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Youth Movements Changing Tactics in the Face of Climate Crisis

From occupying House offices to suing the federal government, young people are exploring creative strategies to spur action on climate change

Sunrise is part of the broad movement building the power of youth to urge the country to take climate change seriously while reclaiming democracy. (Photo: Sunrise Movement)

Back in 2015, a group of youth warriors bravely filed a lawsuit against the federal government for failing to protect their right to life and liberty by willfully ignoring the dangers of climate change. Last month, the 21 plaintiffs of Juliana v. United States gathered under the same roof for the first time in quite a while at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. The group convened with leaders of the most powerful movements of our time to share their experiences and discuss what need to be done to address our climate crisis.

The youth plaintiffs were joined at the “Changing Tactics in the Face of Climate Emergency” by leaders of the most vivid movements of our time, lifting up organizing systems that are multiracial, where women hold primary positions of power and political leadership. Vic Barrett, one of the youth plaintiffs, was on the panel with Julia Olson, the executive director of Our Children’s Trust and the legal representation in the lawsuit, 350.org communications manager Thanu Yakupitiyage, and Sara Blazevic, the co-founder and managing director of the Sunrise Movement.

Sunrise is building the power of youth to urge the country to take climate change seriously while reclaiming democracy. Addressing the crisis, Sunrise says, means ending the influence of fossil fuel profiteers on American politics and creating good jobs to update national infrastructure. The group skyrocketed to national headlines after occupying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand Congress pass a Green New Deal. Blazevic told the crowd that Sunrise organizers had dedicated months of time to winning back the House of Representatives for Democrats. “We thought they owed us more than lip service on the biggest issue facing our generation,” she said.

“We need to transform our entire economy to prevent [the climate crisis] and we also have an incredible opportunity to create millions of good jobs and actually increase equity and justice in this country in the process,” Blazevic said. “Sunrise is protesting to bring the crisis to the forefront of the minds of every American and bring the urgency of those fires, floods and droughts we hear the plaintiffs talk about from our television screens to our politicians’ scripts.”

Resistance to this transformative vision for our society comes from the very people sworn in to govern and create ways to work with — not against – our natural resources, to provide us all with the ability to prosper. Putting climate change at the top of the political agenda is just the first step, Blazevic went on to say. “We are also working to elect candidates up and down the ballot who can advance the kinds of solutions we need for this crisis and build the power we need to govern and create an America that works for all of us.”

Our Children’s Trust has opted to take this battle to the courts – a branch of government often forgotten in the fight against climate change. The organization is elevating the voice of youth and creating a platform that will force people in power to listen to them, Olson said. Understanding of our shared responsibility for the health of our environment goes as far back as 1818, Olson said, when James Madison addressed changing climate from deforestation at the Address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle. “The atmosphere is the breath of life without which we all perish,” Olson said, quoting Madison’s speech.

The 21 youth plaintiffs The 21 youth plaintiffs at the New York Society for Ethical Culture.

Youth across the country see their environment at risk, and are organizing because they understand the choice to “just be a kid” has been robbed from them and future generations. They are embracing their voice by focusing on the passion in this work and resisting the narrative that millennials and Generation Z are apathetic.

Vic Barrett, a first-generation Honduran American living in New York, spoke of being inspired by hearing people connect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to climate change. Barrett considered her own identities – how the destruction of Hurricane Sandy impacted her life, and how climate change critically endangered Honduran culture.

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Barrett joined the Alliance for Climate Education on a campaign to mandate climate teachings in New York Public Schools. Being a youth activist came with its own set of frustrations, especially when it came to convincing legislators to listen to constituents under the voting age. Rather than begging politicians to take them seriously, they decided to sue them instead.

“It would be very interesting to look back on last year on this new narrative that all of a sudden youth activists are changing the world, when that work’s been done for a very long time,” Barrett said. “I think that can be isolating for a lot of young people, who are trying to get engaged…we’re creating this culture that says in order to be a youth activist you must have a lot of Twitter followers and Instagram followers and be in every NowThis video ever created. That is not healthy or helpful for the kids who are sitting at home wanting to take the first step.”

Making the work fun, engaging accessible and easy to take part in, like it was for Barrett, is crucial, like creating spaces for young people to hang out and talk about these issues. “It doesn’t have to be structured or a whole facilitated workshop. The space just needs to exist,” Barrett said. “And as social media activism grows those places our shrinking. Organizations like Alliance for Climate Education are definitely part of trying to keep that available.”

Ultimately, one of the most refreshing lessons shared during this powerful discussion was the emphasis that we all are truly in this together. We must shift the agenda that separates us to uplift the truth of the matter, and develop a laser sharp focus on action and empowering real change not only among people but inside the three branches of government. And that’s what these movements are striving to do.

“Sunrise has worked really hard to talk about climate change in a way that is not partisan,” Blazevic said. “It impacts poor people, it impacts working people, it impacts children, it impacts people of color, it impacts children and it impacts all kinds of people.”

“The people who are responsible for the climate crisis are not the voting base of the Republican Party,” she went on to say. “It’s a handful of elites who have been profiting off the crisis for decades and that is an important message to say.” Blazevic says there’s a need to name “a very narrow, specific enemy – the GOP elite, mostly White men who have been profiting off this crisis for decades. Naming very clearly who our narrow enemy is, by making it as narrow as possible, allows us to build a movement as broad as possible.”

Let the youth be heard!

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Anny Martinez

Anny Martinez directs the Jamaica Plain Forum for the Institute for Policy Studies office in Boston. Distributed by OtherWords.org.

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