Last Friday, students across 110 countries walked out of their classes in the massive Youth Climate Strike to bring attention to the effects of climate change. Hundreds of students filled New York’s City Hall Park, the air thrumming with excitement and anxiety. Some even hung from the lamp posts to get a better view of the swarming crowd before police inevitably invited them to climb down. It was the first protest I’ve been to where children far outnumbered adults.
“I’m here because I don’t want to have to grow up in a world where I am terrified the people I love could lose their home,” Simone Rubin, a senior at NEST+M high school, told The Outline, referencing the potential affect sea level rise could have on New York City’s coast. “It’s unfair that we’re in this situation now because adults refuse to act and now we’re tasked with cleaning up an earth that we shouldn’t have had to do because we shouldn’t have put ourselves in this situation to begin with.”
The Youth Climate Strike was born out of the #FridaysforFuture demonstrations started by 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. In August 2018, Thunberg started skipping school each Friday to protest outside of the Stockholm Parliament House, calling on leaders to prioritize environmental issues. Thunberg’s notoriety grew as she spoke at the U.N. climate talks last December, and the #FridaysforFuture hashtag received more and more attention. She’s since been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her activism.
The young students I spoke to at the protest had been deeply moved by Thunberg’s actions and commitment to drawing attention to the dire state of our climate. Teachers had shown them her TED Talk in class, and they pointed to her as the reason they were out rallying. For Paula, a third grader at the Brooklyn New School, and her class, Thunberg had become iconic.
“She’s not afraid to make people scared because she wants people to really understand that climate change isn’t going to happen, it’s happening right now and it’s getting worse and worse every single day,” Paula explained.
Many of the young protesters had only become aware of how pressing an issue climate change is through an older sibling, a teacher, or social media posts from their peers. Some had personal experiences that spurred their engagement: Sandra Rogers, a high school junior, admits she didn’t really focus on climate justice until Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the flooding that followed the hurricane.
“My house got flooded and I was so confused,” Rogers said. “And it really made me look into it because you don’t learn these things in school.”
Rogers’ school at one point had a “green team” program focused on recycling, but it has fallen by the wayside, she claimed — a sentiment repeated by other protesters who remembered environment-focused groups or programs being at their schools. Unless their teachers make a point to include current climate issues in lessons, several of the protesters told me, kids don’t really encounter the topics, and have to self-educate.
The New York City demonstrations culminated in a march from Columbus Circle to the Natural History Museum. A few students explained that this wasn’t their first time participating in a protest. While the R train sped us towards City Hall, Sadie, a sixth-grader, and her mother Jane explained they’d also been a part of the gun regulation protests following the Parkland shooting and felt the same galvanizing pull to demonstrate again. They’d even reused the same poster board.
“I think so many of these issues really affect our kids and it’s hard to believe parents are not taking this seriously,” Jane said.
The posters students held up advertised statistics about the environmental impact of consumerism (including the grim fact that just 100 companies are to blame for large portions of global emissions), as well as slogans conveying their frustrations with inheriting a mess. “You mind if I breathe?” one read; “All we want is a future” said another.
“I feel like this protest is really important for our future because if we don’t make a change then our world is not going to last very long,” Ava, a third grader, told The Outline. “It’s really scary knowing that the world won’t last very long for our generation; it’s not cool.”
“We don’t have one of the clubs for recycling and just the earthly health of our school and we realized we really need that,” Catherine Studt, a junior at NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies said. “We should really be more aware of what we’re doing. We gotta get it together again.”
Other students similarly expressed an intention to head up environmental programs and clubs at their respective schools. (Sandra Rogers and her friends plan to present a photography project on water as a women’s issue at the U.N.) Many of the students saw action as the only option.
“The onus is being placed on young people who don’t even have that much money or power to do things,” Rubin said. “People in power are the ones who should be doing something not regular kids – it shouldn’t be up to us to save the world, but it is.”
She stopped for a moment, before grinning at me. “They picked the wrong generation because we’re the kids who grew up with Harry Potter and Hunger Games, so we know how to save the world.”