February 11, 2019 Climate

Youth Environmental Activists Fight Back Around the World

Written by: Kara Blum


Youth and plastic waste have one key commonality: they will both be around a lot longer than our current governmental leaders and officials.

Young people’s environmental activism is at an all time high around the world due to the global climate change epidemic. Younger children and adults fear for the future, unsure if there will be a habitable planet to live on in the next fifty years. Environmental activists like Greta Thunberg, Ridhima Pandey and Xiuhtexcatl Martinez, among others, recognize that the time for direct action is now. These youth activists are radicalizing environmental law and public policy with their demand to decrease reliance on fossil fuels.

Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report explaining that greenhouse gas emissions must decrease by almost 50 percent within the next 12 years in order to keep global temperatures from warming more than 1.5 degrees celsius, hopefully resulting in a ‘net zero’ by 2050. If this does not occur, our planet will reach a temperature that will threaten the existence of all life, including humans.

In the wake of the report, Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old environmental activist, is voicing the need for revolutionary environmental policy transformations. Recently, Thunberg confronted the United Nations, saying: “You say you love your children above all else and yet you’re stealing their future in front of their very eyes. Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground…if solutions within this system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself…we have come here to let you know change is coming. No matter what, the real power belongs to the people.”

Thunberg pointed out that even Sweden, a progressive, environmentalist parliamentary democracy, is not an ideal role model. In a column authored by Thunberg, she wrote that Sweden’s plans to address climate change do not extend beyond the year 2050, but by 2050, she will not even have lived half of her life. She emphasized the need to plan beyond a mere 30 years and prioritize the salvation of Planet Earth for centuries to come.

We can’t save the world by playing by the rules because the rules have to be changed. Everything needs to change, and it has to start today.

– Greta Thunberg

What are the youth supposed to do to save a degrading planet if governments are barely doing anything? According to Thunberg, it is time for the youth to rise up and demand change.

Last summer, Thunberg singlehandedly initiated a school climate protest in Sweden, refusing to attend school on Fridays and instead sitting on the steps of the Swedish Parliament demanding that climate change be the top priority of Sweden’s legislature.

“If the emissions have to stop [to end the climate change epidemic], then we must stop the emissions,” Thunberg notes in an 11-minute Ted Talk. “To me, that is black and white. There are no gray areas when it comes to survival. Either we go on as a civilization or we don’t.”  

Thunberg’s speeches have taken the internet by storm, but she is not the only youth environmental activist taking a stand against governmental and United Nations’ complicity in the climate degradation crisis.

Ridhima Pandey is the leading activist against the Indian government’s frequent violation of environmental protection laws. Pandey is the driving force behind a 52-page petition before the National Green Tribunal.

Another student environmental activist who confronted the UN is Timoci Naulusala, a 12-year-old boy who spoke at the 23rd Conference Of the Parties (COP23) in Germany, a United Nations Climate Change Conference which occurred in 2017. This speech astounded world leaders and resulted in Timoci winning Fiji’s National Climate Change Speech Competition.

Twenty one environmental youth activists in the US filed a Supreme Court case known as Youth v. Gov in 2015, claiming that US leaders have violated their constitutional right to a clean environment. The plaintiffs’ ages range from 11 to 22. The lawsuit aims to reduce the US government’s fossil fuel production and extraction and increase the implementation of environmental public policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One of the leaders of Youth v. Gov is Xiuhtexcatl Martinez, an indigenous activist from the Mashika tribe who organizes locally to remove pesticides from parks, establish moratoriums on fracking in his state, and demand better containment of coal ash.

Santa Monica students rally against plastic bags.

Here in California, Santa Monica High School students paved the pathway for the statewide plastic bag ban. Students mobilized their own school and local city government to demand radical environmental policy change. For many years Santa Monica High School’s environmental clubs—including Team Marine, Surf Team, and Heal the Bay Surfrider clubcanvassed for a city-wide plastic bag ban.  Over the course of four years, Team Marine organized six different “Ban the Bag” student marches—featuring more than 60 students marching through the streets wearing “plastic monster” costumes made from plastic waste they found doing beach clean ups. Students passed out free reusable bags and flyers detailing plastic bag pollution in the ocean.

Thanks to these students’ activism, in 2011, Santa Monica became the first city in all of the US to ban plastic bags. And in 2016, as an extension of their activism, California became the first state to enact a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores, as well as a 10-cent charge for recycled paper bags.

Youth activists like the aforementioned students recognize the hypocrisy in governments around the world, which often claim to care for children while keeping policies and laws in place that threaten lives—and our future—as a means of capital gain. Fossil fuel companies such as Exxon Mobil pay government officials and representatives, like Ted Cruz, to keep in place policies which increase greenhouse gas emissions and toxic waste. Student and youth activists, now more than ever, are calling out this type of government corruption. These students will continue to organize and speak up as long as the officials in governments around the world continue to care more about accumulating wealth than protecting the planet and their children’s lives.

The youth that have seen the destruction wrought from capitalism, lobbying, and lethal ecology show a strong commitment to preserving any ounce of this world that they can. As Thunberg said:

“All we have to do is to wake up and change. And why should I be studying for a future that soon will be no more...we use 100 million barrels of oil every single day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground. So we can’t save the world by playing by the rules because the rules have to be changed. Everything needs to change, and it has to start today.”

Thunberg, and youths around the world who share her concerns, will continue to fight for their right to live. We must stand with them, or we shall surely perish.