Beware the Ides of March, all you climate wreckers out there. The Climate Kids are coming, in massive and growing numbers, and they are not in the mood to negotiate. They know that you—whether you’re a fossil-fuel executive, a politician who takes fossil-fuel money, or a Fox News hack who recycles fossil-fuel lies—have put their future in grave danger, and they are rising up to take it back.
On March 15, tens of thousands of high-school and middle-school students in more than 30 countries plan to skip school to demand that politicians treat the global climate crisis as the emergency it is. Shakespeare made the Ides of March famous with his soothsayer’s warning in Julius Caesar, but ancient Romans actually saw it as a day for settling debts. What bigger debt is there than the theft of a livable future? At the March 15 School Strike 4 Climate, young people will call in that debt and, in the United States at least, demand real solutions in the form of the Green New Deal championed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
If you don’t know who Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg is yet, you can think of her as Ocasio-Cortez’s international climate-change counterpart. Like the rock-star progressive representative from New York, Thunberg is a charismatic young woman whose social-media savvy, moral clarity, and undaunted truth-telling have inspired throngs of admirers to take to the streets for a better world and call out the politicians, propagandists, and CEOs who are standing in the way.
Just as the 29-year-old Ocasio-Cortez torched the right-wing trolls who laughably derided her as “stupid” after she introduced, with Senator Ed Markey, the congressional resolution to create a Green New Deal, so Thunberg, 16, has gained prominence partly from her blistering callouts of global elites. After riding the train for 32 hours to Davos, Switzerland, in January—for the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering to which many billionaires and heads of state arrive in private jets—Thunberg told a panel (which included Gary Cohn, President Trump’s former chief economic adviser) that “some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money.” A pause, and then a final thrust of the knife: “I think many of you here today belong to that group of people.”
When adults like British Prime Minister Theresa May scolded the strikers for skipping classes, Thunberg replied by urging them to join the protest on March 15—in effect, calling for a general strike for climate action. “If you think that we should be in school instead,” Thunberg said, “then we suggest that you take our place in the streets, striking from your work. Or, better yet, join us, so we can speed up the process.” In Australia, labor unions representing teachers, firefighters, and health workers were a step ahead of Thunberg, declaring in early February that they would support the climate strikes. The National Union of Workers said of the students, “They are inspiring leaders, and we support them in making our political leaders listen.” In the United States, the AFL-CIO didn’t respond to The Nation’s request for comment.
The grassroots movements now taking charge of the climate fight consist overwhelmingly of teenagers and twentysomethings—people like Ocasio-Cortez and Thunberg. These young fighters are decidedly not your parents’ environmentalists: supplicant, “realistic,” and all too accepting of failure. They are angry about the increasingly dire future that awaits them and clear-eyed about who’s to blame and how to fix it.
Inspired by the high-school students in Parkland, Florida, who began protesting gun violence after 14 of their fellow classmates and three school staffers were killed on February 14, 2018, Thunberg decided last August to protest the Swedish government’s lackluster response to the climate crisis. With her round, serious face and light-brown hair braided into pigtails, she cut a quixotic figure sitting outside the Swedish Parliament with a handmade sign that said: “School Strike for Climate.” Then a BBC reporter filed a story, which was shared on social media, and before long students as far away as Australia were striking, too. Now the inspiration has come full circle: David Hogg of the Parkland students’ March for Our Lives movement recently asked his 941,000 Twitter followers: “So when are we going to start walking out against climate change in the US? We live on planet Earth too.”
In New York City, 13-year-old Alexandria Villasenor decided last December to emulate Thunberg’s example: Every Friday, she skipped her classes to occupy a bench outside the United Nations headquarters with a sign proclaiming “School Strike 4 Climate.” Now she’s among the leading organizers of the March 15 strikes planned in the United States. “We are calling it the ‘School Shutdown Strike for Climate’ because our goal is to get so many students striking that we shut down the schools for a day!” Villasenor told The Nation. She has subsequently been covered by a host of news outlets, including CBS News and The Washington Post in a front page-story, where, like Thunberg, Villasenor skewered the absurdity of telling young people to prioritize homework over climate action. “If I don’t have a future, why go to school?” she asked. “Why go to school if we’re going to be too focused on running from disasters?”
