By Kala Herh

The Umbrella Academy star on the importance of acknowledging climate change. From our United Nations Issue.

You may have seen Aidan Gallagher in the Netflix hit superhero series, The Umbrella Academy, or even earlier on Nickelodeon’s Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn. But other than being one of the must-watch actors of this generation, the 18-year-old is also a prominent face in the climate movement. Named a United Nations Environment Goodwill Ambassador at age 14, Gallagher became one of the youngest people to ever hold such a position. 

“I used to comment and repost stuff from the UN page for years—before I had this following,” he elaborates on how he started working with the UN. “Eventually they reached out and asked if I wanted to work with them; of course, I said yes because they’re such a pillar of environmental information. So I worked with them for a number of years, promoting their initiatives and eventually they offered me a position as an ambassador. It’s been almost four years now and it’s been an amazing experience getting to work with them.”

His designation as Goodwill Ambassador is telling. Historically, ambassadors have been well-established individuals selected from the fields of art, literature, science, entertainment, sports or other fields of public life. But young activists are increasingly becoming the face of environmentalism. You may have heard of Xiye Bastida, who was Amy Schumer’s Met Gala guest, or Greta Thunberg, for her impassioned UN speech—these and dozens more are increasingly infiltrating the mainstream and making their voices heard. The younger generation especially feel a heightened sense of urgency as they are the ones about to inherit the Earth and the problems it faces. Regardless, these young activists are impassioned, building a movement while growing up—planning mass protests from childhood bedrooms and during school (or in Gallagher’s case, in between film shoots).  

Gallagher got started in activism when he was very young. As someone who grew up in California, he would frequently drive down to Malibu to surf with his family. He recalls wanting to go surfing one day and he couldn’t because it was raining. He learned that on rainy days, the pollution from the land washes down into the ocean and thus, if you go out into the water you’ll run the risk of getting an ear or eye infection. After that day, he started becoming more interested in learning about the Earth and began watching a lot of different environmental documentaries. Louie Psihoyos’ 2015 film, Racing Extinction, still sticks with him to this day. 

The culmination of personal experience and watching documentaries eventually got him more interested in the environment and he began researching related subjects. It was at the same time that his social media following grew, and he started reposting climate information to his Instagram to educate his followers about pressing issues of their world. “I had this convergence of learning all this new environmental information while people were starting to pay attention to what I did online,” he explains. “I felt obligated to pass on the things that I was learning because we didn’t learn about them in schools.” Scientists are now saying that the world has less than a decade to sharply cut emissions to avert the worst climate changes. That urgency has ignited many younger citizens; back in 2019, young people across the globe, from Melbourne to La Paz, London to Cape Town, organized one of the largest global climate protests. That day, millions of individuals took to the streets to bring attention to the issue, including Gallagher, who attended the rally in California. 

He stresses the importance of immediate action in the face of impending threats. “The freakiest thing I’ve learned about our potential future is that we could be looking at mass migrations, water shortages and air pollution within the next few years,” he says. That sense of imperative isn’t often shared by older generations, who challenge young activists on their inexperience, suggest that their fears are hysterical, or wave off their demands as too extreme. But Gallagher and his cohorts are not letting them get in their way of enacting real, powerful change. After frustration about government inaction, they are turning to social media to make their voices heard. “It’s very gratifying to see people resonating with my messages and posts, often writing, ‘Because of this initiative you introduced me to, I’ve changed my habits in this way.’ It makes me feel, for lack of a better description, warm. It’s a lovely feeling to know that I’ve been able to help people learn about these crises and what they can do about it on an individual level to make a difference.”

While Gallagher has one of the considerably biggest platforms to promote climate change policies, he remains humble and honored, considering himself more of a messenger than an expert. “I will represent the youth voice at environmental conferences, but really I’m a throughway for information between scientists, who spend time researching issues and creating solutions, and the people who are interested in that,” he says candidly. 

Beyond his advocacy, Gallagher is keen on making small changes that could add up to a larger impact. In 2021 he founded Trees with Aidan, an organization that aims to mitigate the destruction caused in forests. 

“This campaign is important to me because trees are the lungs of the Earth,” he says. “As more and more trees are being cut down, we want to make sure that we are replanting and continuously working towards a future where you have luscious greenery and a sustainable ecosystem.” Currently the organization aims to plant one million trees—and it’s already making a sizable dent in that goal, having planted 40,000 trees at the time of writing. “Planting a million trees is very simple,” he elaborates. “It’s very relatable and in all honesty, I think it would make a pretty big difference, so that’s something I’ve really been passionate about recently.” As well as being a spokesperson for the UN, Gallagher has worked with several other environmental organizations, including Oceanic Preservation Society, Vulcan Productions, and Waterkeeper Alliance. Prior to helping the UN with their environmental initiatives, Gallagher has been a big advocate for Meatless Mondays, a global movement that encourages people to reduce meat in their diet for their health—and the health of the planet. 

All these initiatives that Gallagher participates in contribute to his bigger mission statement of preparing and protecting the Earth for a better tomorrow. He stresses with every post that he shares with his followers that he chooses optimism over pessimism; he doesn’t believe that any issue or task is too big if there is collective action. But he also recognizes that governmental action needs to follow suit. “I would want to make sure the legislation has wholly positive effects, creates jobs and works towards a cohesive, entirely sustainable plan. I’m no expert, like I said before. I’m really just a messenger here so I listen to what the experts say and I try to pass that on to as many people as possible because we’re all growing up in an uncertain future.” 

Gallagher may only be 18, but he has already been on this journey for almost a decade. With all this experience, he concludes with some of his advice for budding activists in his community: “I encourage people to get out and vote, and support people who represent sustainable goals and initiatives,” he encourages. “Because at the end of the day, we’re trying to make sure that we’re not in our 30s living in Mad Max; we want Earth to be a luscious, beautiful place for our generation and the
next one.”

@aidanrgallagher on Instagram

Photography by Shane McCauley. Styling by Shalev Lavan. Grooming by Candice Birns. Fashion assistant: Arlen Varela. Special thank you to Revolver Recordings Memphis Studio. Homepage image: Gallagher wears vintage black checked blazer and white V-neck T-shirt, both by Gucci. Inside image: Gallagher wears black satin shirt and black pants, both by Saint Laurent By Anthony Vaccerello.

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