On Friday, my 12-year-old son carried his handmade cardboard protest sign to one of the thousands of climate strikes around the world, along with five of his classmates. His sign read, “Where you gonna hide from the hell you made?” This die-hard rock ’n’ roll fan had tapped an obscure song by his favorite band—Queen—called “White Man,” about the genocide of Native Americans, and picked out the perfect line to describe his rage at our human-made climate crisis.
The size and scope of the Global Climate Strike was breathtaking.
My angry preteen was one of an estimated 4 million people who marched all over the planet Friday in what is considered the largest climate change-related protest action in history. The size and scope of the Global Climate Strike was breathtaking. According to Vox, “There were over 2,500 events scheduled in over 163 countries on all seven continents.” In New York City alone, which is where the United Nations climate conference was held Monday, a whopping 250,000 people showed up for an event that had been permitted for 5,000 attendees. And at events the world over, young people, outraged at the folly of adults, dared us to do better.
In Los Angeles, I spoke with youth organizers who had obtained a permit for only a few hundred people but were overwhelmed by thousands who showed up for the cause. A tall, lanky boy with bleached-blond hair introduced himself to me as 15-year-old Landen Ramirez, one of the organizers and co-founders of Youth Climate Strike LA. Looking exhausted as he stopped briefly to speak with me, the 11th grader from Acton Academy in Venice Beach said, “It’s been quite a roller coaster. This is so important to me because nobody else is organizing—politicians, CEOs and the big corporations perpetuating this mess.”
As I walked through the crowd, several things struck me: The crowd was diverse, with plenty of black and brown folks intermingled with white Angelenos. It was also age-diverse, with kids as young as 6 alongside grandparents in their 70s. On the event stage, the diversity was just as impressive, with indigenous youth leaders dominating the opening proceedings. One named Haatepeh, a 21-year-old with the International Indigenous Youth Council, explained that the chant he sang onstage was a “traditional water song that we sing to honor water, because all animals are made of water, and we are paying homage to it.”
The refrain “water is life” came out of the seminal Standing Rock water protection movement aimed at the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. That movement was a new chapter in Native American activism and was centered on the protection of earth’s resources and climate justice. Haatepeh sees indigenous wisdom as critical to the youth-led climate movement, saying, “We’ve known how to live with our earth in a balanced way without causing too much damage and pollution for thousands of years. … We’ve always known how to work with the land—not domesticate it, but work with it side by side.”
Another organizer of Friday’s strike in Los Angeles was 16-year-old Jesus Villalba Gastelum, a cheerful kid with long, dark hair tied in a ponytail, who explained that his family hailed from a small town in Mexico that had been hit by a drought. “I’m an immigrant,” he said, “if you can’t tell by my beautiful complexion, and I understand that migration is a very important part of the situation right now where we need to survive.” The recent record-breaking Hurricane Dorian brutally showcased just how big an issue migration will be in the coming years, as people displaced by climate change from the Bahamas seek refuge in the U.S.
There was a time not too long ago when protests against climate change were dominated by white and relatively privileged activists, a situation that appears to have shifted dramatically. Villalba Gastelum said that is because “a lot of the green movement before this was a lot of white people saying only 'go vegan.'" But, he added, "A lot of our peoples have been living off the land and eating meat for thousands of years, and we haven’t had this problem until now."
The "go vegan" sentiment was present at the Friday march, with one white woman repeatedly interrupting speakers onstage. Actress Jane Fonda lost her temper at the woman during her speech, telling her to "be quiet," and explaining that it is more important to "change our economic and social systems."
Today, the climate movement is much broader than the "go vegan" crowd. Villalba Gastelum expressed relief over Friday’s turnout, saying, "Five months ago, I thought I was the only one who cared, until we finally got people out." He was both worried and exalted over the turnout, given that he and others had applied for a city permit for just one block, estimated to hold about 3,000 people. At the moment I was speaking with him, climate strike attendees had filled at least three blocks.
Kids like Ramirez and Villalba Gastelum are deeply worried about climate change, and they have good reason to view politicians and other leaders as having buried their heads in the sand, or simply kicking the can down the road year after year. After decades of climate scientists warning politicians to do something, there are now barely 11 years left to take action before irreversible climate change is estimated to kick in. “The worst-case scenario is that the majority of the human population becomes extinct by 2100, including me and my family,” Ramirez said.
When President Donald Trump made a brief appearance at Monday’s critically important climate-related United Nations conference, a screen grab of Thunberg glaring at him went viral. The expression on her face symbolized all of humanity’s children delivering a death stare to the world leader who is most emblematic of climate-related criminal negligence. Thunberg’s powerful speech at the U.N., where she tearfully admonished the gathered leaders with three words—“How dare you?”—was widely covered in the news, much to Trump’s chagrin. The president shockingly retweeted an article about her speech with the sarcastic comment: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” Thunberg trolled Trump right back, changing her Twitter bio to quote him.
There is a reason men like Trump feel so threatened by kids like Thunberg that they publicly and shamelessly try to bully them. Children not only have the scientific facts on their side, but the moral clarity to demand change.
One adult I ran into at Friday’s strike who seems to get it is actor Don Cheadle. Wearing a T-shirt that read, “The young people will win,” Cheadle told me, “I’m here to support the young people.” He explained that in the face of political inaction, “We have to try to pull on the levers wherever they exist and try to raise a din and make our voices heard.” Cheadle was emphatic that the media and politicians focus on young voices over those of adults, suggesting that presidential candidates consider turning over their debate time onstage to kids demanding climate action.
Ramirez’s message to grown-ups is “to please grow up and do your job. I am supposed to be taking a test [at school] right now, and I’m going to fail it.
“But at the end of the day,” he added, “This climate crisis is more important for me, and it needs to be addressed by somebody, and if you all aren’t going to do it, I have to.”