Few movements have captured the public’s attention like the Youth Climate Strike. In August of 2018, Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager, ignited the movement by refusing to attend school and instead sitting on the front steps of the Swedish Parliament. Within months she was an internationally known advocate for climate action. Worldwide, teenagers and children responded in kind by striking for climate action. Their first major action, a worldwide strike on March 15 of 2019, was a resounding success that told the world in no uncertain terms that the next generation would stand up for the environment.
The History of the Youth Climate Strike
This isn’t the first time that students have struck for the climate. In 2015, over 50,000 people participated in a worldwide strike in favor of clean energy, aid for climate refugees, and leaving fossil fuels in the ground. Many of the participants were children who skipped school to be involved. The strike happened in concert with COP21, but did not give rise to a lasting movement. That’s a contrast to the current Youth Climate Strike, which has already developed a great deal of momentum with both its small- and large-scale international actions.
In Kind had the opportunity to sit down with two leaders of the US-based arm of the Youth Climate Strike— Maddy Fernands, the group’s National Press Director, and Karla Stephan, the movement’s new National Finance Director.
Striking From School
The idea behind the Youth Climate Strike is simple: student activists skip class on Fridays to stand in front of their local, state, or national government offices. To paraphrase some of the participants in this movement, there is little more about the climate situation that needs to be learned in a classroom. These students feel that they already know the most important factor: adults aren’t doing enough to stop climate change.
There is an immediacy to this movement that doesn’t necessarily exist in older organizations. If a child born in 2003 lives to be 100 years old, they are almost guaranteed to see some of the worst effects of climate change. The students who are now striking on Fridays are doing so because they can be assured that climate change will affect their lives. Climate change is not an abstraction or distant prophecy for them, but a near-term upset of their adult lives. To a degree, the schoolwork that prepares them for a business-as-usual future may be moot. It is hard to project how climate change will affect civilization. The teens who strike feel that protesting the inaction of adults is a better use of their time than sitting quietly and hoping that everything will be alright. They’ve decided to take matters into their own hands.
A New Organization
The Youth Climate Strike grew out of Fridays For Future, the organization that itself rose out of Greta Thunberg’s Friday strikes before the Swedish Parliament. Thunberg only began striking in August of 2018, meaning that the movement has momentum unusual for a new group. Some of this might be laid at Thunberg’s feet. As an international spokeswoman, the 16-year-old has done an excellent job promoting her cause. Not only has she delivered a TED talk, but she has spoken before the UN and is scheduled to also speak at Davos. She has even been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. She - and the Youth Climate Strike - are now household names.
The movement itself is global, with strikes happening in places as far-flung as Switzerland, Columbia, and Uganda. In the US, leadership is organized at the state and national levels. This hierarchy allows the group to both coordinate widespread actions and stay in contact as they plan increasingly ambitious actions.
As if the challenge of organizing a national movement isn’t enough, the Youth Climate Strike is also youth-led and youth-managed. Maddy Fernands says that parents and educators are supportive, but have minimal administrative involvement. The leadership and direction are all managed by high schoolers. This seems apt, considering that these are the same people who will need to deal with the brunt of the climate crisis when they become adults. Many members of the group express frustration with current adult attitudes toward climate change, and even parents connected with the movement admit that they don’t feel the same panic about climate change that their kids do. In many ways, this might be a boon for the movement. Parents and educators don’t need to be involved in the protest itself. They can take care of practicalities, like bills and transportation, while their kids lay the groundwork for a movement to save the future.
The US movement is led by five students: Representative Ilhan Omar’s daughter, Isra Hirsi, is National Co-director and Co-founder with twelve-year-old Haven Coleman. National Creative Director Feliquan Charlemagne also heads the Florida state Youth Climate Strike chapter. Maddy Fernands, the group’s National Press Director, and Karla Stephan, its National Finance Director. Salomée Levy functions as the State Liaison, coordinating the national Youth Climate Strike leadership with state-based actions and chapters.
To say that the Youth Climate Strike has made a splash in the world of environmental activism is to make a profound understatement. Karla Stephan reports that the group benefits from a growing list of partnerships, including those with Greenpeace, 350.org, the Future Coalition, and the Sunrise Movement. “It’s really helpful,” she says. What the Youth Climate Strike lacks in years, it makes up for with media savviness, networking, and connected leadership.
Co-director Isra Hirsi and Press Director Maddy Fernands are involved in several other environmental activist organizations, including MN Can’t Wait, a youth coalition that connects groups from 350.org to Sunrise and makes it possible for teens to get involved in climate action. Salomée Levy, the State Liaison, has also worked with GirlUp, a UN initiative to empower women and girls.
