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Millions of people filled the streets in cities around the world in a massive collection of protests aimed at forcing political leaders to take drastic steps to avert the urgent risks of climate change. While climate activism has been around for years, the effort has recently been reshaped and reinvigorated by an infusion of vocal young people who have quickly become the face of the movement.
The most prominent of these young activists is Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old from Sweden whose one-person strikes on Stockholm inspired last week’s worldwide demonstrations. Last week, she chided U.S. lawmakers to “listen to the scientists” warning about climate change. On Monday, she gave an emotional speech at the United Nations climate summit where she tore into world leaders for their inaction. “How dare you continue to look away and come here saying you are doing enough,” she said.
Why there’s debate:
The youth climate movement, with Thunberg as its de facto figurehead, has inspired people of all ages who believe their unapologetic — at times apocalyptic — rhetoric may be able to force change where other environmental activists have come up short.
Young people present a compelling argument, some argue, since they’ll be living with the consequences of climate change long after older generations are gone. They also represent a large demographic that is mostly in agreement on the issue and will soon become a significant voting bloc.
Others are less convinced. There are those who believe that major action on climate change is not needed. But there are reservations even among those who are sympathetic to the youth movement’s cause.
Turning passion into action, some argue, may prove difficult when young activists run up against the entrenched political and corporate forces that have stymied environmental action for decades. Others accuse the youth movement of lacking practical solutions to implement their demands and for using an aggressive tone that may alienate members of older generations.
Thunberg and 15 other youth activists have filed a complaint with the U.N. accusing five countries of violating their human rights by not taking action on climate change. If their case succeeds, it could establish new a new precedent for how the international community may push back against nations that are seen as not doing their share to protect the planet.
Young people are inspiring older generations that have become jaded.
“My hope stems largely from the recent, unprecedented groundswell of youth activism that has raised public consciousness to new levels and is pushing political leaders to develop bold and ambitious ideas to confront this challenge.” — Former Vice President Al Gore, Time
They have fundamentally changed the conversation on climate action.
“Something has changed, thanks to you and to the young people who have brought new urgency and vision to the climate movement. Many people have become concerned and awake for the first time, and the conversation we need to have is opening up.” — Rebecca Solnit, The Guardian
New possibilities have arisen thanks to young activists.
“The youth climate activism movement has over the past year exploded prior notions of what’s possible in the realm of climate politics.” — Brian Kahn, Gizmodo
Their movement is powerful enough to swing elections.
“Sure, a protest isn’t the same as policy, but so much of politics is narrative power. Simple messages resonate. They can gain enough momentum to put people in office.” — Heather Hansman, Outside
Greta Thunberg is already the world’s most recognizable environmentalist.
“Greta [Thunberg] has had an impact more than all the other environmentalists in the world put together. Just a child, the innocence of her message, she cuts through it all.”
— Environmentalist David Suzuki to CBC
Their aggressive approach makes complacency a more difficult option.
“As you grow older — I’m 37 — you start to numb to some of the violation. And I don’t want to be numb. I want to stay, I think, in that harder and braver space, that brokenhearted place. And I’m really feeling inspired and informed by the lens that’s being used by youth leadership.” — Sarah Myhre, Slate
They have wisely included other social justice issues in their platform.
“Demands for a livable wage, like demands for a habitable planet, are unlikely to be granted by a class of elites for whom the status quo is working out pretty well. All the more reason, then, that these demands be made forcefully by a unified coalition of young people, workers, and others who have a stake in changing the future.”
— Morgan Baskin, Vice
Youth activists highlight the emptiness of arguments against environmentalism.
“Just by doing her thing, Thunberg has exposed the way climate-change deniers hide behind their unearned privileges to assert themselves as authorities on a topic where they are literally denying basic scientific facts.” — Amanda Marcotte, Salon
It may be too late by the time young people replace older voters.
“...there’s no time to get rid of all the old people or build a whole new system. The movement has got to throw itself against this system, which is built not to move. It must become unstoppable.” — Dave Roberts, Vox
Politicians may prove incapable of acting at the scale young activists demand.
“If anything, the Monday summit meeting, coming on the heels of huge youth protests worldwide, showed the vast distance between the urgency of climate action and the limits of diplomacy.” — Somini Sengupta, New York Times
Criticism alone can’t fix things.
“So long as we favor exhortation to act in the absence of practical actions that can meet real-world tests of policy and politics, climate change will continue to be a potent political symbol, but with little connection to actual decarbonization of the global economy.” — Roger Pielke, Forbes
Young people alone won’t be able to produce change.
“It is our future that is at stake. But it is not only young people’s job to preserve the world we will — hopefully — grow old in; it is equally the job of those generations who put it at risk.” — Johanna Roth, Tennessean
Antagonizing older generations will prevent them from joining the cause.
“Many older people resent being blamed for the climate crisis. Even if you agree that we should take our share of responsibility, what matters most now is clearing up the mess, not squabbling over who caused it.” — Julian Baggini, The Guardian
World leaders will ignore them.
“Greta is right about one thing. The chances are virtually nil that the governments of the world will do as she asks.” — Niall Ferguson, Boston Globe
Protests are meaningless without substantive action.
“School strikes and colorful placards alone will not undo global warming.” — Felix Steiner, Deutsche Welle
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images