Maybe you haven’t heard, but we’re in some dire straits. Land grabbers are burning the edges of the Amazon rainforest to clear it for industrial agriculture. Greenland is melting at a historically unprecedented rate. This summer, Europe, Japan, and the eastern United States were scorched by epic heat waves. The capital of Indonesia is running out of water. Wildfires are already whipping across Australia, and it’s only spring there.
Thank goodness, someone has started paying attention, but perhaps it’s not who you’d expect. While scientists and (some) politicians spout on and on about the need to tackle climate change, it’s the youth who might finally move the world’s governments and businesses to action.
Take Olivia Wohlgemuth. She’s 16, a drama enthusiast, and incredibly busy. On a late-summer afternoon in Brooklyn, New York, she was participating in a massive art build in preparation for the September 20 Climate Strike—an international, youth-led strike from school and work demanding political action on the climate crisis.
A year ago, this isn’t how Wohlgemuth imagined spending the weekends of her senior year. An acting student at LaGuardia High School, she spent her days in the theater or babysitting or tutoring. She was looking forward to a summer of travel, acting in short films, and tackling her college applications. Though she’d always cared about the environment—she quit single-use plastics and became a vegetarian in her early teens—her daily routine, and her future plans, were cast aside after Greta Thunberg stormed her social media feed.
Thunberg gained fame last fall when she began skipping school to protest outside the Swedish parliament. At first often standing alone, she eventually found an audience—and founded a movement—after posting about her “Fridays for the Future” on social media. Thunberg’s act of protest sparked student strikes in over 130 countries, including a mass walk-out six months ago.
Wohlgemuth joined a branch of Thunberg’s mobilization effort—Fridays for Future NYC—and organized the exodus of almost 1,000 students (her count) from her high school on March 15. The protest emboldened Wohlgemuth: Since June, she’s spent every Friday of her summer striking outside the United Nations headquarters in New York City. It also emboldened many other of the 1.6 million youth activists worldwide who joined the March day of protest. For the strike on September 20, over 150 countries (and counting) have signed on. But this one’s different: The adults are invited.
Adult-led environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, 350.org, and Oxfam are collaborating with the protestors, but the youths have, thankfully, kept the reins. While they recognize adults have resources they don’t have—a well of organizing experience, the right to vote, a network of adult friends, and money—it’s the youths who are guiding the spirit of the more than 500 planned strikes. Much like March for Our Lives (lest we forget this generation faces not only ecological collapse but mass shootings), it’ll be youths speaking from the stage. If parents still want Fridays to be a dependable part of the school week, they should meet the youths' demands
Nania Agrawal-Hardin, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement, is excited to see the climate action movement become more intergenerational and collaborative. “I think adults have put us in this position,” she says, while acknowledging her gratitude for the work that’s come before her. “But our movement is taking our power back. We still have our whole lives ahead of us.”
While Greta Thunberg may have been the flint that sparked 2019’s youth uprising, young people have been shouting about the climate crisis for years. In 2015, a group of 21 young people filed a lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, arguing that the US government's actions have spurred climate change and, in the process, violated their generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. In the four years, and ongoing court decisions, since, mass mobilization around the lawsuit has spurred collaborations among the Sunrise Movement, Zero Hour, International Indigenous Youth Council, Extinction Rebellion Youth, and other groups. Now, the idea of a strike has become central to youth organizers’ political strategy. That’s because strikes are inherently risky, and a kind of last resort.
“Youths have the moral authority. It’s the world we’ve inherited,” Wohlgemuth says. Although she used to imagine the family she’d have when she grew up, she says she and many of her friends will now “devote our lives to fighting and solving the climate crisis instead of investing in the careers and families you all have had.”
Jonathan Palash-Mizner, co-coordinator of Extinction Rebellion Youth, says he grew up knowing about climate change, an awareness he attributes to his parents and his community in San Francisco. But he says he prioritized other social justice issues until the IPCC report came out in October, warning that the window for action was closing if the globe’s nations were to meet the greenhouse gas emissions reductions promised by the Paris climate agreement. “I saw we were living in an emergency,” Mizner says. “It terrified me.”
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Wohlgemuth, who is considering taking a gap year before college to continue her climate activism, says school is no longer her primary drive. For Sophie Anderson, Mizner’s co-coordinator, it’s difficult imagining her life before March’s climate strike, though she acknowledges she was less anxious.
“It’s hard for me to take a break, especially around an issue that's so large. There's always more we can be doing,” says Anderson, who has had to force herself to moderate how often she checks her email, especially so she can get enough sleep. “But,” she says, “why go to school if we're studying for a future we're not going to have?”
For Agrawal-Hardin of the Sunrise Movement, her involvement with climate activism has led to a different wake-up call. Although she’s a person of color—her parents are from India—she says getting involved with climate justice has opened her eyes to “racial and economic injustice, LGBTQ+ liberation, and the challenges that marginalized communities face in society today.”
Because their movement is youth-led, it also highlights what Generation Z, the most diverse generation in US history, cares most about: intersectionality. Instead of organizing around climate science, they’re organizing around climate justice. For Mizner, focusing on marginalized communities is important to the fight against climate change, and it’s inherently right: “Frontline communities need to be brought to the front of the movement,” he says.
This commitment to bridging environmental and social concerns is reflected in the demands of the youth coalition, which were released two weeks before the strike. They include transforming the US economy to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030; restoring 50 percent of the world’s lands and oceans; stopping all deforestation by 2030; and ending subsidies for industrial agriculture while investing in regenerative agriculture. But the process of reaching those goals is just as important. The climate strikers’ demands also call for respecting Indigenous lands and sovereignty and welcoming people “displaced by the cumulative effects of the climate crisis, economic inequality, violence, and lack of opportunity.”
According to the Pew Research Center, the youngest voting demographic—Gen Z, along with millennials—will make up 37 percent of the vote by the 2020 presidential election. Both Mizner and Wohlgemuth will be 18, and they plan to exercise their right to vote.
A year from now, Agrawal-Hardin hopes the youth climate movement will look like a “highly educated, energized, and motivated group of people of all ages getting out the vote for the 2020 election for the sake of climate justice.”
What’s on the line for Agrawal-Hardin? For Mizner and Anderson and Wohlgemuth? For the 21 plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States? For the 1.6 million protesters who turned out on March 15? For the 7.5 billion people alive today? Oh, not a lot. Just survival.
“We all want to keep going with our lives,” Mizner says. “We don't want 12 years to be the end.”
At her recent weekend art build, Wohlgemuth helped other activists create screen prints, paintings, giant parachutes, shakers made out of seeds. “We’re also making cardboard waves,” she says. They’ll be painted blue, and protesters will hold them along the sidewalk. They’ll look something like a rising sea.