Not only are these partnerships important to the current Youth Climate Strike organization, but they represent a bright future for climate politics. Many of them, including 350.org, are relatively young themselves. However, they share the Youth Climate Strike’s political strategy and are already making an impression on US climate leadership. It seems likely that some Youth Climate Strike members will eventually run for office. At that time, the structure, strategies, and priorities of the wider environmentalist movement, including its focus on intersectionality, could become a larger priority in mainstream politics. That moment won’t be long in coming, either. Even though the members of the Youth Climate Strike can’t vote now, some are only a few years away from being legally allowed to run for local office.
The demands and mission of the US Youth Climate Strike group are clear and broad in scope, but focused on working within the current political structure. One of their most strident goals is that climate change needs to be a national emergency. This would make funding available for the infrastructure upgrades that need to happen in order to move the nation beyond a fossil fuel-dependent economy.
However, the group particularly wants to focus on supporting the Green New Deal. This comprehensive plan for climate action has been championed by some national policy makers, but still faces resistance. Nevertheless, it is gaining in popularity across the nation. The Youth Climate Strike’s priority is for the US to use 100% renewable energy by 2030.
Particular to the US-based Youth Climate Strike is a concern for marginalized communities and communities of color, which are disproportionately affected by climate change. Several of the members of the group’s leadership express this priority in their online bios and display consciousness of intersectionality in their leadership. With a large percentage of female and non-white leadership, the group displays diversity in its representation as well as its actions. Maddy stresses that Indigenous communities have been on the front lines of the environmental movement from its beginning. In order for the transition to renewable energy to be just, those communities must continue to have a seat at the table.
The March 15th Strike
The Youth Climate Strike is young in every sense of the word: young people lead it, but the movement itself is also less than a year old. However, it’s growing. The worldwide strike on March 15 was a key indicator of just how popular it has become across the globe. The New York Times reports that particularly massive protests took place outside of the US, with Hyderabad, South Africa, and Seoul all seeing sgnificant youth participation. Worldwide, more than a million young people participated. 30,000 marched in Sydney alone.
In Washington DC, the strike nearly coincided with a walk-out for gun control, lowering turnout, and Karla concedes that the DC group is hoping for better result at their next action. However, she tells In Kind that participation across the rest of the US was more than satisfactory. Some places, like New York, held strikes in multiple locations, which made the event more accessible to a broader range of students. New York and Los Angeles saw the highest participation rates, but even Alabama saw teenagers walking out of class for the climate. It was a good start, Karla says, especially when it came to media coverage.
While Maddy Fernands, the National Media Cordinator, made sure that people got interviews with the Youth Climate Strike’s leaders, local operatives managed social media on a place-by-place basis. “I had access to the DC Instagram and Facebook,” Karla tells me. “There was also US-wide social media.” The social media strategy was particularly important to the movement’s growth and influence. While the Youth Climate Strike leaders don’t disregard the importance of traditional media, including NPR and the New York Times, they’re also well aware that more people check social media than read the news. Both had their places on the big day, but one was disproportionately successful. “Social media definitely helped our platform more,” Karla says.
In fact, social media may have spurred a jump in the Youth Climate Strike’s membership. Participation has grown tremendously since the strike, with a surge in applications to join the national and state teams. Requests for ground-level membership pour in day by day from kids who are inspired by the fact that people are paying attention to the demands of teenagers. As non-voters, teens don’t always have much control over what happens to their world. This is a way to do something about the future of the planet that they’ll inherit. The movement is well situated for its next action on May 3.
The Youth Climate Strike is banking on their winning media strategy coming through again on May 3, when the movement will once again walk out of school. This time, however, their plan is more focused on policymakers. Now that the Youth Climate Strike has the world’s attention, they’ll use their newfound influence to lobby local and state officials to support environmental legislation. Karla says the intention is to switch up the way that strikes are normally done, a way to get real action out of an otherwise symbolic protest. “It’s combining civil disobedience with civil action.”
Strategic plans for this collective political action are still in progress, but in DC, at least, the process will begin with a moment of silence. Since Congress isn’t in session at that time, most of the lobbying work will happen at the state level. However, the impact of teens rallying at the Capitol will be important for the message that the group wants to send. Teens prioritize climate change even when adults are off doing other things.
In keeping with their organizational demands, the Youth Climate Strike will attempt to persuade politicians to support the Green New Deal. Though that’s their focus, the movement is open to any environmental policy that could slow or halt global climate change. Their goal is to inspire action on the parts of political leaders, and at this point, any action would be welcome.
In that spirit, the Youth Climate Strike also launched a petition in partnership with MoveOn.org to get the 2020 US Presidential candidates to hold an environmentally themed debate. In an election where the environment is an increasingly popular theme, this gives the Youth Climate Strike a chance to move public dialogue closer to the urgent climate issues that they feel should be the center of political discussion already.
Greta Thunberg aptly noted that there’s no second chance for climate action. For the teens of the Youth Climate Strike, the time is now. This is their chance to save the world, and they’re taking it.
Sign Youth Climate Strike’s #ClimateDebate petition to make climate change a central topic in the 2020 presidential election