One Friday this past March, hundreds of thousands of students walked out of school to protest the continuing inaction of governments around the world on climate change. The walkouts were worldwide, spanning from India and Pakistan to China, Europe, and the US, and coordinate almost exclusively by social media.
The mass protest was just the latest example of how youth are taking the fight over the planet’s future into their own hands – and exerting pressure on governments to act on climate change in ways other than voting.
Youth Have the Most to Lose
Gen Z – kids who today are in high school or younger – recognize that they have the most to lose if reducing carbon emissions is kicked down the road. Climate change is expected to shrink the US economy by as much as 10 percent by 2100 – meaning that many kids born to this generation will suffer dwindling standards of living compared to their parents.
Moreover, in many areas of the world, children born today could be forced to abandon their homelands thanks to extreme drought, rising sea level, and flooding. Within the next 30 years alone, the world could see roughly 200 million people uprooted by climate change.
In many ways, children also have largest uphill battle when it comes to bringing their voices to bear on the climate debate. In most democratic countries, children can’t exert political influence through the right to vote. The result, captured in the interaction between Senator Diane Feinstein and high schoolers who challenged her environmental record, is that politicians responsible for implementing emissions reduction measures don’t face immediate consequences from ignoring Gen Z’s calls for action. Equally debilitating, most high schoolers lack the organized funding networks that professional activists and nonprofits are able to build up to influence the climate discussion.
Leveraging Power Without a Vote
In many ways, these limitations make the power and scale of the grassroots climate movement all the more surprising. High schoolers have taken advantage of social media – a medium where age is largely irrelevant to broadcasting power – to create a global network of teens willing to fight for climate action. The March school walkouts were almost entirely coordinated over social media, demonstrating the potential reach and influence of this youth network.
The very existence of a youth network centered around fighting governments on climate change has inspired further action. In the US, for example, 21 children have sued the United United States government for failing to take preventative measures against climate change – and 6,000 people signed on to support the plaintiffs.
In addition, the network represents a risk to major corporations in the form of mass boycotts. In France, more than 23,000 students signed a pledge not to work for companies that heavily pollute the environment. While there have been few climate change-based boycotts as of yet, it is likely that signs of purchasing pressure by the grassroots youth movement will encourage corporations to take further steps towards reducing their carbon footprints.
Perhaps most important, the global youth network’s efforts have managed to keep climate change prominent in the news. Increased media coverage of climate change is arguably part of the reason that environmental sustainability is now fiercely debated in national politics in the US. Keeping the pressure up on the climate fight may not turn into new legislation immediately, but political scientists expect that it could help set the agenda for politicians going forward.
The Future of the Climate Fight
The involvement of so many young people in the fight over climate change is also heartening for the planet’s prospects. While these kids lack political power at the moment, national political networks are taking note of the need to address environmental challenges to capture their support as they come of age in the next few years. In the US in particular, the Democratic party is scrambling to cater to younger climate-focused voters in the 2020 presidential election – as evidenced by the fact that four presidential candidates signed on to the Green New Deal as co-sponsors.
It may be, then, that the mounting pressure by the youth climate movement is timed perfectly. By putting climate on the political and corporate agenda now through coordinated protests and media campaigns, there may well be concrete climate legislation to debate by the time these kids are old enough to vote.
Image Credit: Mark Dixon Flickr CC