Youth Climate Strike

Youth Climate Strike Are Only Gaining Momentum

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.

Youth Climate Strike in Chicago

Youth Climate Strike in Chicago

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.

Youth Climate Strike in Washington DC

Youth Climate Strike in Washington DC

Organization

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.

Leadership

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. 

Partnerships

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.

Sunrise Movement striking in solidarity with Youth Climate Strike in Chicago, Illinois

Sunrise Movement striking in solidarity with Youth Climate Strike in Chicago, Illinois

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. 

Goals

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. 

Intersectionality

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.

Youth Climate Strike in San Francisco via  Flickr

Youth Climate Strike in San Francisco via Flickr

Actions

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. 

Youth Climate Strike in London via  Flickr

Youth Climate Strike in London via Flickr

What’s Next

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.

Donate to or learn more about the Youth Climate Strike on their website, or follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter

Sign Youth Climate Strike’s #ClimateDebate petition to make climate change a central topic in the 2020 presidential election

What If We All Just Went on Strike

On March 15, 2019 over 1.5 million people across Earth went on strike to demand climate action. Inspired by Greta Thunberg and her Fridays for Future campaign, people in 125 countries and all seven continents united to call for politicians and those in power to make real steps towards combating climate change. According to 350.org, the global action is the largest climate demonstration in history, and the organizers of the strike say this is just the beginning.

On March 15, 2019 over 1.5 million people across Earth went on strike to demand climate action. Inspired by Greta Thunberg and her Fridays for Future campaign, people in 125 countries and all seven continents united to call for politicians and those in power to make real steps towards combating climate change. According to 350.org, the global action is the largest climate demonstration in history, and the organizers of the strike say this is just the beginning.

“The March 15 strike is not the end of us — it’s just the beginning. There are some past climate movements that lost momentum after their initial big events, and we want to make sure that that is not something that can be said about us. We want to make sure that once we have this event, the movement doesn’t stop and in fact gets even stronger with our momentum. We have some long-term plans too. We’ve been contacted by the U.N to potentially speak at the climate summit in September of 2019. We will also continue to grow our movement, from the national and local scale to the international scale, and collaborate with other movements. We want to make sure that we are heard and seen by the media, by the regular bystander, by everybody.”
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Maddy Fernands, National Press Director of Youth Climate Strike

Chicago, Il strike held in Federal Plaza

Chicago, Il strike held in Federal Plaza

Cutting Class for Climate; Maddy Fernands Isn't Wasting Any Time

In Kind: Thanks for talking to me today! So you’re already on strike?

Maddy Fernands: Yes. I’m on strike right now at Minnesota Capital and it’s my second consecutive Friday striking. It’s really exciting. We’re leading up to the 15th of March and it will be big.

I: So March 15 is really a culmination of activity. What’s that been like?

M: The movement was started by Greta Thunberg in Sweden. She struck at the Swedish Parliament every Friday starting in August. That’s how she started the organization Fridays for Future. She recognized the fact that the Paris climate agreement and COP24 weren’t successful in accurately addressing the magnitude of climate change, or really addressing it at all. They were just more fluff added to the catastrophic policy failure of inaction. Since she started to strike she has grown into an international superstar for her denouncement of the U.N., so now people all over the world, in almost every country, are striking with her. The weekly strikes happen on Fridays and our big strike will take place on the 15th of March in solidarity with Greta and all the other strikers for climate action.

I: What kind of participation have you been seeing? Thousands of people? Millions?

M: Striking every Friday is hard for a lot of people because they have to miss school. I think some people make that sacrifice because they know that climate action is the necessity. What purpose will education serve if we don’t have a future to use it in? So in terms of the turnout regularly, I’d say that there’s still a lot of people who come out every week. On March 15th, turnout is likely to be into the millions. We are preparing for that event with mass participation in mind because we want it to be one big show, a big demonstration that people want climate action to happen now. I think that the strike on the 15th will be a really great time to show that.

I: Have you been seeing a lot of support from the adults in your life?

