Since mid-December, 13-year-old Alexandria Villaseñor has skipped school every Friday to protest outside the United Nations. Each week she sits on the same Manhattan bench with two cardboard signs. One reads, “School Strike 4 climate” and the other, “COP24 failed Us.” Not even the polar vortex could deter her from striking. When wind-chill temperatures fell below zero, Villaseñor continued her demonstration from the warmth of her sleeping bag.
Now, Villaseñor is one of the leaders of the New York City climate strike—one of more than 1,000 strikes across at least 70 countries that will take place tomorrow. Inspired by Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager who began the #FridaysforFuture in front of the Swedish parliament building last year, children and teens like Villaseñor have started to call on adults to cut fossil-fuel emission in half within the next 10 years. While Villaseñor is often the only climate protester in front of the UN, she’s not alone in her fight. Through social media, Villaseñor has connected with other student activists in Chile, the United Kingdom, Australia, Uganda, and elsewhere. This—as the March 15 strike will make clear—is a global movement.
I met with Villaseñor in a Manhattan coffee shop near Grand Central Station and learned more about the March 15 strikes, her plans for the future, and why politicians should support young climate activists.
Angely Mercado: Why did you start protesting?
Alexandria Villaseñor: I used to live in California, and this past year I was visiting family there when the Paradise Fire broke out. That was very scary for me because I have asthma. Smoke was seeping into my house. People were rolling up wet towels and putting them under doors, and making DIY air filters because all the air filters were sold out. A lot of schools canceled classes. My family had to fly me back to New York early.
Once I got to New York, I realized that’s not normal. Fire season is all year round in California—that’s not normal. Greta [Thunberg] had started this conversation, and I began following her speech at COP24 [the 2018 UN Climate Change Conference in Poland]. Then I saw her call to action. I decided the United Nations is here in New York, and that this is where I should go strike. That’s how I jumped in to defend the climate.
AM: What do you think young people understand about the urgency of climate change that older politicians ignore?
AV: We’re going to be the ones living through this. They’re basically throwing away our future. We don’t have much time to get off of the course that we’re on.
AM: And when you started striking, did you start alone?
AV: I started my climate strikes in front of the UN alone. It took a few weeks to even get a visitor, and it started out being adult protesters with signs. It was at around week 10 when I got my first group of student protesters.
AM: Had you met those students before?
AV: They found me through social media. Greta put a lot of strikers on her [Instagram] story, they found me and decided to come join me.
AM: Of all the ways to build awareness about climate change, why did you pick striking from school?
AV: I decided that direct action and civil disobedience to put pressure on world leaders was the most effective way to take action. It’s already being effective in places like Germany, where they got a zero coal law by 2038 put in place. That was because of student strikers.
AM: What do you want March 15 to accomplish?
AV: Never in the history of the world has there been a global day of climate action with as many countries for the same cause. I hope there are policies and laws put in place that will ensure we get down to where we lower emissions by 50 percent by 2030 to stay in line with the IPCC report.
AM: There are adults who believe the students are being naive; what would your message to them be?
AV: It’s important to take action now, because we don’t have time left. By the time the youth are in positions of power, it’ll be too late to reverse climate change. We have to force politicians to start acting on climate change. Why go to school if we won’t have a future? Why go to school if we’re going to be too busy running from the next hurricane or fire? We’ll be migrating to places where we can actually live.
We have to take action now, and it has to be drastic change. There are things you can do for yourself, but there comes a point when things have to happen on a governmental level—70 percent of emissions come from 100 companies all around the world.
AM: Do you foresee being a climate advocate for the rest of your life?
AV: I hope that we find solutions to avert the climate crisis, so I don’t have to do this all my life. In the future, when hopefully climate change is reversed or delayed, I could see myself working as someone at the United Nations, because I would love to be an envoy to do diplomatic and peacemaking work. I’m always going to be in some sort of justice area in my life.