In August 2018, the “Fridays For Future” movement (demonstrations of youth activism every Friday) was inspired by the determination of a 15-year-old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg. She had decided to do whatever she could to denounce her country’s insufficient response to global warming. Seven months later, the movement counted more than two million young strikers in more than 100 developed and developing countries. This global youth mobilization is an unprecedented response to political inaction.
The climate, a source of generational conflict
It is no surprise that young people are taking action on the climate (and related social and political issues) given the risks they face. They have contributed much less to CO2 emissions than previous generations but will be far more affected by their impacts. A recent report by The Lancet demonstrated the devastating effects climate change is having on children. Whether they want to or not, young people find themselves on the front lines of the fight those in power refuse to take on.
And they are fully aware of this: according to psychology researcher Annamaria Lammel, “children exhibit behavioral intentions to protect the environment at a very early age.” The new generations are particularly prone to “solastalgia” or “eco-anxiety”: “You’ll die of old age, we’ll die of climate change,” read some of the young protesters’ signs.
Chanting the same slogans from Greece to Uganda, these young people have won an important first battle: they are now invited to global climate discussions and have a media platform to share their message. In September 2019, the United Nations hosted the first Youth for Climate Summit with young activists from all over the world. During the opening of COP25 in early December 2019, UN Secretary-General António Guterres praised this youth activism as a counterpoint to government inaction.
Youth who no longer believe in “fairy tales”
By insisting on their right to a healthy future on a healthy planet, young climate strikers are not just criticizing the apathy of decision-makers. Their mobilization also includes environmental, social and feminist struggles. It is a total rejection of the current system and the “fairy tale of eternal economic growth” that Greta Thunberg decries. They are questioning the lifestyles of older generations who seem unwilling to do so.
Rejecting the fairy tales some adults continue to believe in, young activists refer to the facts that scientists have been presenting for more than thirty years: “I can’t believe I’m marching for facts,” read some protest signs. In the climate information wars, scientists are still struggling to be heard over companies who have leaders’ ears and the resources to influence public opinion.
The IPCC emphasized the importance of climate education and awareness in its October 2018 Special Report on the consequences of a 1.5°C temperature increase. Young people are well versed in social media and new communication tools, and are becoming an important voice expressing the urgency of the situation.
According to Nathaniel Geiger, a communication science researcher, climate protests have enhanced public perception of these activists and made data more accessible. By showcasing a strong and united international movement, these protests are helping overcome people’s feelings of powerlessness in response to these complex issues.
Much ado about nothing?
In 2019, global CO2 emissions rose yet again, although they need to decrease by 7.6% per year to limit the increase in temperatures to 1.5°C by 2030. In 2018, only 16 out of 197 countries had implemented the measures needed to comply with the Paris Agreement.
It is hard to assess the real-time impact youth activism is having on global political inaction. But we can already point to the success of actions these activists have carried out at the local level. Between March and April 2018, 15-year-old Aditya Mukarji convinced hotels and restaurants in New Delhi to replace more than 500,000 plastic straws with ecological alternatives. Since February 2019, Ugandan Leah Namugerwa has been fighting to make her country’s voice heard, as it is particularly vulnerable to climate change. These young activists represent the movement in their respective countries, and they are far from the only ones.