• Feature

How Generation Z is leading the climate movement

From the rise of organizations like Zero Hour to Greta Thunberg's Fridays For Future, the youth climate movement is only just getting started.
Young climate activists marched in New York City as part of the Global Climate Strike on September 20, 2019. (Survival Media Agency/Shadia Payne Wood)

For the first decade and a half of her life, Jamie Margolin was like any other U.S. teen living in the suburbs. She went to school, made friends and got involved in sports. Yet all the while, beneath the surface, lurked the fear of a looming climate catastrophe — one that she felt powerless to stop.

For a while, Margolin was able to keep this fear at bay. Her focus on school and athletics certainly helped. Then came election night 2016, when the protective wall she had built around herself finally began to crumble.

At age 14, Margolin’s political experience was, at that point, limited to just some phone banking for the Clinton campaign. But rather than give in to despair over the election result, she decided it was time to attack head-on the problem that scared her most: climate change.

Soon Margolin found herself volunteering for Plant for the Planet, a youth-based climate advocacy group, which she traveled with to the State Capitol in Olympia to lobby for a climate bill. She testified at hearings, spoke at protests and organized rallies. Still, she dreamed of taking even more powerful actions.

Jamie Margolin speaking to a crowd of youth climate activists. (Facebook/Zero Hour)

Things came to a head in 2017, as extreme weather events unfolded at home and around the globe. That summer, for the first time in her life, smoke from nearby wildfires palled Seattle’s skies.

“I saw the smoke, then watched Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico,” Margolin said. “I decided I needed to take my activism to the next level.”

She wrote an Instagram post that included this message: “If we have a #YouthMarchonWashington where young people flood the streets and demand climate solutions … we can change the game in the #climatecrisis.”

Responses poured in from friends and from students around the country. Working over email and social media they launched a new youth-led organization called Zero Hour. For maybe the first time, Margolin began feeling she could have the kind of impact she’d dreamed about.

Inspiring a movement

Like Margolin, Andrea Manning grew up hearing about climate change. However, for years she thought the problem seemed remote. When it came up in school the focus was always on ice caps and polar bears. As an African American high schooler living near Atlanta, Georgia, these concerns felt far from Manning’s lived reality.

Then, during her senior year of high school in 2018, a friend asked Manning to help organize a climate march as part of Zero Hour’s first major day of action. Had it been about polar bears, she likely would have passed on the invitation. But when she realized the organization put a strong emphasis on marginalized people, she became intrigued.

Andrea Manning is now a student at the University of Georgia and part of the Zero Hour executive team. (Zero Hour)

“I saw how climate change affects real communities and racial justice,” Manning said. “Zero Hour’s message is about the importance of a livable future, but also people on the frontline being affected by fossil fuel development today.”

Manning was quickly drawn into Zero Hour’s remotely coordinated teenage network, becoming an organizer. The team’s first project was a nationwide day of action that summer on July 21, 2018, which included a march in Washington, D.C. and satellite actions around the country. Manning and her friends pulled off an Atlanta rally that drew 40 people. Small as this first local action may have been, the phenomenon of high schoolers protesting climate change piqued the community’s interest and garnered coverage from news media like the Georgia State Signal.

Having been inspired by Zero Hour, Thunberg in turn served as an inspiration for many young U.S. climate activists.

Meanwhile, young people around the world were drawing inspiration from Zero Hour — most notably Greta Thunberg, then a 15-year-old high school student in Sweden.

Thunberg read about Zero Hour’s day of action online. Then, a month later, she began her Fridays For Future school strike campaign, protesting outside Sweden’s parliament every week. The strike movement spread across Europe and the world, becoming a key part of today’s wave of youth climate activism.

Patience is rewarded

Greta Thunberg and Jamie Margolin on a visit to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. in September. (Twitter/Jamie Margolin)

Because so much of the youth climate movement is organized online, events in Seattle, Stockholm, or almost anywhere can have a near instant ripple effect across the globe. Having been inspired by Zero Hour, Thunberg in turn served as an inspiration for many young U.S. climate activists — including, coincidentally, those in the city where Zero Hour got its start.