The biggest student strikes thus far appear to have been in Australia and Europe, with journalists reporting that 32,000 students and supporters filled the streets of Brussels on January 24. Additional thousands rallied in Berlin, Munich, and smaller cities across Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium. In Dublin, striking students displayed an impressive grasp of climate science—particularly the need to stop releasing additional CO2 into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuel—chanting, “No more coal, no more oil, keep the carbon in the soil.” Thunberg has stated in an interview with The Guardian that there have been student strikes for climate on every continent except Antarctica—70,000 strikers total by the third week of January. Meanwhile, she has continued to blast away at the complacency of too many so-called grown-ups. “Adults keep saying, ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope,’” Thunberg said at Davos. “But I don’t want your hope…. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire. Because it is.”
Two groups that have supported Villasenor’s strikes at the UN—the Sunrise Movement and the Extinction Rebellion—are representative of the more militant stance that younger activists have brought to the climate movement. Most big environmental groups have traditionally been resolutely nonpartisan, focused on inside-the-Beltway policy fights and loath to explicitly call out corporate polluters, though Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth are exceptions. Now, an array of youth-dominated grassroots groups are going directly after the climate-wrecking industry and the politicians it bankrolls.
And they aren’t sparing their supposed allies. Last November, Sunrise activists welcomed the incoming Democratic majority in the US House of Representatives with protest signs demanding that Democrats “Step Up or Step Aside.” Next, they occupied the office of incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to demand her support for a Green New Deal. The sit-in went viral after Ocasio-Cortez, likewise rejecting the wait-your-turn etiquette expected of freshmen members, joined the protesters. The mainstream media picked up the story, and voilà: The Green New Deal was on its way. For the first time, the US political class was discussing a response to the climate crisis commensurate with the scope and urgency of the problem.
Sunrise activists likewise got in Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s face—or tried to, at least—after he refused to meet with them to discuss his plan to sabotage the Green New Deal with a rushed vote on Capitol Hill. After allegedly being turned away from McConnell’s office in Louisville, Kentucky, on February 19, 17-year-old Destine Grigsby posted a video in which she blasted the man who has arguably been the greatest enabler of the Trump agenda: “[W]e’re gonna demand that [Mitch McConnell] look us in the eyes and he tell us that the $1.9 million he’s gotten [in campaign contributions] from the fossil-fuel CEOs is more important than my future,” Grigsby declared. On February 25, 42 Sunrise activists were arrested after demanding to see McConnell during a sit-in at his office on Capitol Hill.
But no encounter was more revealing than a meeting between Senator Dianne Feinstein and activists from groups including the Sunrise Movement, Youth vs. Apocalypse, and Bay Area Earth Guardians, which attracted mainstream media coverage after the California Democrat corrected the assembled kids—“You didn’t vote for me”—and insisted that she wouldn’t endorse the Green New Deal because it couldn’t pass Congress. Feinstein invoked her 30 years of experience on Capitol Hill, insisting that “I know what I’m doing” and “Maybe people should listen.” Her mini-lecture summed up the problem perfectly: Like virtually everyone in the political/media class in DC, Feinstein doesn’t grasp that climate change has become an emergency precisely because she and the rest of the status quo have done so little over the last 30 years—and that humanity’s survival now requires nothing less than the transformative mobilization embodied by a Green New Deal.
As Ocasio-Cortez tweeted two days later: “Climate delayers aren’t much better than climate deniers. With either one, if they get their way, we’re toast.”
“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” Frederick Douglass observed during the fight against slavery. “It never did and it never will.” Their understanding of this axiom of social change is what makes Ocasio-Cortez, Thunberg, Villasenor, and all the Climate Kids so effective and exciting. They grasp what many of their elders apparently never learned: The climate struggle is not about having the best science, the smartest arguments, or the most bipartisan talking points. It is about power—specifically, the power that ExxonMobil and the rest of the fossil-fuel industry wield over governments and economies the world over, and their willingness to use that power to enforce a business model guaranteed to fry the planet. With the moral urgency of youth and the self-preservation instinct of all living things, the Climate Kids recognize that either the industry goes or they do. And they are not giving up without a fight.
Ed’s note: An earlier version of this article identified the activists who met with Senator Feinstein as members of the Sunrise Movement. They also include members of Youth vs. Apocalypse, and Bay Area Earth Guardians.