Young people are often the most affected by environmental problems, suffering ills like asthma from air pollution or brain damage from mercury poisoning. They can’t move away from health hazards, can’t vote for change and are on course to live through far worse climate conditions than their parents.
That’s why the recent surge in youth activism is so inspiring. Perhaps you’ve heard of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate warrior taking the media by storm? You may have seen this awesome video of her dressing down the UK Parliament last month, challenging them to act on climate right now, as if our house were burning down . The UK voted to declare a state of emergency on climate just days after her visit.
Greta is a driving force in the growing, youth-led, global movement for climate justice. She uses social media — and hashtags #FridaysForFuture and #ClimateStrike — to educate and organize events for thousands of students around the world, including school strikes every Friday that many students have pledged to support until serious changes are made.
“I assure you we will go back to school the moment you start listening to the science and give us a future. Is that really too much to ask?” —Greta Thunberg
Countless other young leaders have been joining and organizing climate protests over the last few years, many in response to Trump’s attempt to roll back environmental protections and withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement. On March 15, for example, three girls organized climate strikes in more than 100 U.S. cities to coordinate with climate strikes in 123 countries around the world. Young people also are taking their case to court: the plaintiffs of Juliana v. United States argue they, we and future generations have a constitutional right to live in a “climate system capable of sustaining human life.”
The world’s youth are fundamentally changing the politics of the climate emergency. Their passion, creativity and tenacity are essential qualities for enduring the long fight ahead, and we are excited to be part of the global movement of young people calling for climate action.
Why now, and why so young?
The short answer: because the climate challenge is still here, and more urgent than ever.
Youth activism is nothing new. Throughout modern history, young people have protested against war and racism, and demanded rights like access to better education and public transportation.
In the 1950s and 1960s, students successfully desegregated many U.S. schools. In the 1990s and early 2000s, students organized networks of anti-war groups across the country to protest wars in the Middle East. This movement led to the largest global protest in world history against the Iraq war. But the current groundswell of youth activism began with thousands of student-led protests against gun violence in schools following the Parkland shooting on February 14, 2018. While the resulting #NeverAgain movement hasn’t yet achieved all its aims, retailers have taken guns off their shelves in response to the protests.
What will it take to win?
While many youth-led protests have led to lasting gains, others — like school segregation — have been rolled back over time, plus the U.S. is still at war and school shootings keep on happening. So why should this time be any different? A few reasons:
- Technology has allowed protesters to organize like never before: faster, more directly and far more widely. And when it comes to social media, young people just get it. “Think globally; act locally” has become “Think globally; act globally.”
- They’re also beyond fed up with adult inaction on the climate breakdown, are more willing to unite behind the science and are the most effective spokespeople for shifting their parents’ views on climate change . This is hardly surprising since they have seen the climate and harsh weather conditions worsening all around them, every year of their young lives.
- Despite Trump’s assault on environmental protections, Defend Our Future and our allies at Environmental Defense Fund have been able to keep many bedrock protections from being rolled back, and we continue to make progress working with policymakers, protesters and partners around the world, developing solutions to make lasting change.
At Defend Our Future, we know it will take a wide range of strategies to turn the tide. Young activists and organizers will have to keep up the pressure to see it through.
“Me and my peers never thought of ourselves as political. We thought our voices didn’t matter. At Defend Our Future, we’re helping engage other students. They are the generation who are starting to spark change, especially around climate change. If we don’t elevate their voices and represent them, they will become discouraged.” —Angelina Luangphon
Where do we go from here?
The climate strikes continue, and so will we, empowering young people of all political persuasions who want to protect the world for future generations. The best way to stay informed about our work is to sign up for our email list at defendourfuture.org. You’ll find listings of actions and events there as well.
As Greta says, “There is no Planet B,” so there is no time to waste . We hope you’ll join us today.
Jake Kornegay is a digital writer and editor at Environmental Defense Fund.