M: Yeah. But I think that adults, because they created this climate crisis, have a lack of urgency about climate change. It just hasn’t been the biggest issue of their life. On the other hand, when it comes to us young people, climate change has been here for our whole lives. I don’t remember a time when climate change wasn’t on my mind. From my perspective, it has always been one of the biggest problems facing humanity. I feel like climate change is this whole looming cloud, but that urgency is something that adults do not experience. I think that is why there’s not a lot of action occurring against climate change. That is why we need as many young people as possible to inform that urgency and make sure that is felt. Dianne Feinstein dismissed so many young people by saying that she knew better, that everything she’s already doing is sufficient when it truly is not. It’s hard for a lot of adults who engage the fact that what they’re currently doing is not sufficient.

I: Are you thinking about policy changes right now, leveraging this movement to get adults to change the law?

M: I think one of the main goals of our movement is to change the conversation around climate change. The Green New Deal has done a really good job of moving the conversation from what is supposedly politically possible to what is necessary, because what is necessary should always be at the top of the policy list. A more just, safe, happy, and thriving world should be our priority. I think with this strike we’re demonstrating that climate action is not just politically possible, but that if you don’t support us in this fight against climate change we will vote you out. We as young people can put pressure on politicians. One of our biggest asks right now is the Green New Deal. Our movement supports that resolutions because of what it stands for, not necessarily as it’s currently written. Right now it’s not specific enough to address all the inequities that come with climate change. However, we have a lot of outlines as to what a better policy solution might be. Together, we’re working toward the goal of having an equitable transition to a renewable economy under the IPCC guidelines.

I: Have you had any problems organizing at scale and across international boundaries?

M: This movement has changed my perspective about what organizing means. Before I was involved in the climate strike I was involved in other climate action, and I’m currently a part of Minnesota Can’t Wait, a statewide group that is currently drafting up legislation - not a resolution -  containing actual legal language for a Minnesota Green New Deal. But when it comes to national and international organizing, I honestly have never experienced the amount of interest that the youth climate strike has gotten. People care about the strikes and we’ve gotten picked up by a lot of really major news organizations. A lot of people have taken notice. It’s really powerful on both the national and international scale. This movement has defied the odds and expectations for what is possible for young activists.

I: Do you feel like you owe anything to previous climate movements? 

M: I think that we need to recognize and acknowledge the fact that indigenous folks started and have always been the leaders and proponents of the climate movement. We can’t just whitewash this moment. It’s important to recognize the initial indigenous leadership and respect their leadership in the new movement, our movement. We should also acknowledge that there have been many successful movements, specifically those surrounding pipelines, that have we’re kind of going off of. For example, the fight against the Keystone XL Pipeline and DAPL inspires us to bring that sort of people power to climate advocacy. Additionally, there’s a lot of youth movements that we think of as blueprints. March for our Lives was a very big influence because of how they were able to organize after a travesty and mobilize youth across the country. We want to do a similar thing when it comes to climate action and advocacy. It’s important that the youth is at the forefront of our movement because we feel the urgency of climate action. 

I: Are you doing any partnering, especially to make sure that the movement remains intersectional?

M: We’re partnering with a lot of organizations, including the Sunrise Movement, Greenpeace, and Earth Guardians. There are a bunch of different movements that have different viewpoints on climate change and do different things. We want to work together to make our movement more intersectional, more inclusive, and accessible to a bigger audience. 

I: How are you keeping the movement together financially?

M: We take two different forms of donations currently. There’s an online shop where you can purchase sustainable clothing that has US Youth Climate Strikes branding on it. Part of the proceeds go to our movement. We’re also fundraising currently through GoFundMe and have raised $6,000 so far [note: $10,406 as of publishing]. We’re going for $15,000 because striking is expensive. We’re also trying to get a stage at some of our bigger locations, like DC, NYC, and Miami, for the March 15 strike.

I: Are your parents involved at all?

M: It’s more of a youth movement. Our parents are supporting us in various other ways. For example, the mother of one of the other leaders of the youth climate strikes, Alexandria Villaseñor, is a graduate student at Columbia University. She studies climate, so she helps us a lot by talking about the basic climate science and connecting us to climate change experts. We have a lot of other adults who are on the sidelines, but it’s truly a youth-led movement.

I: How do you deal with climate anxiety? Do you do support people emotionally or count on them to show up prepared for the fight?

