Greta Thunberg. Xiye Bastida. School strikes. Fridays for the Future. In 2019, the youth climate activism movement took off. It’s not coincidental that Oxford English Dictionary declared “climate emergency” 2019’s “word of the year” as young people from all over the globe asked us to recognize that we are, in fact, in a climate emergency. And all signs suggest these young people are only just getting started.
While environmental movements and protests of the past often rang with cries for saving the rainforests or polar bears, today’s young climate activists have a different refrain. Their protests echo with the word “justice”. They are talking about and demanding climate justice and this is significant for several reasons.
First, it shows that, hard as it might be, young people are not shying away from the truth of this moment. They are fully recognizing that the human race is not exempt from the impacts of climate change. In fact, that truth is one of their greatest motivating factors. They are asking adults to make the decisions necessary so that the younger generations can stop fearing death from climate impacts. This is not to say that young activists are not concerned for the health of the rainforests or the habitat of the polar bears. Many speak passionately about care for all living beings. But they are not shying from the possibility of human extinction. They are recognizing the human-environment connection, ignorance of which contributed greatly to this mess in the first place.
Second, in focusing on climate justice, many involved in the youth movement recognize the intertwining of the injustices prevalent in the world today. Income inequality, human rights abuses, access to food and water, access to education, imigration, racial inequality, all of these issues and more intersect with the climate crisis and young people are not unaware of this fact. Consequently, they are not looking for quick technological fixes. They are asking for systemic change that will simultaneously address many of the entrenched patterns of inequality that weave through the climate crisis.
Furthermore, in their cries for justice, young activists are spotlighting the fact that those currently making the decisions that will shape the future of climate change will not be alive to suffer the consequences. The future of young people is being decided – and, currently, damned – without their consent. They are rightly furious. Many use language that directly casts blame and shame at older generations, particularly those in positions of power who continue to be more focused on maintaining their power and preserving business-as-usual than making the changes that must happen – and quickly – if future generations are not to suffer greatly. These young activists are not sugar-coating their message and, unlike the politicians to whom they appeal, they seem quite unconcerned with being liked.
What has been the impact of this shaming and truth-telling? Well, one thing is for sure – people are listening. From household viewers to politicians, people the world over are paying attention to the young activists. Whether it’s reactions of admiration or ridicule, these young people are inciting a response.
And of course they are. The words of truth spoken by these youngsters are penetrating even the hardest of political shells. With appeals for their lives – and the lives of all living beings – and anger at adults for stealing their future, young people are bypassing political games, dismissing them as frivolous in the face of the current crisis, in which the livability of the planet is questioned. They are speaking to our hearts and to the shame that many, if not all of us, do feel, even if it is buried deep.
I can only imagine how important this activism is to these young people. To speak the truth that is their greatest fear and demand that adults listen – this seems of critical importance, not only if we are to have a hope of making the changes needed, but also for the wellbeing of the young people involved. What else do we expect them to do? How could they possibly, in this moment that is rife with terrifying truths and a rapidly ticking clock, sit back and live their lives as though nothing extraordinary was happening? Of course they don’t want to participate in business-as-usual. Of course they aren’t focused only on achieving good grades, accumulating the right extracurriculars, getting into college and climbing the career ladder while starting their own families. They know, they feel – in a way we perhaps cannot – the truth of the moment: that none of that will matter if climate change is not addressed.
While shame and blame are warranted and are effective up to a point, it is important to remember that, ultimately, what is needed is for people to unite. We must cross perceived barriers of differences of opinions and listen and learn, not just from each other but, most importantly, from the natural world itself. We must reinstate a felt-sense of and value for community, both between humans and with all living beings. We must reconstruct systems founded on principles of respect.
Shame and blame are important. They are helping many wake to the truth of the moment and can be powerful motivators. But we must also come together. We can unite under a shared recognition of our role, both as contributors to the problem but also through embracing our capacity to enact solutions.
Is it the work of the young climate activists to move past blame and call for this union? I’m not sure. They have every right to be furious and to focus on speaking their truth and asking adults to wake up to the crisis at hand. What I do know for sure is that us older generations, whether politicians, teachers, grandparents or parents – or whatever else our walk of life might be – must do the internal and external work needed to create the regenerative communities that just might provide the young people we love with a hope for the future. That is our responsibility.
A few groups to join and/or support
If the young people in your life are interested in activism, a whole community awaits. There are many points of entry and groups working with young activists, many of them led by youngsters themselves. Here are a few of the most prevalent youth organizations in the current movement. Many countries have their own groups, all easily identified and contacted on the internet.
Fridays for the Future – Worldwide. Began in 2018 when Greta Thunberg sat in front of the Swedish parliament every school day for three weeks to demand action on climate change. After the three weeks, Thunberg began striking outside the parliament every Friday. The movement with viral on social media, with the hashtag #FridaysForFuture and #Climatestrike and many joined Thunberg, with strikes cropping up around the globe. The group has individual movements in each country, and students can visit the main web page to find the nearest movement, or start one of their own. The concept is to strike outside your local city hall or parliament on Fridays to demand fast, comprehensive action on climate change (Thunberg specifically has been demanding that the Swedish government map and implement a plan to keep warming well below 2 degrees Celsius).
Sunrise Movement is a youth activism movement in the United States focused on the Green New Deal. Self-defined as “a movement to stop climate change and create millions of jobs in the process”.
future coalition – American network of youth-led organizations and movements, Future Coalition works collaboratively to provide young people with the resources, tools, and support they need to create the change they want to see in their communities and in this country.Built by youth activists, for youth activists, Future Coalition is a national network that fosters community and collaboration among youth leaders and youth-led organizations. The Coalition builds community and provides resources (grants), trainings and toolkits for young leaders and youth-led organizations.
Zero Hour – Zero Hour was founded in 2017 when 16 year-old Jamie Margolin took her frustration over the inaction of elected officials on climate change and the way in which youth voices were ignored and channeled that frustration into action. She worked with friends to organize a national day of action, and Zero Hour began. Zero Hour is very focused on climate justice. Their platform recognizes the way in which capitalism, racism, sexism, colonialism and more have contributed to climate change and the group is currently running educational programs around the globe to explore how systems of oppression are at the root of climate change. Zero Hour’s demands include food, water and housing for all alongside blocking all fossil fuel use, divestment, reducing energy consumption and restorative work.