• Nancy Pau

“Kids” These Days

At this point, climate change is an irrefutable fact of life, one which many people are familiar with on various levels. A majority of people are unaware of the magnitude of the disaster happening right now all around us. This is admittedly discouraging, but let’s focus on the positives. Earlier this year1.4 million “kids” across 123 countries organized and participated in youth climate strikes and walk outs earlier this year and this event has been followed by the amazing world-wide demonstrations on September 20[1]Did you know that there’s a group of youths suing the United States Government right now for its negligence and ongoing destruction of the planet in the lawsuit Juliana v. The United States? Young people have the most to lose in the fight to address climate change, and they (we) are, thankfully, rallying. It is impossible to change our society’s behaviors without the support of the youth, and while certain complexities arise when it comes to youth engagement, there is reason to hope.

The ongoing court case of Juliana v. The United States is one such youth led movement fighting for climate protection. In this case, the arena is the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the stakes are high:

[The youths] so lack confidence that they will inherit a healthy planet that they are suing the United States government for failing to adequately protect the Earth from the effects of climate change. They are among a group of 21 youths who claim the federal government’s promotion of fossil fuel production and its indifference to the risks posed by greenhouse gas emissions…violates, the court papers argue, their fundamental constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property.[2]

This lawsuit, which is supported by environmental heavyweights,is garnering a lot of attention as it makes its way through the circuit courts. As of August 2019, the case is still being argued. Whether or not it successfully forces a policy change, it has made the courts directly confront climate change. It also highlights the interest that future generations have in maintaining a healthy environment.

Some students have taken to the courts as a way to advocate for the environment; many more have taken to the internet. I cannot overstate the importance of the internet as a tool for change in today’s modern era, and young people understand this more than anyone. Social media is a decisive force in the current media landscape and is at the heart of modern activism (think of the Parkland survivors’ use of online platforms). Zero Hour, a youth-led “environmentally focused, creatively minded and technologically savvy nationwide coalition[3]” has used social media platforms to organize marches and protests. Core members of the group have met with lawmakers concerning sustainable policy development. The young people active in this movement are eager to dispel myths surrounding the alleged laziness of their generation: “They are trying to prove the adults wrong, to show that people their age are taking heed of what they see as the greatest crisis threatening their generation.[4]” At the end of the day, this sentiment is at the heart of youth activism: recognizing that change is necessary, and then doing something about it.

One recent and highly visible demonstration of youth climate activism occurred this September. On September 20th, 4 million people walked out of school and work to participate in the world’s largest ever international climate strike, demanding stronger climate policies in the age of modern environmental crisis.[5]The symbolic face of the fight against climate change has become 16 year old Greta Thunberg, who started weekly school strikes over a year ago in her home country of Sweden. Now, she is up for the Nobel Peace Prize and has inspired millions of other young people across the world to demand their governments take affirmative action now.

This worldwide protest was an incredible demonstration of the power of youth involvement. However, it is sad that the level of turnout and participation seen in September is atypical, and this type of momentum is usually short-lived. The fact of the matter is, there exist some large obstacles to youth activism in general, and environmentalism has historically shown itself to be particularly challenging topic to engage people with. Why? One answer is relatively simple: climate change is a depressing topic. If those involved have any grasp on the severity of climate change, talking about it stirs up feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and disempowerment. None of these emotions tend to spur action. Nonetheless, taking action and finding hope are often the only cures to feeling helpless and hopeless, and this is true across all age groups.

Inspiring youth activism isn’t always straightforward. Even among youths who participate in environmentalism, motivation fades over time, and tends to be only highly concentrated around focusing events.[6]A certain amount of big picture thinking is required for activism, something youths don’t automatically have. According to one comprehensive global study of youth environmental activism, a certain type of motivation is needed to spur action:

“In the context of promoting transformative social change…it has been found that people who are motivated to act because of their concern for harm, fairness, and social justice and those with a more progressive political orientation seem to be more likely to favor stronger responses and engage in collective environmental action compared to those who are mostly driven by their own self interests.”[7]

This is encouraging in one sense because it means that we are relying upon human kindness and decency to effect change, two things I do genuinely believe in. On the other hand, this type of motivation is problematic. How can you make someone want to do the right thing for the right reasons? And is that motivation even enough?