M: Climate anxiety is becoming pertinent to our movement. I have personally had very emotional experiences thinking about the problem because there is the potential for a very catastrophic future. It’s very scary in that aspect, but I think we need to remember the fact that we can still fight climate change. Our movement is trying to provide that support within our group by having conversations about our anger, frustration, and sadness when it comes to climate change. As we grow as a movement and develop more organizational structure, that will be a bigger part of what we do. Support is one of the most essential parts of what we want to do. To take action, you first need to not feel hopeless.

I: Does your movement try to talk to politicians who are resistant to climate action? Are you hoping that you’ll be able to vote them out once you reach voting age?

M: The reason that politicians are in opposition to climate action is not because of the will of the people. The majority of Americans believe in taking action on the climate. Politicians’ reasons have to do with the money of fossil fuel organizations and companies. Politicians are so deep in the pockets of fossil fuel corporations that they fail to see the will of the people. I think that is one of the main issues when it comes to legislative action on climate change. To solve that, I think we have to make it politically impossible not to act. If we make the will of the people strong enough, then we can fight the money from fossil fuel donors and we can make sure that politicians will feel the burn if they don't support climate action. I think we’ve seen that already in how all the the major Democratic Senate candidates have supported the Green New Deal. It has become politically bad for them to not do so. I think that is what our goal is: to make it so that climate action is bipartisan, necessary, and understood at the magnitude and scale that scientists describe to us. I think politicians will follow suit if the general public changes its mind and is very much in opposition to not acting. I think that’s already happening. We’re trying to change the mind of the general public by having strikes, by showing that young people are angry about how there’s no progress on climate change currently.

I: What role has social media played in your movement?

M: Social media has actually played one of the major roles in our movement. With young people, it’s really hard to do outreach any other way. Social media is a really great resource and we have some amazing people on our team. For example, on our branding team, we have Feli Charlemagne from Florida. He is amazing at graphic design. People outside the movement are interested in how we are able to be so professional and how we’ve organized so quickly. That’s one reason that it’s almost hard to stay away from our movement. People are looking into it because we’re making it a success. It’s likely that every state will have a strike of some kind on March 15. We’re trying to make sure that all young people have some kind of access to it, whether on social media or because we’ll have it in every single state. I think that young people really appreciate that. They appreciate being heard and I think that a lot of young people are particularly worried about the climate. Climate change belief and desire for action is a much higher priority when young people are polled. They feel that this is a time when they can express their feelings. I personally feel that this movement has given me and many of my peers a platform to show our anger and frustration and try to get something done.

I: Do you feel like you will continue mobilizing, especially as members of your movement become voters?

M: The March 15 strike is not the end of us - it’s just the beginning. There are some past climate movements that lost momentum after their initial big events, and we want to make sure that that is not something that can be said about us. We want to make sure that once we have this event, the movement doesn’t stop and in fact gets even stronger with our momentum. We have some long-term plans too. We’ve been contacted by the U.N to potentially speak at the climate summit in September of 2019. We will also continue to grow our movement, from the national and local scale to the international scale, and collaborate with other movements. We want to make sure that we are heard and seen by the media, by the regular bystander, by everybody.

I: Do you have any specific events coming up after March 15?

M: Yes! In early May there will be another international climate strike, so we’re going to try to get people out for that one as well. There’s a chance that this will be a recreation of the March 15 strike, but we want to give it a twist. When continuing momentum, it’s important to change the strategy to keep the attention of  the public's and the media. This first strike will just be a grassroots-organized strike. For the next one, we might do some sort of demonstration. I know that in New York City, they’ll be doing a die-in. After that, I think we’ll want to do something similar. We want the next strike to culminate our intersectionality and to use symbolism. It’s going to be bigger than ever, more important than ever, more urgent than ever. That’s our goal.

I: What do you see happening that gives you hope?

M: The Green New Deal and the fact that all of these grassroots climate groups are being heard is really powerful to me. The fact that the Green New Deal has become the center of the political landscape is something that’s amazing to me. I was there on Day 1 last November when the Sunrise Movement sat in Nancy Pelosi’s office. I was participating in Minnesota, but I was there at the beginning. They didn’t have momentum at all back then, and now they’ve grown it to an internationally known movement. I think that sort of power is brought to these movements and is given to them by the press. It’s powerful and hopeful because people are paying attention and they want to do something.

Donate to or learn more about the Youth Climate Strike on their website, or follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter