth of all the slaveowners she killed around her neck. She was truly a bad bitch (laughs). [My parents] taught me that the liberation of Jamaica was fought by protest and action and won by the people; it wasn’t just handed down from the British.”

At school, Mikaela was the target of bullies, and found it difficult to concentrate on her studies. Once she moved schools, however, her love for academia shone through, finding particular interest in the sciences. Somewhere down the line, the idea of studying science to help people became a genuine possibility, and she decided to pursue medicine at Edinburgh University. She’s still a student today and is looking to complete her degree, but has taken a year off due to “severe racism in medical school”.

“I’m still working through a lot of that and that trauma. I was juggling like 10,000 things in medical school, and I needed space to do climate stuff,” Mikaela explains, highlighting that her post-uni plans currently pose one of the biggest questions in her life. She just doesn’t know whether it would be better for her to chase her childhood dreams of being a doctor or go into climate activism full-time: “When the planet is heading for destruction, it’s hard to know what to prioritise.”

Mikaela’s climate activism journey didn’t begin with her stumbling into the local green society stall at university, like it has for many people. Instead, she busied herself setting up a branch of Just Love, a Christian organisation ‘pursuing the biblical call to social justice’ as soon as she set foot on campus. “I spent the first two years of my degree focusing on that stuff. Then I joined Extinction Rebellion, and that’s when things changed for me as I’d never done any intense direct [climate] action.”

Her profound interest in social justice goes back to when she was just 18, when she became acutely aware of the burgeoning refugee crisis in Europe. While scrolling through social media, the budding activist saw a post about the migrants’ rights organising happening in Calais, which led to her own involvement. Soon she was attending her first protests and even travelled to Calais to help out in-person.

Two years later, an IPCC report changed everything for Mikaela, suddenly making her feel like her migrant justice work wasn’t enough, as the climate crisis is set to exacerbate all the issues around migrant justice. “This is when I came across the principles of climate justice, which shows that we cannot only tackle the climate crisis, but also create a better world for all of us. It was the most hopeful idea that I've ever come across because it’s about the transformation, not just preservation, of the world.”

“There are no heroes. There’s only all of us together”

Mikaela Loach

Outside of activism, Mikaela describes herself as a “soft Black girl” because the world affects her and breaks her heart easily – “I love that because I haven’t hardened yet.” In her spare time, she makes it a priority to find joy and have fun in by reading young adult fiction books, rollerskating and going swimming or scuba-diving. “I also like to have a boogie either on my own or whatever,” she smiles before professing her love for RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Critics might be quick to mischaracterise her as an ‘influencer activist’ (someone who solely posts pastel-coloured infographics on social justice to further their personal brand) because Mikaela uses her social media presence to share visually enticing and emotive content about the climate crisis. Yet, on her Instagram grid, the only causes she promotes are those she’s fighting for with other organisers. A quick scroll through her profile followed by over 130,000 people shows videos on the latest IPCC report, the White River Fish Sanctuary in Jamaica, plus the #PaidToPollute and #StopCambo campaigns.

The young activist is clearly genuine in her concern over the future of our planet, and her life offline proves it, too.

“Here [in Colombia], I’ve been going to demonstrations and connecting with the community and working out how I can support best,” she explains, pointing to a vigil she attended last week, put together to honour the lives of climate activists who have been murdered in Colombia. “It was really sad, but there was so much Black joy in the face of sadness, and it was one of the most joyful, incredible demos I’ve been to in my life – people were playing traditional music from the Pacific coast and singing and dancing in the face of trauma.”

The latest campaign Mikaela is working on is #StopJackdaw, a call to prevent the UK government from pushing a huge gas field in the North Sea. This campaign follows the successful #StopCambo movement, which saw energy giant Shell dropping out of the project, effectively stopping it in its tracks. When we ask the climate campaigner about Jackdaw, she not only recites what feels like every fact and figure possibly available, but also sends over more information about the project following our interview. “There are 42 oil and gas projects in the pipeline to be approved in the next couple of years, but one of the most recent ones set to be approved is Jackdaw,” she explains.

If the field is approved to be extracted, the emissions from this gas field alone would be more than the emissions of the entirety of Ghana in a year, going entirely against the 1.5ºC target of the 2015 Paris Agreement, where realistically, no new investments in oil, gas, or coal must be made. “We've made it un-investable to have these projects happen in the North Sea, we've done it for Cambo, and we’ve made a massive change in how we see the North Sea. And we can do it again for Jackdaw and all these 42 other projects.”

If that wasn’t impressive enough, Mikaela also spent the last half a year helping the Paid To Pollute campaign to take the government to court. The pressure group argued that the British government had given billions of public money to North Sea oil and gas companies, and since the UK was part of the Paris Agreement, such actions should be deemed unlawful. However, back in January, the case was thrown out of High Court, and the group has said it won’t try to appeal the decision. “While we know our case is strong, we believe our time and effort is best put to fight for change outside of the courts,” a statement reads on the campaign’s website.

Yet our cover star doesn’t see the outcome as a loss because, according to her, the government was still forced to admit that it does give subsidies. “They said that they don't give subsidies because they made up their own definition of subsidies,” she laughs in disbelief. “Even though the judge ultimately didn’t side with us on the case itself, we managed to put all of these things on the public record, and we managed to get fossil fuels being talked about, so it was a huge success in many ways. But it was a very stressful time.”

As you might expect, all of this strenuous work has had a toll on Mikaela’s mental and physical well-being. When she left for Jamaica, it was partly to nurse her burnout following COP26, the annual United Nations Climate Change conference held in Glasgow last year, which she admits was a “horrendous” time.

“There’s something about knowing how dire the climate crisis is and being surrounded by all of the governments who have the power to make a change and then have them not only not do it, but also actively promote things that make it worse.” (To put things in perspective, the fossil fuel industry was the largest delegation at COP26 last year.)

“When you’re in a burnout space, your brain can’t function normally. I get in a headspace where I think I can solve the climate crisis alone, and only if I had worked harder things would be better, but this is all ego, and it’s false. That’s not how change has happened in the past, ever.”

It’s important to point out, though, the climate activism still brings Mikaela joy, and the organising space is where she has made many of her friends. And when things do get a bit doomy, she just has to remind herself that have changed significantly in the few short years she’s been involved in the green movement.

“When I first was part of XR, people would say that we can’t talk about racial justice in climate justice because it’s just diluting the message – that has changed dramatically in the climate movement as a whole. It’s now accepted that racial justice is a central part of climate justice and that we need to be more intersectional. The fact that the most recent IPCC report mentions colonialism and inequality as key contributors to the increased vulnerability of half of the world's population was a huge, huge shift.”

So, how do we save the planet? We half-jokingly ask as we come near the end of the interview.

“I think that the only thing that will ensure our survival is a mass movement of people to come together and get active,” she says confidently. “The only way to survive it to resist. We get in good trouble, campaign and constantly disrupt this capitalist, white-supremacist system, burn it to the ground, and build a new world from its ashes. There are no heroes. There's only all of us together.”

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