From school strikes to Sunrise Movements, Julie Ward reports on worldwide youth inspired to get political on climate change
In 2018, when 15-year-old Greta Thunberg decided to stand in front of the Swedish parliament protesting about political inaction regarding the climate and ecological emergency instead of going to school, no-one imagined it would lead to the phenomenal global youth movement #FridaysForFuture. Thunberg was mocked and belittled by right-wing politicians and media pundits wherever she went, but she is now 19 and no longer a lone figure. Millions of young people around the globe have joined her call to action, setting up their own #FFF campaigns and connecting via social media. In the UK, Labour MPs Nadia Whittome and Zarah Sultana (both in their 20s) have a strong connection with these young activists, who are already mobilising support to ensure their political allies will hold on to their seats in the next general election.
Politicians ignore young people at their peril. The young are voters-in-waiting whose adult lives are shaped by their experiences as children and teenagers. Young people all over the world are increasingly angry and frustrated by rigged political systems and policies that narrow their life choices and threaten the future of the planet. Conservatives know that, in the main, their narrative does not impress young people, so they refuse to lower the voting age in a forlorn attempt to delay the inevitable. However, young people also become foot soldiers for political parties, especially during election periods. Their boundless energy can help turn a marginal seat red or green and, in the case of the last US presidential elections, helped prevent the re-election of a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, climate-change-denying extreme-right populist, thereby paving the way for the Biden administration.
The American Sunrise Movement, launched in 2017, grew out of an education project funded by the Wesleyan University and the longstanding progressive environmental organisation, Sierra Club. Sunrise activists were trained in community organising by Momentum, the grassroots UK campaign established to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The movement was initially focussed on supporting proponents of renewable energy in the 2018 US midterm elections. Since then, Sunrise activists have been focusing on shifting the Overton window on climate policy to put the Green New Deal at the centre of government discussions.
During the 2018 midterms, Sunrise activists worked to oust candidates who would not refuse funding from the fossil fuel industry. Half of the group’s first 20 endorsements won their elections. Deb Haaland, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won election to the House of Representatives, and six other endorsed candidates won election to state House or Senate seats. The Sunrise Movement continues to work closely with the Justice Democrats, a political committee that emerged from Bernie Sanders’ campaign which aims to remove the pernicious influence of money from political campaigns, especially the funnelling of funds derived from fossil fuel companies. The organisation officially endorsed 79 candidates in the 2018 election cycle, seven of whom won general elections (three were incumbents). The four first-time officeholders in the US House became known as ‘The Squad’, and have since been joined by two further electoral successes. All were under 50 when first elected, five are women, and all are people of colour. They are media savvy, both individually and collectively, and face down the incessant stream of online hate with courage, truth and humour, garnering millions of followers. Ocasio-Cortez alone has 13.2 million Twitter followers.
Labour for a Green New Deal openly admit they took their inspiration from the Sunrise Movement and AOC, demonstrating the continuing exchange of radical ideas, inspiration and strategies across the Atlantic despite the over-cautious centrist leadership styles of Biden and Starmer.
Elsewhere in the world, youth have been picking up the baton given to them by Thunberg – after all, they have nothing to lose. As Thunberg repeatedly says, “Our house is on fire.” In Brussels during the early days of the #FFF movement, student climate strikers lay down in the European Parliament and had to be removed by security who failed to identify which friendly MEPs had signed them in. They also occupied Schuman Square immediately outside the European Commission HQ, where, ironically, many of their parents worked. The Brussels climate strikers continue to have easy access to power and a sympathetic ear in Frans Timmermans, the Social Democrat EU First Vice President. Timmermans has pushed the agenda on ending fossil fuel subsidies in order to achieve carbon net-zero by 2050, attempting to face down opposition from Eastern European countries such as Poland and Romania. He helped to put the European Green Deal at the heart of the EU agenda, making it a horizontal cross-cutting policy instrument which his fellow commissioners are required to address.
In the field of culture, for example, the New European Bauhaus programme focuses on the need for artists and creatives to change their practices in order to decarbonise the sector and provide innovative solutions. Meanwhile, at an international level, artists and musicians are at the forefront of awareness-raising with powerful messages such as the Music Declares Emergency campaign (slogan: “No music on a dead planet”). The power of culture to connect hearts and minds, especially amongst the young, should never be underestimated by politicians. Endorsements by popular icons at election time can help sway hesitant new voters as well as galvanise apathetic older voters in fan bases.
The worst effects of climate change will be most keenly felt in the Global South and in less developed countries who are least able to deal with the crisis. However, youth are fighting back. In Brazil, Gaby Baesse, a transgender activist and regional director for Youth4Nature, is battling the deforestation policies of right-wing populist and climate change denier Jair Bolsonaro. In Uganda, Leah Namugerwa of #FFF is a leading voice continuing to press her government to fully implement the Paris Climate Agreement – perhaps a damning indictment that the subsequent Glasgow COP was a political failure. Meanwhile, young Ugandan lawyer Heizal Nagginda has applied her legal knowledge to grassroots, community-based action, founding Climate Operation, which educates children and communities on how they can act to protect the environment and why this matters. Nagginda was active in COP26 as part of Youth4Climate alongside scores of other articulate young people (especially young women) from around the world, who often ran the media gauntlet in order to approach politicians with direct questions about their climate commitments. Needless to say, they were generally given the obfuscating “Blah, blah, blah” so aptly described by Thunberg.
From 10-year-old Licypriya Kangujam, who started advocating for local and global climate action four years ago, protesting outside the Indian parliament with a specific set of demands including air pollution laws and to make climate change literacy mandatory in schools, to indigenous youth such as 17-year-old Autumn Peltier campaigning for First Nation water rights in Canada, the youth voice has shifted the debate and sustained a focus on the consequences of political failure to address the root causes of climate change. Rightly so, as more than a quarter of the world’s population are under 15, with a further 16% (1.2 billion) aged 15-24. These young people did not make the climate crisis, but they will have to live with the consequences. As Leah Namugerwa said, “I noticed adults were not willing to offer leadership and I chose to volunteer myself. Environmental injustice is injustice to me.”
COP27 is just a few weeks away, and the stakes are higher than ever. As global temperatures continue to break records, with drought, wildfires, floods and further melting of polar ice, future voters will be watching to see what politicians have to offer regarding stronger commitments on reducing the deadly emissions which threaten to take us over the tipping point into an apocalyptic future. Australians already showed the way, kicking out the Conservative government who practised a ‘deny and delay’ approach, electing instead candidates with a clear commitment to tackling climate change, including many Greens and independents, giving the Labor Party a mandate to form a progressive government. Under the premiership of Anthony Albanese, Australia now plans a 43% emissions reduction this decade and is reportedly seeking to host COP29 in partnership with the Pacific. Social democrats everywhere need to take note and sharpen up their climate credentials.