Xiuhtezcatl Martinez was sitting in his living room in Boulder, Colorado, watching the environmental documentary The 11th Hour, when it hit him for the first time. “I kind of began to grasp the idea that human beings are responsible for creating a crisis that threatens not just nature but humanity — everything about our civilization.” He was six years old. Martinez became one of 21 child plaintiffs suing the U.S. government for failing to protect them from climate change. He was 15 when they brought the suit. He turns 19 in May. It still has not seen the inside of a courtroom.
As scientists make increasingly dire predictions about the future habitability of the planet, climate activists are being radicalized at younger and younger ages. Many can’t vote, but they are making their voices heard: striking from school, filing lawsuits, staging sit-ins on Capitol Hill. On March 15th, inspired by teen Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, more than a million students poured into streets around the world to protest adults’ abject failure to curb carbon emissions.
“We’re panicking. We feel the fear,” says Jamie Margolin, 17, who founded the climate movement Zero Hour. “We feel the impending societal disaster. But our leaders are acting like total children.” The only politicians she has patience for are ones demanding system-overhauling programs like the Green New Deal, championed by millennial Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who calls the climate fight “the civil-rights movement of our generation.”
“Young people have been leading this movement for a long time,” says veteran activist Bill McKibben. “The good news is, no one seems to give it up as they age. Today’s climate strikers are tomorrow’s senators and mayors.” Margolin agrees. “I see myself as a congresswoman or even president,” she says. “I want to be the leader that I wish I had.”
Rolling Stone talked with several of the emerging young leaders of the climate movement about how they got involved and what needs to be done.
Alexandria Villaseñor (pictured above)
Alexandria Villaseñor has protested outside the United Nations headquarters in New York every Friday since December. She joined the movement after being in Davis, California, while wildfires ravaged the state. “People were collapsing in downtown Davis from smoke inhalation,” Villaseñor says. “I have asthma — that was a scary situation for me.” Unfortunately, her protest caught the attention of the alt-right platform Breitbart, where readers left threatening comments. “It was the first time that I felt terrified about what my daughter was doing,” says her mom, Kristin Hogue. But Villaseñor didn’t back down. She’s starting a nonprofit, Earth Uprising, to organize for direct action and design a school curriculum, written by scientists, about climate change — with a slight twist: students will be distributing it to teachers rather than vice-versa. And she still protests. “I was very insistent with my parents,” she says. “They kind of had to oblige my demands.”
Group affiliation Zero Hour
“No one tells kids how to be politically involved,” says Jamie Margolin, so she used what she knew: Instagram. A single post musing about the possibility of holding a youth march in Washington, D.C., resulted in Zero Hour, a network of activists she now co-leads with three others that organized a protest on the Washington Mall and in 25 other cities last summer. Today, Zero Hour’s focus is on amplifying the voices of young people of color, who she says are most directly affected by climate change. “When I turn on CNN, if there’s someone talking climate, it’s Jay Inslee, Al Gore, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and there’s nothing wrong with them,” she says, “but for any issue, the people who are most affected by it need to be the ones speaking up.”
U.S. Youth Climate Strike
Haven Coleman, a co-executive director of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, cut her teeth protesting the Martin Drake coal power plant in Colorado Springs before confronting her senator Cory Gardner about his support from fossil-fuel companies. But she credits her fifth-grade social-studies class, and a lesson about deforestation, with opening her eyes to climate change. “I was like, ‘OK, I gotta do something now.’ It’s going to be affecting me my whole life. It’s affecting every person I know.”
Hometown Boulder, Colorado
Group affiliation Earth Guardians
“I’ve been protesting since before I could walk,” Xiuhtezcatl Martinez says. And he’s not exaggerating. He gave his first public speech — imploring parents to teach their kids how sacred the Earth is — at age six. At 14 he joined a lawsuit testing a legal theory that the government was impinging on children’s rights by failing to curb carbon emissions. And by 15 he was addressing the U.N. and sat on President Obama’s Youth Council. “I was madly empowered to engage in policy in a way people wouldn’t expect,” says Martinez, youth director of a nonprofit founded by his mother, Earth Guardians. “That allowed me to engage in a conversation much bigger than myself. It’s been something that has given me a lot of hope.”
U.S. Youth Climate Strike
For Isra Hirsi, a leader of the U.S. climate strikes in March, it all started when she joined her high school’s environmental club. Soon she was lobbying her city council and pushing Minneapolis to commit to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030. “They were trying to shoot for 2050, and we kept going back and forth, because it shouldn’t be whether it’s politically possible, but what is necessary,” she says. As for any similarities between herself and her activist mother, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar? “It kind of is just a random coincidence that I do what I do and she does what she does.”