‘We Must Grow This Movement’: Youth Climate Activists Ramp Up the Pressure
Above Photo: Hundreds of young climate activists and their supporters staged a climate strike outside of Chevron headquarters in San Ramon, California, in September calling for the oil company to abandon fossil fuels by 2025. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
From school strikes to the harder edge of Extinction Rebellion, young climate activists are making their voices heard, and they’re increasingly politically engaged.
A new wave of climate protests hit cities around the world this week—this time aimed at shocking people with civil disobedience, fake blood on the pavement and bodies lying in the streets under signs that read: “Stop funding climate death.”
The Extinction Rebellion demonstrations have a harder edge than the student-led climate strikes that have brought millions to their feet around the world demanding leaders do more to slow climate change. While the school climate strikes end with students returning to class, these protests have often led to arrests.
But both show how young people are reinvigorating the social movement for climate action on a scale never seen before, and their organizers plan to keep up the pressure until more is done to slow climate change.
That widespread youth activism is also empowering more young people to turn their protests into political action, from pressuring lawmakers and businesses to take action to energizing voters.
The Extinction Rebellion activists and the school strikers are both decentralized coalitions that are giving young people a way to stand up for their future. Between them, the groups have a long list of school strikes, rallies and acts of civil disobedience planned through the rest of the year, including a major youth climate strike planned for Nov. 29, Black Friday, known for holiday shopping in the United States.
Alexandria Villaseñor, a 14-year-old climate activist from New York who founded Earth Uprising and is an organizer with the school climate strike group Fridays for Future, is emblematic of their determination. She announced last month that she would be taking her school education on the road as she tours the country to continue organizing climate strikes.
“I’ll be traveling and striking in a different city, or maybe even a different country, every Friday,” she wrote on Twitter. “We must grow this movement. We must get real action.”
Building on Social Justice Movements
Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist who launched the Fridays for Future school walkouts, may have galvanized the global youth climate movement when she started her humble strikes in front of the Swedish Parliament last year, but it has been building for years.
In the U.S., the movement really learned from and built upon past civil rights and social justice movements, where tactics such as marching in the streets and occupying places of commerce or political power were used.
That’s one of the reasons the Green New Deal—the climate policy goals that the young Sunrise Movement activists brought to the halls of Congress—explicitly addresses building economic and political space for the most vulnerable communities affected by climate change as society transitions to a new energy economy, said Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, the North America director for the climate activist group 350.org. It’s also why the movement must explicitly connect social justice and climate work moving forward.
For some youth in the climate movement, the idea of addressing socioeconomic and racial disparities in the U.S. is a big part of their involvement.
“Young people of color, like myself, are affected by climate change most,” said Nyiesha Mallett, an 18-year-old climate activist from New York who is part Afro-Caribbean. “I should be one of the people who gets to come up with solutions.”
Ramping Up Local Fights
Climate groups in the U.S. are working to channel that youthful energy toward local policy battles, where they see higher chances of success.
In Washington state, young activists have joined a broad coalition pushing for a clean energy transition in the state, fighting for and, in many cases, winning ambitious policy battles, including the state’s target to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2045, the strongest clean electricity law in the nation.
“It’s not just taking back the White House and the Senate, not just passing federal legislation to address the crisis, but really making sure that we go deep on local … actions,” Toles O’Laughlin said.
That’s one reason 17-year-old Mariana Rodriguez from San Francisco joined the youth climate strikes last month, after seeing how climate change was impacting her state’s forests. “November is known as fire season,” she said. “And with all the fires that’s been happening around here, I can’t ignore something that’s happening right in front of me.”
In other parts of the country where support for climate action is less popular, activists in the climate movement are working to simply get elected officials to formally adopt statewide action plans.
Steven Kirchner, who just graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is organizer with the climate advocacy group Our Climate, is working to build a statewide coalition to pressure lawmakers to approve a climate action plan for the Nebraska. In 2018, coal fueled nearly two-thirds of Nebraska’s net electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Kirchner said he wants to get lawmakers to commit to moving away from coal use and toward helping the state’s agriculture industry take actions that can reduce fossil fuel use and mitigate carbon emissions. “We could be leaders in this and we’re dropping the ball,” he said.
The youth who have been joining and leading the climate strikes around the country are more politically engaged than past generations, said University of Michigan sociology professor Dana Fisher, who conducted a survey during the Washington, D.C., climate strike on Sept. 20.
“I think we’re going to see increasingly young people doubling down on the election,” she said.
Next year, many in the youth climate movement in the U.S. will be old enough to vote in their first presidential election, and climate action advocates are working to channel that youth voting bloc to put a more climate-friendly candidate in the White House.
“We’re in the election of our lifetime,” Toles O’Laughlin said. “This election will be the one where we look back and realize that the decisions that were made informed the levers of power for the generations that will feel the most impact [from climate change].”
Challenging Wall Street
Near Wall Street on Monday, Extinction Rebellion organizers brashly confronted another key target of the climate protests—a financial industry that continues to fund fossil fuels. Protesters representing deaths from climate disasters lay on the ground around the Charging Bull and Fearless Girl sculptures.
Russell Gray, an organizer with the Washington, D.C., chapter of Extinction Rebellion, believes protesters need to get more confrontational and disrupt business operations to get their message across.
“We’ve been trying to play by all the rules and work within the system for decades, and it just isn’t working,” Gray said. Civil disobedience helps draw more attention to the need for climate action, he said. He sees that as his group’s role in the broader climate movement.
Turning those actions into specific policy, he said, falls to groups with more specialized knowledge.
Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, said pressuring investors and companies to shift away from fossil fuels must be the next priority for the movement if it’s going to succeed in transitioning to a 100 percent clean energy economy by mid-century.
“The fossil fuel industry has always been the biggest obstacle for change,” McKibben said. “We need to do everything that we can to break their political and financial grip on our system.”