“If only we worked together, we could solve a problem as large as climate change while creating a more equitable future for all,” said the young leaders in 2004 as they formed the Energy Action Coalition, one of the early grassroots youth climate organizations in the United States.
In 2007, the Energy Action Coalition hosted the Power Shift ‘07, the first-ever national convergence of youth on climate change, where more than 6,000 young people attended. Three thousand of them also converged on Capitol Hill for the largest lobby day on climate change during the time it was held.
Energy Action Coalition, renamed as Power Shift, is now one of the many youth organizations that have taken the issue of climate change into their own hands. These youth organizations have had significant achievements throughout the years. However, these accomplishments also come with limitations.
This article presents the achievements and limitations of youth organizations' climate movements and how, despite these barriers, young people are still effective agents of change in today’s climate crisis.
On March 15, 2019, more than 1.4 million young people and supporters across 128 countries walked out of their school or work to join climate protests. Later that year, more than 7 million young protesters joined the September 20 school strike. This number shows how climate movements succeeded in encouraging young people around the globe to participate in their advocacies.
Professor Jessica Taft, a researcher from the University of California, Santa Cruz, reported that climate activism among young people is increasing worldwide, inspired mainly by Greta Thunberg, 19, a Swedish environmentalist who is now the most famous young climate activist. Between September 20 to 26, 2019, her name had more than 7.5 million mentions across social platforms because of her passionate speech at the U.N.’s Climate Action Summit in New York City.
Greta Thunberg started school strikes as a climate campaign in late 2018, and in early 2019, thousands of young people began to skip school to protest in Europe. And by March 2019, more than a million youth and supporters joined climate strikes worldwide.
The pandemic did not stop youth organizations from advancing their climate movements. Power Shift (Energy Action Coalition) virtually held its recent climate action campaign, Power Shift 2021, due to the pandemic. This event trained youth activists to have critical skills in growing powerful campaigns for climate, environmental, and social justice for the next decade.
With youth organizations like Power Shift that continue to hold climate events and campaigns, more young people are set to join and lead climate movements in the future.
In the United States, the American Federation of Teachers joined and supported thousands of students in their school strikes. In Washington, D.C., many social organizations joined public school students during their climate strike in the Capitol. Some groups that joined the protest are the Washington Teachers’ Union, Zero Hour, 350.org, National Children's Campaign, Sunrise Movement, and others.
The youth strikes also moved workers to support their climate campaign. In Germany, the second largest labor union encouraged its two million members to join the climate strike in September 2019. In the U.S., around 900 Amazon employees pledged to join the demonstration in the same year.
Indeed, young people are not alone in their climate change movements as they have successfully encouraged other social groups to be their collaborating partners in fighting against climate change.
In 2020, Shiva Rajbhandari, now 17, worked with Idaho’s Climate Justice League in successfully pressing the city of Boise to transition to 100 percent clean energy by 2035. In 2021, North Carolina’s governor signed a law requiring major electric utilities to source their power from renewables by 2050. Early this year, Indiana’s senator considered two pieces of climate legislation written in collaboration with a student-led coalition, Confront the Climate Crisis.
These kinds of political actions show that youth movements have real impacts on states and city governments. With the growing number of young people and supporters worldwide joining these movements, it is not surprising that they have already succeeded in framing some climate change policies.
Youth organizations may have successfully presented the current climate problem, but their movements are limited in their ability to fight against governments and major fossil fuel companies that resist change.
Dolsak and Prakash noted that although young climate strikers effectively raise climate change awareness, they do not likely impose huge costs on governments and fossil fuel companies. Since most of the strikers are students, the costs of their actions will not directly affect governments and fossil fuel firms.
Around a thousand young people attended the U.N. Youth Climate Summit in 2019, but only a few of these youth activists were given the opportunity to speak during the Climate Action Summit that followed. The youth summit only gave a few hours for youth participants worldwide to present their ideas and discuss climate change. Many youth activists felt that the U.N. gave them little opportunity to speak to the influential adults who assembled at the Climate Action Summit.
This event shows that youth activists generally have limited opportunities to express themselves, especially in the global context where they should be heard the most.
Although youth organizations have helped frame some climate change policies, most of their climate movements were meant to urge influential adults to come up with solutions against climate change. Most of the youth activists at the Youth Climate Summit in 2019 also presented local action plans that have limited global relevancy.
Considering that climate change is a global problem, world leaders dismissed climate movements for their lack of concrete global solutions.
“Young people understand that we must pursue a ‘Yes We Can’ approach to our nation’s climate and energy challenges and that there are real consequences for our economy, security, and the future of the planet if Congress fails to act,” said Jessy Tolkan, the Executive Director of Energy Action Coalition in 2009
Despite the limitations and barriers, the achievements of youth movements across the globe and over the years reflect the youth as effective agents of change who understand the consequences of climate change and can improve the status quo in many ways.