If you don’t know who Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg is, you can think of her as an international climate-change counterpart to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Like the rock-star congresswoman from New York, Thunberg is a charismatic young woman whose social-media savvy, moral clarity, and fearless speaking truth to power have inspired throngs of admirers to take to the streets for a better world and call out the politicians and CEOs who are standing in the way.
Ocasio-Cortez, 29, is known for championing the #GreenNewDeal and schooling right-wing haters on Twitter. Thunberg, 16, is known for launching the #SchoolStrike4Climate movement—tens of thousands of high-school students worldwide are skipping school on Fridays until their governments treat the climate crisis as an emergency—and for torching billionaires and heads of state at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week.
Demolishing the convenient notion that we are all to blame for climate change, Thunberg told a Davos panel that included president Trump’s former chief economics adviser Gary Cohn, “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.” She paused before a final thrust of the knife: “I think many of you here today belong to that group of people.”
Call them the Climate Kids. Like Ocasio-Cortez and Thunberg themselves, the grassroots activist movements they have roused are comprised almost exclusively of teenagers and twentysomethings. These are not your father’s environmentalists: supplicant, “realistic,” and accepting of failure. These young people are angry about the increasingly dire climate future awaiting them and clear-eyed about who’s to blame and how to fix it. And they seem to have the bad guys worried.
Greta Thunberg was all of 15 years old when she began her solo weekly protests outside the Swedish Parliament last August. With her round, serious face and light brown hair braided into pigtails, the teenager cut a quixotic figure as she held a handmade sign that said, in Swedish, “School Strike for Climate.” But a BBC reporter filed a story, the story got shared on social media, and before long students as far away as Australia were striking too.
Like the United States, Australia is a country that has long produced massive amounts of fossil fuels and that has been getting hammered by the impacts of burning those fossil fuels; last week, Australia registered the highest seaside temperature ever recorded in the Southern hemisphere: 121 degrees Fahrenheit, in Port Augusta. When prime minister Scott Morrison reprimanded the student strikers for “participat[ing] in things that can be dealt with out of school,” high-school student Imogen Viner gave voice to the generational divide. “Without activism,” Ms. Viner told Australian television, “there’s no point in going to school, because there won’t be a future we want to live in.”
The biggest student strikes for climate so far appear to be taking place in Europe, with journalists reporting that 32,000 students and supporters filled the streets of Brussels last Friday demanding climate action. 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 dial back emissions levels by extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it underground—by chanting, “No more coal, no more oil, keep the carbon in the soil.”
Thunberg claimed on her Twitter feed that there have been student strikes for climate on every continent except Antarctica—70,000 strikers in total last week. Meanwhile, the Swedish teenager continued to blast the elites in Davos, in flawless English. “Adults keep saying, ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope,’” she said. “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.”
Inspired by Thunberg, 13-year-old Alexandria Villasenor in New York City hopes young people will join her climate strike at the United Nations on Friday, March 15. “We are calling it the #SchoolShutdown Strike 4 Climate, because our goal is to get so many students striking that we shut down the schools for a day!” Villasenor told The Nation. After reading about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 1.5 C report in October—and seeing how governments nevertheless took little action at the COP 24 UN meeting in Poland in December—Villasenor began her own school strike outside the UN. Some of her friends, she says, “don’t understand what climate change is, and if they do, they don’t think it’s as big of a problem as it is. So my goal is to educate my generation about the climate emergency and mobilize them to force adults to do the right thing.”
Three groups that are supporting Villasenor’s March 15 strike at the UN—the Sunrise Movement, 350.org, and the Extinction Rebellion—are representative of the more militant stance that younger activists have brought to the climate movement in recent years. Traditionally, most big environmental groups were resolutely nonpartisan, focused on inside-the-Beltway policy fights and loathe to explicitly call out corporate interests, though Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth were exceptions. Now, an array of scrappy, youth-dominated grassroots groups are ready and eager to get in the face of the climate-wrecking industry, its executives and the politicians they bankroll.
The Sunrise Movement, for example, has been a primary mover behind the Green New Deal. Mainstream media coverage usually credits Representative Ocasio-Cortez for injecting the idea into the political conversation, and her role was pivotal, but the true story is more complex. After watching most elected officials, including Democrats, fail to treat the climate crisis as an emergency, 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, Sunrise activists occupied the office of incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to demand her support for a Green New Deal. Echoing the intra-movement argument during the Obama years over whether to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, older environmentalists condemned the sit-in: Why put an ally like Pelosi on the spot? Sunrise, however, accepted no such constraints. The sit-in went viral after Ocasio-Cortez, likewise rejecting the wait-your-turn etiquette expected of freshmen members, joined the protestors. And Pelosi, who began her political career as an activist, applauded the Sunrise activists, even if she eventually disagreed with their demand for a special committee for the Green New Deal.
Few ideas in recent political history have spread as rapidly as the Green New Deal, and it’s notable that it was these young outsiders who made it happen. Their elders certainly had the opportunity to do so, as I can attest from personal experience. Having proposed a Global Green Deal—essentially, a Green New Deal that would apply internationally—in my 1998 book Earth Odyssey, I sought meetings with leaders of US environmental groups to urge them to consider the idea. A massive green investment program would not only prevent climate catastrophe, I argued, it would create millions of jobs, solving the environmental movement’s political problem of appearing not to care about ordinary people’s economic needs. Only one environmental leader agreed to meet with me, and that was to tell me that my idea was impractical.
Twenty years later, a Green New Deal is well on its way to being the de facto climate policy of the Democratic Party and is spreading overseas. Last week at Davos, the new prime minister of Spain, Pedro Sanchez, told the billionaire class that the era of neoliberalism and deregulation was over, adding that the climate crisis now demanded “ecological responses” from every government on earth. “The ecological transition, which has started to be known in many forums as the Green New Deal, should not instill fear,” Sanchez said, because it would create jobs, not destroy them.
At a separate Davos appearance, Greta Thunberg all but taunted the elites who hold young people’s fates in their hands, saying, “I want to challenge those companies and those decision makers into real and bold climate action…. I don’t believe for one second that you will rise to that challenge. But I want to ask you all the same. I ask you to prove me wrong.”
“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” said Frederick Douglass during the fight against slavery. “It never has and it never will.” It’s their understanding of this fundamental theory of social change that makes Thunberg, Ocasio-Cortez and all the Climate Kids so effective and exciting. They grasp what many of their elders apparently never learned: that the climate struggle is about power—not having the best science, or the smartest arguments, or the most bipartisan talking points, but power. Specifically, it’s about the power Exxon and the rest of the fossil-fuel industry have over governments and economies the world over, and the industry’s willingness to use that power to enforce a business model that is guaranteed to fry the planet. With the moral absolutism 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 going down without a fight.