Interview with Kayla-Megan Burns: Former Student President and Climate Activist

We had a chance to speak with Kayla-Megan Burns, keen climate change activist and your former VP Community 2019/20 and Student President 2020/21. Some of Kayla’s achievements include the development and implementation of Strath Union’s first sustainability plan, and establishing and implementing the first University Climate Change and Social Responsibility Plan. We are delighted to have caught up with Kayla to learn more about climate change activism and the significance of COY16 and COP26.

Why is climate change important to you?

Because I want a future, not just for myself, but for my much younger siblings, and for everyone. Climate change is a problem that was not created by any of us individually, and yet so many of us will barely have had the chance to start our lives before climate change threatens to ruin it. This seeps in and therefore ruins our present too, as what is the point of holding aspirations for the future if there mightn’t even be one? OR at least one where we are focused on anything more than pure survival.

So that’s why climate change matters to me, and why I think that a just transition is so important as well, because although it is vital that we make these changes, and that we make them ASAP – it is also vital that we do it in a way which is free of exploitation and leaves no one behind.

As a climate change activist, what are your main goals? And are there any issues surrounding climate change you believe need more attention? 

I want to hold governments and industries to account for the damage that they are doing to our world and our future so that the responsibility for sustainable living is no longer lumped as a personal responsibility, but a societal, global, and human responsibility, and that we have the proper investment and infrastructure there which makes it practical and easy for us to live sustainable lives.

I think that the main thing about climate change that needs more attention is the fact that it is not an individual responsibility to solve climate change. We are all programmed so much through the media and wherever else that as individuals living our everyday lives, that if we just make sustainable choices then we can help solve climate change when this just isn’t true. There is a lot that we can do to reduce our own impacts, however without activism your impact will remain pretty small in the scheme of things.

Right now it's not obtainable to expect everyone, particularly in the west and in late-stage capitalist countries, to live minimal impact and zero waste lives – as that is not how our society is built. How can you live truly zero waste without a circular economy? How can you reliably monitor your carbon with so much greenwashing?

Our society makes these things so hard at the moment if not impossible, so in climate activism nobody should be expected to be perfect, but it is what makes it so important for us to go out and demand the changes which would make this as easy as possible.

Internationally there has been about $3.4bn given to fossil fuel companies in the form of subsidies over the past 6 years – and asking for this type of change is so much more important than eating an occasional bit of meat or dairy.

Why do you think it is important for people to know about climate change?

Because this is all of our futures, it is all of our homes and our planet and it's so important that we do as much as we can to ensure that that future is a viable one.

Greenwashing has in many cases provided people with a false sense of security, but unfortunately we actually still have quite a long way to go in order to secure a liveable future.

Climate strike march - Glasgow - 2019
Climate Strike march in Glasgow (2019)

Do you think COP/COY has enough popularity to bring awareness to people about climate change?

I desperately hope so. I think that the fact that globally it is now undeniable that we are starting to be heavily impacted by the effects of climate change should hopefully help secure the type of agreement that we need out of the COP and the COY. But of course there is still worry that it won't be enough, but we have to have hope and we have to do all that we can to ensure that our voices are loud enough to be heard in these conferences to secure our futures.

How important do you feel COP/COY is to help Scotland achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

I think the COP and the COY have done a fantastic amount to elevate the awareness and action of the Sustainable Development Goals. Over the past two years they seem to be coming more and more into awareness and a part of our every day business which I think is fantastic. Recently in Strathclyde we have seen them become a part of more and more of our education through VIP projects for example, and the fact that this is going across disciplines and across year groups just really goes to show how intersectional these goals are and how important it is that we all use our skills to contribute towards these.

I would love to see this attitude carried forwards nationally across Scotland to achieve these goals.

Why should people uninterested in climate change start making positive changes to their lifestyle?

So I would ask anyone who is uninterested in climate change to think about their own aspirations within the next 10-15 years. Maybe you would like a family, maybe you hope to be in a top job, or maybe you would like something else. But think about how it would feel if, regardless of what you did over the next few years in order to achieve that, those goals were totally unobtainable. No matter how hard you worked, or what decisions you made – that even the simplest of those goals could not be obtained.

That is pretty scary. But that is the reality of climate change if we let it go unchecked.

But sustainability can be inaccessible, it can be expensive or unrealistic to make certain changes – I know as a disabled person it would be impossible for me to go zero waste, as I am dependant on medication to keep me alive, and that comes with a LOT of waste and a LOT of packaging. So even if you can't make those types of lifestyle changes, then make sure that you're asking for the changes to be made so that as a society we can be greener and we can be sustainable. Activism can have such an impact on the world we live in, so giving even a little time to this can be so meaningful. You are not personally accountable for climate change, so let's bring it to the people who are.

Do you think the Scottish Government is proactive in dealing with climate change?

I think Scotland has some fantastic policies on climate change, especially with the COP on the horizon. The fact that Glasgow is aiming to be net zero by 2030 is amazing – that is exactly the type of policy that we need to see. I do think that some of the targets as a country could be more ambitious, however what's even more important than that is that we have the plans and the investment behind it so that these targets are more than just talk, and that they translate into direct change and action, and that’s definitely something that I think we all need to see more of, as targets alone will not stop the climate crisis.

We are really inspired by what Kayla achieved during their work with The New York Times Climate Hub, as part of their Generation Climate. Catch up with all the highlights in our COP26 roundup