On Dec. 14, 2018, 12-year-old Ian Price became one of the first students to launch a school strike in the United States. Price had watched Greta Thunberg’s speeches on YouTube, and he decided to start a strike of his own outside Seattle City Hall.

“I’m here because decision-makers like the ones in that building, who have power to make real changes, need to act,” Price said.

By coincidence, on the same Friday Price began his strike, 14-year-old Alexandria Villaseñor of New York City started one of her own outside the U.N. headquarters. Over the next few months, other strike actions started popping up around the country. In many cases, activists like Price and Villaseñor kept lonely vigils for weeks before anyone else joined. But their patience was eventually rewarded.

Fourteen-year-old Zoe Schurman, who was also motivated by Thunberg, began coming to the Seattle strikes a couple months after Price launched them. She had been concerned about climate change for years but wasn’t sure how young people like her could make an impact.

“It was inspiring to see youth my age making waves,” Schurman said. “If older generations aren’t going to be responsible, then in times of crisis youth have to step up and be the adults.”

Seattle climate strikers at a Friday action in November. (WNV/Nick Engelfried)

Now, around 30-50 students and supporters join the Seattle strike every Friday. Like in many other cities, a small core group strikes every week with much larger numbers on occasional days of mass action. One such day was Sept. 20, the kickoff to a week of action when more than 7 million people around the world participated in a Global Climate Strike, timed to coincide with a special U.N. climate summit in New York.

In Seattle, 10,000 people joined a march with strikers like Price and Schurman. Meanwhile, in Atlanta — a more challenging organizing environment because of the region’s conservative politics — a strike organized by Manning and others drew almost 400 participants, 10 times the size of their first Zero Hour action.

While crowd size varied from city to city, the Global Climate Strike included more than 5,000 events spread across 163 countries. This meant that the movement — which began with only a scattering of teenagers — had just led to the planet’s largest-ever demonstration in support of climate action.

Life as a youth organizer

Zero Hour Advocacy Director Ethan Wright was one of about 10,000 people rallying outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. that day in September. “We were chanting so loud, I could hear our words echo off the U.S. Capitol building,” he said. “Elected officials walked out onto the balcony to see what was going on.”

Embed from Getty Images

No sooner was the rally over than Wright, a key player in the D.C. action, was off to his next activist responsibility, hopping on a train to New York with fellow Zero Hour organizer Nadia Nazar. Over the weekend they — along with Margolin and other young activists — participated in a special youth summit ahead of the main U.N. event that began Monday. Sunday evening Wright caught a plane back to the D.C. area, just in time for another week of school at George Mason University, where he is a freshman.

“That’s being a youth organizer,” Wright said with a laugh. “We do all this activism, then I’m like, I have to go home and do my Spanish homework.”

‘We are upholding a mass epidemic of genocide, and I don’t want to be part of that.’

As a white male college student, Wright freely acknowledges he came to climate activism from a place of privilege not shared by many Zero Hour leaders. He also sees the need for those with less privilege to lead the way. “I love how intersectional and women-of-color-based Zero Hour is, and also how centered it is on frontline youth and indigenous peoples. It’s about making real, tangible change — and uplifting the right people as well.”

This intersection between climate justice and human rights concerns has motivated many young activists. Recently, it has even led some to risk arrest.

Pushing the boundaries

Hours before sunrise on Nov. 5, 19-year-old Lydia Stolt chained herself to a ladder on a landing dock at the Port of Vancouver on the Columbia River. Her aim was to prevent a vessel carrying Canada-bound oil pipeline parts from landing. Along with several other activists from Portland Rising Tide and Mosquito Fleet, Stolt was acting in solidarity with indigenous groups fighting projects like the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline.

Climate activists in Washington locked themselves to a landing dock in the Port of Vancouver to block a shipment of oil pipeline parts. (Twitter/Portland Rising Tide)

“I couldn’t sit by and say I did nothing,” said Stolt, who became a climate activist after spending summers working in Alaska where she saw the retreat of glaciers and impacts on nearby small villages. While emphasizing that she does not speak for indigenous people, Stolt nevertheless said she was motivated to act after meeting Alaska tribal members and making the connection between their fight for survival and those of other indigenous groups opposing fossil fuel pipelines. “We are upholding a mass epidemic of genocide, and I don’t want to be part of that,” she said.

