How to Build a Movement, with Liang-Yi Chang

Meet the founder of the Taiwan Youth Climate Coalition (TWYCC), Taiwan’s largest youth-run climate NGO, and learn how the organization came to be.

Liang-Yi Chang, founder of the Taiwan Youth Climate Coalition, 2022. Photo by Keerti Gopal.

Liang-Yi Chang didn’t go to Europe intending to bring back a movement. He just wanted to see some snow.

It all began after an exchange year in Sweden. Back in Taiwan to finish his bachelor’s degree, Chang was already itching to go abroad again, so he began to comb his campus — National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu City — for travel opportunities. That’s when he spotted some posters advertising an upcoming event in Copenhagen, Denmark: the 15th session of the Conference of Parties (COP 15), led by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Chang got together a group of nine interested students and set up a plan: they’d apply for a grant from the university to go to COP 15 and interview international youth organizations about their origin stories. At the time, in 2009, Chang was a biology major who didn’t have any specific interest in environmental or climate-related issues, but he was excited at the prospect of traveling again.

“I just luckily and accidentally bumped into climate change,” Chang, now 34, told me. “If I bumped into a human rights conference, maybe [I’d be in] human rights.”

If his first trip to COP was an accident, it was a good one. Over a decade later, working on the Global Movement Support Team of 350.org’s Asia division, Chang is now deeply embedded in climate justice work, both in Taiwan and across the globe.

I met with Chang at the co-working space he runs in Taipei’s Yuanshan neighborhood, and again at a monthly meetup for people involved in environmental movements or industries. At this point, I’d already gotten to know him through Taipei’s climate movement spaces, and I’d seen him speak publicly twice: first, in Mandarin, at the 2021 Taiwan Climate Action Expo in Kaohsiung, and second, in English, at an Amnesty International Climate Justice roundtable. Both times, his presentations were animated and passionate, punctuated by inspiring videos and rousing calls to action for citizen mobilization in favor of global divestment. His message — the mission statement of 350 Taiwan — was clear and compelling: in order to fight climate change, we need to pursue a rapid, just transition towards 100% renewable energy, to cease funding to new fossil fuel development projects, and to divest all current investments from the fossil fuel industry. And to get there, we need people power: a mass, global movement.

Naomi Goddard, a Taipei-based photographer and the Amnesty International volunteer who organized the roundtable, told me that one of the things that impresses her most about Chang is his optimism.

“He really cares about [climate change] but he also has this fun and very inviting side to him,” Goddard said. “I think a lot of people just want to focus on the serious part [of climate change], and it’s soul crushing…it’s really refreshing to spend time with someone who enjoys both aspects of it.”

A group of staff members laughing and sitting on and around a couch.
Liang-Yi with 350.org’s Asia team at an all-staff retreat in 2018. Photo courtesy of Liang-Yi Chang.

Over the past decade, Chang has been involved in local organizing, urban planning consultancy, and global UN sustainability initiatives. He’s done research in Antarctica, been detained for tracking air pollution in Vietnam, and led training sessions for climate organizers around the world. But in an alternate reality where he was never introduced to other youth activists at COP, Chang said he would likely have been headed towards a biology PhD instead of a career in climate justice.

A few years ago, attempting to channel my own personal desperations around climate and environmental injustice, I started interviewing my peers in the U.S., asking them why they cared about climate change and what they were (or weren’t) doing about it. As I listened to their stories — their fears, hopes, anxieties, and triumphs; the moments when they felt helpless and how they turned those feelings into empowerment — I was energized. Surrounded by stories of action, I couldn’t help but feel like real change was possible. Before I’d even finished my “research,” I’d joined a US-based, youth-led climate and economic justice collective called the Sunrise Movement.

Social movement research has continuously shown that seeing people you relate to get involved in a cause is one of the most effective ways to motivate action. Listening to Chang’s story, I saw this pattern take hold again, both in how he entered the global climate movement and in how listening to his words made me feel.

Stories like Liang-Yi Chang’s are how we get inspired, how we build power, how we believe in our own capacity. Stories like his are how we learn, grow, and adapt, to form better, stronger movements.

Liang-Yi Chang standing on a car in front of a rally poster, wearing a mask and holding up a fist.
Liang-Yi Chang at an anti-coal march with 350 Taiwan in 2015. Photo courtesy of Liang-Yi Chang.

Step 1: GET INSPIRED

Chang’s trip to COP15 in 2009 was a game-changer. As he and his teammates — other college students — interviewed the founders of youth coalitions from other countries, collecting the gritty details of how to set up an organization, he found himself getting increasingly wrapped up in the issue of climate change. They called themselves the Formosa Youth Network — so named, Chang told me, because of Taiwan’s exclusion from the UN. Still, Chang remembers his newfound passion being paired with frustration at how little momentum he saw at home.

“I found out, oh my gosh, there are so many young people [internationally] talking about climate change,” he said. “I learned so much from them, and then when I came back, there was no one in Taiwan.”

At the time, though Taiwan was holding active discussions about sustainability and waste management and communities were engaged in both NIMBY and environmental justice activism, Chang said there was little attention paid to climate change specifically, especially from his generation.

Chang now had friends from South Korea, Japan, Australia and the UK who were fighting to lobby their governments and raise awareness in their homes. He felt energized by their momentum and camaraderie, but in Taiwan, he felt alone.

“I am just an individual,” he said. “I was like, how come there are no Taiwanese youth caring about this issue!”

At COP, Chang had tracked down every other Taiwanese young person he could find (there were more there than he’d expected), collecting an impressive twenty-seven email addresses. When he got home and reached out, he only got one reply. It was from Grace Chang (who now lives in the Netherlands), who’d been at COP as a translator. It was enough. Together, they set about bringing the global youth climate movement to Taiwan.

Still, building a movement from scratch isn’t easy, and from the start, the fledgling organization faced two uphill battles: a relative lack of awareness (and enthusiasm) around the climate crisis, and the general skepticism facing any group purposefully branding itself as young.

Liang-Yi at his co-working space, 2022. Photo by Keerti Gopal.

Step 2: BUILD PEOPLE POWER

When asked if his peers in 2009 seemed interested in climate change, Chang shook his head.

“Not at all, they didn’t care,” he said, adding that most young people seemed more invested in preparing to join the workforce than an organizing collective with no readily-apparent career assets.

To drum up support, Chang said they organized two workshops, one in Taipei and the other in Kaohsiung. They recruited from universities and posted on Facebook, and their first workshops each drew around forty attendees.

Still, sustaining momentum was a challenge.

“I was trying to set up a student club in NTU, [but] we failed,” Chang said. “In every university we failed, actually, because after two or three years, people graduate and no one wants to continue. ”

Powerful student movements in recent history have brought about significant political change: take anti-Vietnam war activism in the United States, global anti-apartheid protests, or Taiwan’s own Sunflower Movement (more on that later). Campuses can be vibrant hubs for activism and, with built-in social structures and (sometimes) increased free time, students are often perfect candidates for political mobilization.

Studies show, however, that fast turnover from graduation cycles — which replace campus populations every few years — can sometimes impede long-term activism.

“We decided, okay, learning from past experiences, let’s do the cross-university thing,” Chang said.

So the Formosa Youth Network ditched the university club model, and continued building out its membership, hosting workshops and trainings at coffee shops or the homes of friends’ friends. In 2011, they renamed themselves the Taiwan Youth Climate Coalition (TWYCC), and decided to get an official registration. Chang said they had to borrow ID numbers from family members to get around Taiwan’s requirement that new NGOs have over thirty members above the age of twenty. The plan worked, and in 2012, TWYCC was formally established as the first youth environmental NGO in Taiwan.

Liang-Yi Chang standing in front of a crowd with one fist raised. A screen behind him shows a photo of glaciers and reads “Are you Ready?” The crowd members’ arms are raised.
Liang-Yi Chang at a TEDx Taipei event in 2012. At the time, he was fundraising for a climate-focused trip to Antarctica. Photo courtesy of Liang-Yi Chang.

Step 3: FIGHT FOR CREDIBILITY

Branding itself as a “youth” organization placed TWYCC within a growing global network of young climate activists, but the choice also brought some skepticism. Despite young people spearheading the countless 20th and 21st century social movements, youth activists are often dismissed as naive, disorganized, idealistic, or lacking in knowledge.

As a member of Sunrise in the US, I’d experienced this doubt first hand, so I understood the feeling Chang described when he told me that, for several years, TWYCC continued to come up against a lack of respect from older, more established NGOs and government actors. Chang said that at first, when he reached out to environmental organizations to ask for advice, responses were one-note.

“All of them said the same thing to me,” he told me. “You can join us, I have a desk for you!”

At the time, Chang was in his early twenties, studying for his masters while running TWYCC. Older adults wanted to capture and absorb TWYCC’s energy and people power, but were uninterested in supporting them as a standalone organization, Chang said.

He added that some older people didn’t understand why TWYCC was so passionate about climate change, and often were only interested in young people to act as translators.

“They think [when] you go to COP, to international meetings, it’s for learning English,” he said.

In 2013, Chang was nominated by his COP-going peers to serve as a “focal point,” or representative, for YOUNGO, the official youth NGO constituency at UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) negotiations. The position brought him a larger platform to advocate for his generation, but it also brought more pushback.

Since Taiwan is excluded from the UNFCCC, Chang’s nomination had to be accredited by a Canada-based NGO he said he’d prefer not to name. This led, Chang remembered, to confusion amongst members of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with officials questioning Chang’s nationality and demanding to know how he’d “gotten into” the UN.

Though Chang cleared up the miscommunication (YOUNGO focal points represent organizations and youth contingencies, not UN member governments) and the ministry official who’d first brought up the critique apologized privately, he still found himself in the middle of a massive and overwhelming media storm. Calling it a “political scandal,” Chang said he faced widespread public criticism and allegations of betraying Taiwan.

“That changed my life…[it] was really intense,” Chang said. “I was holding press conferences in my friend’s coffee shop and all of the journalists, they were asking, ‘what is your nationality,’ they [didn’t] care about climate change.”

Following the chaos, Chang struggled to decide if he could stay on in the movement. At the same time, green-party members were trying to get him to capitalize on the public attention and run for office. But Chang said that at twenty-four, he wasn’t ready. So he took a job with 350.org, where he’s worked ever since.

““I had a feeling… I need to do more international work, I can support the movement.” he said. “I found that international spaces are my home.”

Liang-Yi Chang standing in front of a wall full of handwritten posters, gesturing with his hands as he speaks to five people sitting in plastic folding chairs.
Liang-Yi at a 350.org training for trainers in Vietnam, 2016. Chang told me how during this trip he and his colleagues were detained for six hours after police found him tracking air pollution in public with a machine he brought from Taiwan. Photo courtesy of Liang-Yi Chang.

The next year brought more changes for TWYCC. In 2014, hundreds of students staged a month-long occupation of Taipei’s Legislative Yuan to advocate for increased government transparency. Called the Sunflower Movement, the student occupation began in resistance to a trade agreement that would allow for increased Chinese investment in Taiwan’s industries. Today, it is widely hailed as a national watershed moment of youth-driven activism.

The Sunflower Movement is just the latest in Taiwan’s rich history of powerful student activism, and it garnered support from an impressive 53% of the public. In the years following the movement, Taiwan’s youth voices have gained power, with activists entering elected offices and other government positions. According to Chang, 2014 was a turning point.

“Before that no one wanted to listen to young people,” he said. “But [after that], everyone wanted to listen to young people. I think the Sunflower Movement changed the perspective of the elder generation a lot.”

Now, Chang says TWYCC is well-respected by environmental and climate-focused organizations in Taiwan, many of which are increasingly populated with members whose passions were first nurtured in TWYCC.

Step 4: GROW AND ADAPT

Over the past decade, TWYCC has continued to participate in COP, YOUNGO and local climate education projects, and in recent years they’ve also joined the global Fridays for the Future strike movement to uplift youth voices and pressure governments for aggressive climate action. Now, the organization is split into a range of committees working on projects like education, visioning, or partnerships.

“TWYCC is actually a platform to connect youths to have their own climate actions,” Han-Wei Chang, the organization’s current chairperson, told me. “We encourage more and more youth to dare to have their own projects.”

Liang-Yi said he feels TWYCC has had a significant impact over the past decade, mentioning a rising awareness of the climate crisis in social and political discourse.

Still, he also thinks the organization has room for growth.

“TWYCC is not a radical group,” he said. “I’m one of the radical people.”

He cited a Fridays for the Future event as an example, explaining that TWYCC opted to rally on a Saturday instead of a Friday so that participants wouldn’t have to miss school. Chang (Liang-Yi) said that although a benefit of this choice was that it allowed for more young people to join, it raised questions about whether or not the action really qualified as a strike.

“People are asking, why are you doing this,” he said. “The purpose of this is to strike, but you are not striking…their demand is sometimes too weak.”

Liang-Yi Chang raises his hand to speak standing in front of a wall plastered with handwritten posters. Several other people are sitting and standing in the frame.
Liang-Yi Chang at a 350.org retreat in Spain, 2016. He said he went to Spain after his detainment in Vietnam and felt seen by the global community of organizers who’d had similar experiences and celebrated his commitment. Photo courtesy of Liang-Yi Chang.

Chang’s critique of current climate action went beyond TWYCC, and he said he wants to see bigger, faster action in Taiwan as a whole.

Taiwan’s government has committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and is currently planning out a pathway for the transition, but Chang says existing targets, like 25% renewable energy by 2025, are already too slow.

“They don’t really have a scenario about how to reach 100% renewable,” Chang said. “People are really shortsighted.”

Still, he sees potential in building a broader coalition with other social justice actors. As an example, he cited the LGBT rights movement, which in 2019 made Taiwan the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage. Chang said the environmental and climate movements in Taiwan can learn from their tactics.

“When you join their parade and their protests, it’s so colorful, so designed,” he said. “We should learn from them, we should join them and support them and they can support us and [we can] show up for [each other].”

Step 5: PASS THE TORCH

Today, Chang’s involvement in TWYCC is minimal. Working with 350.org, he’s still actively in touch with TWYCC members and up-to-date on the organization’s activities, giving advice and support when asked, but he leaves decision-making to active members. Now 34, he said he doesn’t really consider himself a “youth” anymore.

“I know that the “youth” was my branding in the past,” Chang told me. “But nowadays I try not to use that…so we can have another slot for the young people, for TWYCC.”

Stepping aside from leadership was always the plan: he and his fellow original members built it into the organization’s structure, with a strict leadership transition mechanism cycling every few years.

A group of people make Xs across their chests and stand under a tent around a table with a hanging poster reading “350.org.” A painted banner hangs off the table and reads “Oil, Coal, Gas = Climate Chaos.” Another poster hangs behind the people, reading “Fossil Free” with a red X behind it.
Liang-Yi Chang at a 350 Taiwan tabling event in 2017, targeting banks and universities for divestment. Photo courtesy of Liang-Yi Chang.

With 350.org, Chang is now focused on global fossil fuel divestment and building up capacity in grassroots movements in and outside of Taiwan. In his new role on the Global Movement Support Team, his focus will be increasingly international.

Chang isn’t interested in doomsday conversations about climate change. He says understanding the crisis’ danger is important, but he’s more focused on solutions and getting people inspired.

I asked Chang a few times what’s kept him in the movement for so long. His first answer was simple.

“At the beginning it was curiosity, like why don’t people care,” he said. “Now, I just love to work with crazy people.”

A couple weeks later, I asked again, pressing for more of an explanation. How did he go from being a third-year biology major who just wanted to travel around Europe, to dedicating more than a decade of his life to climate justice, with no signs of slowing down? Chang walks into rooms with a smile, he laughs easily and often, showing an impressive lack of cynicism or fatigue for someone who’s spent his entire adulthood fighting for urgency against an existential crisis in a slow-moving world. I’m about the same age as Chang was when he started TWYCC, and to me, his continued idealism is powerfully inspiring. How does he keep up the energy? How does he stay so hopeful, optimistic, and poised for change?

Again, Chang’s answer was the same.

“I want to work with crazy people,” he said, smiling. “Did I tell you last time? They are crazy enough, they want to change the whole world.”

To learn more about TWYCC’ s work, check out their medium here.

Learn more about 350 Taiwan here.

This post is part of my Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship. For more information and updates on my project, check out my blog on National Geographic’s Fieldnotes here.

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Keerti Gopal is a 2021–2022 Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow covering climate impact and action in Taiwan, with a particular focus on youth.

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Keerti Gopal

Keerti Gopal

Keerti Gopal is a 2021–2022 Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow covering climate impact and action in Taiwan, with a particular focus on youth.

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