Last October, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that without dramatic change, global emissions are set to rise to a level that would usher in catastrophic consequences in just over a decade. Exactly one month later, the historic Camp Fire broke out in Paradise, California, claiming 85 lives and destroying more than 15,000 structures.
For many, these two events prompted an awakening on the urgency of dealing with climate change, triggering a realization that the impacts are all around us and aggressive action is needed to reverse course. But for others, climate change has been a reality since the day they were born. This generation has grown up with record-breaking temperatures, yet bears little responsibility for the crisis. So, on Friday, March 15, they are going on strike.
Around the world, students in more than 100 countries will not be attending classes in protest, instead taking to the streets to demand their leaders take meaningful action to address climate change.
In the United States, the Youth Climate Strike group, founded by three young women from Colorado, New York, and Minnesota, has helped organize strikes in over 100 cities across the country.
Isra Hirsi, 16, one of the co-founders from Minneapolis, Minnesota, told ThinkProgress she got involved after co-founder Haven Coleman, 12, from Denver, Colorado, messaged her on Instagram. Hirsi had been involved in climate activism for about a year and a half with Minnesota Can’t Wait, a youth-led coalition of organizations, and didn’t hesitate to join Coleman in organizing Youth Climate Strike U.S.
“It is my future, it is the younger ones’ future, and it’s less the older ones’ future.”
The group’s website lists a slew of demands and solutions. These range from providing a clean water supply, compulsory climate education in schools, and ensuring an end to the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure. They are also calling for the declaration of a national emergency on climate change and adoption of the Green New Deal proposal.
A resolution for a Green New Deal was introduced last month by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA). The plan calls for every sector of the economy to be decarbonized, zeroing out the use of fossil fuels, along with providing a federal jobs guarantee and universal health care. It also aims to put vulnerable communities at the forefront of solutions.
“Because you need dramatic action for dramatic change,” Hirsi said. “And it’s really important, especially in the United States, when we probably are the biggest contributors to climate change in this entire world, to take that action and to show our politicians that younger people really care about this issue from all different communities and all different places and we want to do something about it, and we’re not going to stand idly by [while] you [are] not doing anything.”
As Hirsi, a black Muslim woman (whose mother is freshman Minnesota Democratic representative Ilhan Omar), began to learn more about environmental racism, pipelines, and injustices in places such as Flint, Michigan, where residents have suffered from lead-contaminated drinking water, she knew she wanted to fight for change.
“I guess the ‘aha’ moment wasn’t really like, a click for me. It was more like, ‘oh I can start organizing on my own. I can start taking initiative for myself,’” she explained.
“Because prior, I would literally just go to protests and meetings, but I would never take the initiative myself — until about a year ago when I started taking actual action for myself and for others.”
Soon Hirsi’s friend Maddy Fernands, 16, joined and is now the group’s national press director. Fernands is also active with Minnesota Can’t Wait, and the two once attended debate camp together. Like Hirsi, learning about and seeing the injustices wrought by climate change inspired Fernands to act.
“When I saw how climate change disproportionately impacts people who are impoverished, people of color, other marginalized groups, disabled folks, people who are older, people who live in developing countries, that kind of broke my heart,” Fernands told ThinkProgress.
“I had to do something as a privileged individual. I had to do something to stop this sort of barrage of awfulness on so many people who are living in a hellscape because of climate change,” she continued, pointing to Pacific island communities that have had to abandon their ancestral homes due to sea level rise. “All of these crises are just heartbreaking, and I just think, my sort of yearning to reach that more-just world led me to climate activism.”
Leading the way
The youth climate strikes began last September, when Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, stopped going to school on Fridays. She quickly became known for skipping school to protest outside the Swedish Parliament, all in an effort to draw attention to climate change and demand her government implement policies in line with the Paris climate agreement.
According to The Guardian, Thunberg was inspired by students from Parkland, Florida, who walked out of classes in protest against U.S. gun laws following the shooting massacre last year at their school.
The outspoken student, who developed a passion for climate action at the age of nine and gave up flying on airplanes three years ago because of the significant carbon emissions released, has since received widespread international attention, including being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by a group of Norwegian lawmakers. At the end of November, Thunberg inspired thousands of students in Australia to “Strike 4 Climate Action” ahead of the annual United Nations climate conference where she met with U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
Since then, students of all ages have been striking to demand action on climate change. But it hasn’t been just this year, or this decade, that students have been on the front lines of climate activism. The youth-led Our Children’s Trust lawsuit, filed in 2015 against the U.S. government, includes plaintiffs as young as 11 (just eight at the time the suit was launched). The lawsuit argues the government is violating its obligation to current and future generations by failing to preserve a clean atmosphere.
“Young people have long been at the forefront of climate action,” Bill McKibben, environmental activist and author, told ThinkProgress. It was a group of seven university students who formed climate group 350.org with McKibben in 2008.
One reason younger people are good at leading such activist movements, he said, is “they haven’t yet become as set in their ways, I guess would be the way to say it. It’s not as scary for them to contemplate changes in the way we do things on our planet. And so they’re the natural leaders here.”
But there’s another factor that can’t be ignored: Today’s youth will be forced to live with the consequences of decades of inaction on climate change. “I’m going to be dead before things are at their absolute worst,” McKibben said. “If you’re 12 right now, this is going to dominate your entire life. And so it stands to reason that you’d be some combination of angry, scared, determined, hopeful.”
This is a fact that hits close to home for Hirsi. “My sister, she turns 18 in 2030,” she said with a nod to the deadline for rapid decarbonization established in the Green New Deal. “So she’s supposed to be going into her adulthood, going to college [then]… and there are so many other kids like her who have to deal with these things that had nothing to do with it or couldn’t control it.”
The past year brought a slew of devastating hurricanes and wildfires around the globe — events made more intense and destructive by rising temperatures. With that frightening new reality has come a fresh wave of activism. And this time around, something feels different.
Over and over again people point to the IPCC’s warning from last October. And it’s the reality of where the world stands now — 30 years after NASA scientist James Hansen warned Congress about the dangers of climate change — that makes these calls for action increasingly urgent.
“We’re further down the climate path, the path of climate destruction, and so there’s no longer any way to pretend there’s some margin or that we can wait a little or someone else can deal with it,” said McKibben.
In the wake of last November’s midterm elections, calls for climate action in the U.S. have grown far louder — a combination of Ocasio-Cortez’s star power pushing the Green New Deal and the youth activists relentlessly seeking to hold politicians accountable. All of this has forced lawmakers to grapple with climate change as a top political issue.
Several of the Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls have voiced support for the Green New Deal, now viewed as something of a litmus test for whether they are taking the issue seriously. And for the first time, someone is running a presidential campaign centered entirely on climate change; earlier this month, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) announced he will seek to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020.
“This is our moment, our climate, our mission — together, we can defeat climate change. That’s why I’m running for president,” Inslee said on Twitter.
Whoever becomes the Democratic presidential nominee will need the support of younger voters; millennials, for instance, are quickly becoming the largest age group in the country and polling shows they acknowledge the reality of climate change and want action.
“The polling makes it extraordinarily clear that if you want anyone under the age of 40 to vote for you, you better figure out how to speak effectively and honestly and authentically about climate change,” said McKibben. “And that’s thanks to the work of young people.”
For those who have little traditional political power, forcing actual change can be a challenging prospect; they can’t vote until they’re 18 years old, and they can’t run for president until they’re 35. Civil disobedience like striking is therefore a powerful way to make sure older generations hear their voices.
“Because I’ve lived in a climate-changed world for my entire life, this has been at the forefront of my life. I’ve never doubted it as scientific fact,” said Fernands.
Striking sends a clear message to people in positions of power who are refusing to address the reality of human-caused climate change. “It’s essentially saying you’re on the wrong side of history,” Fernands said. “It’s the young kids, the kindergartners, the high schoolers, the scientists, [who] are saying you’re doing something that’s wrong. [And by doing that,] people will start to react. It’ll become politically unpopular to not support that sort of coalition of people.”
But this isn’t to say there won’t be challenges. While the initial burst of momentum behind the Green New Deal may have caught some off guard, the opposition to strong climate action is quickly catching up. Republican lawmakers, for instance, have criticized the plan as a socialist plot that will eliminate all air travel and Americans’ access to ice cream and hamburgers.
Meanwhile, new groups are popping up to oppose climate action, such as Energy45 founded by former Trump Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staffer Mandy Gunasekara, and the Protect American Values PAC, a newly launched political action committee that lists disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff as an honorary chairman.
And the fossil fuel-powered climate denial machine is an exhausting opponent. Since 2000, the industry has spent nearly $2 billion to fight climate action. So the question remains, said McKibben, “Can we somehow counterbalance the enormous power of the fossil fuel industry in our world? That’s always been the key to having some kind of success here.”
It’s time, however, to stop listening only to the older generations, said McKibben. It’s time to pass the baton and let the younger generations lead.
“I don’t think it’s all that important to quote old people. I think the focus really should be on listening to what young people have to say about it all,” he said. “Amplifying the voices of young people right now is the most important thing we can do.”
As the science has made clear, without dramatic action to cut global carbon emissions, younger generations will be left with a world rife with rising seas, increasingly intense storms, extreme droughts, disruptions to the food supply, and a variety of health impacts. What the youth activists are asking for, in short, is a habitable planet.
This is why listening to younger generations is so critical, said Hirsi. “It’s really important because it is my future, it is the younger ones’ future, and it’s less the older ones’ future.”
Friday’s climate strike isn’t going to immediately usher in the Green New Deal or other meaningful legislation. But it will send a signal, said Hirsi and Fernands, and it will hopefully be the start of a new conversation focused on action.
“I really just want education,” said Hirsi. “I want people to see young people not attending school for an entire day, seeing how much they care about this issue, and think ‘oh I want to take action too.’”
“I would be happy with this jump-starting a global movement to have an equitable transition to a green economy under the deadlines expressed by science,” added Fernands, who said that since joining others in her generation from around the world to strike for climate action, she has felt “something really special and different.”
“I just have been amazed at how people see us as symbols of hope and of solving this issue,” she said. “The power of organizing and getting people to act is so immense that I think this could be the jump start to a longstanding transition to a green economy and it could save our world.”