Stolt wasn’t the only student taking their activism to a new level that day. Twenty-two-year-old Kiran Oommen was also chained to the pier, partly in hopes that it would inspire more young people to take similar actions. “Honestly, I’d like to see more youth risking arrest and pushing the boundaries,” Oommen said. “At some point we need to escalate.”

Oommen embodies an “all of the above” approach to nonviolent activism. At age 17, they joined 20 other youth plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States, a lawsuit alleging that by not acting on climate change, the U.S. government has failed to protect young people’s rights to life and liberty. Oommen, who is studying social movement theory in college, says legal actions, legislative work and nonviolent direct action are all necessary. And the growth in youth climate organizing over the last few years has Oommen feeling particularly encouraged.

According to the Harvard Political Opinion Project, over 70 percent of Generation Z see climate change as a problem, with two thirds believing it is “a crisis and demands urgent action.”

“When I got into climate activism as a high school senior, everyone else was at least five years older than me,” Oommen said. “It just wasn’t something most kids were interested in, but today they are. Now there’s a whole youth movement.”

That movement is getting thousands of people into the streets through campaigns like the climate strikes, and confronting fossil fuel development directly through action. It’s also taking the push for climate action to the highest levels of international government.

Reaching the halls of power

On Dec. 10, 16-year-old Isabella Fallahi was trying to stage a peaceful protest at a panel where a Shell Oil executive was speaking. Fallahi was at COP25, the latest round of international climate negotiations, in Madrid. She traveled there from her home in Indianapolis, where pollution from coal-burning plants — which contributed to her developing asthma — motivated her to become a climate organizer.

Isabella Fallahi (right) raises a hand with an eye drawn on it to symbolize that “we (the world) are watching,” while a Shell official speaks at COP25. (Twitter/Neil LaChapelle)

Fallahi and other young activists were planning a silent, peaceful protest against the involvement of polluters like Shell in COP25. However, security guards told them this wasn’t allowed. “They essentially said they would kick us out if we did that,” she said.

Out of respect for the U.N. process, Fallahi and the other youth decided not to hold the protest. But the incident seemed emblematic of how polluters held influence at COP25.

“Nothing could get done because of major polluters like Shell,” Fallahi said. “It’s one thing if they’re participating, but they’re being invited onto panels and into closed-door discussions.” She believes it is largely because of this that COP25 failed to make significant progress on international plans to curb emissions.

Things at COP25 came to a head on Dec. 11, when hundreds of activists led by indigenous youth occupied the main plenary room to demand rich countries pay for damage caused by climate change. A line of security officers forced them out and stripped many activists of the badges that allowed them to enter the conference. International climate group 350.org called it “a crackdown with little precedent at the annual U.N. climate talks.”

Despite the disappointment of COP25, many young activists came away with fresh ideas about how to escalate public pressure on officials. Fallahi is now part of one such effort: a new youth-led campaign to ban polluters from COP26 in 2020. “We don’t want any polluters invited to COP26. It’s time to kick them out.” The youth will also lobby U.N. and national government officials in the lead-up to the talks.

Meanwhile, Zero Hour is training youth ambassadors to give presentations in their communities about the Green New Deal. “We’re helping people understand what the Green New Deal really means and the importance of voting for candidates who support it,” said Andrea Manning, who is working on the project.

Another international day of climate strikes is coming up on the 50th Earth Day in April — one more sign that the youth movement shows no indication of slowing down. This should be no surprise, since according to the Harvard Political Opinion Project over 70 percent of Generation Z see climate change as a problem, with two thirds believing it is “a crisis and demands urgent action.”

“Climate change is connected to everything,” Fallahi said. She wants all young people to realize the importance of getting into the streets, lobbying and — for those who are old enough — voting in the 2020 election. “It’s connected to mass migration, health, and every aspect of society you can possibly think of. There’s no other way to put it.”

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