Laurel Manley, Author, Colorado State University, Major in Biology Science and Ecosystem Science & Sustainability* and Carol Barbeito, Ph.D., Educational Editor, President Earth Protect*
“We showed that we are united and that we, young people, are unstoppable. - Greta Thunberg, UN Youth Climate Summit, 2019
Protests, rallies, and walkouts have become common place in today’s events. A notable group participating in civil discourse and non-violent resistance are youth. From Greta Thunberg to Malala Yousafzai, young people of the world are making headlines in their plight for change. Facing the youth of today is the daunting threat of climate change and the task of transitioning to a sustainable future.
The consequences of climate change are approaching faster than ever, yet the global response is not meeting the goals set through the UN Paris Climate Accord. Carbon emissions continue to climb, accelerating the warming of the earth’s atmosphere and we continue to pollute our air, water and land, driving species to extinction.
The United Nations has outlined a series of sixteen sustainable development goals to address the needs of humanity and other species. Four of these goals detail the need to consume and produce sustainably, combat the acceleration of climate change, its effects, and protect marine and terrestrial ecosystems (United Nations). To meet these goals, it requires the willingness and cooperation of individuals to initiate change.
While individual change is the first step to meeting these goals, organizations and movements are powerful instigators in initiating widespread, global change. For nonviolent protests to ensure maximum success, scientists have shown that only 3.5% of the population needs to participate in non-violent resistance to cause new behaviors and innovations to be adopted (Chenoweth and Kenneth 2013). This demonstrates how humans are capable of massive change with the cooperation of only a small percentage of the population.
Youth comprise a significant portion of earth’s population. The United Nations estimates that there are 1.8 billion individuals between the age of ten and twenty-four (Edwards). This is twenty-four percent of the entire human population. For these reasons, it is important to include our youth in the involvement of initiating personal, social, and political change. Youth will inevitably end up facing the majority of the consequences of climate change.
Although the voices and opinions of children and young adults are often undervalued and unheard, youth have a vast amount of power. Take Greta Thunberg’s movement, Friday’s Future, which has swept the globe in its goal for youth to speak out against climate change. In this movement, youth skip school on Friday’s to peacefully protest the lack of initiative that is being taken to prevent further global warming. But not everyone has to be Greta Thunberg. While powerful in her own right, the strength of her movement comes from the thousands of youth that participate.
Youth are powerhouses of innovative ideas. They maintain an optimism, passion, and energy that many adults start to lose from the daily hassles of adulthood (Salas). Younger people simply experience and view the world in different ways than their parents. Childhood has the effect of establishing that any obstacle, no matter how difficult is achievable. This is the kind of resilient attitude that is needed in the fight for a sustainable future. While earlier generations may have experienced the threat of nuclear disaster or the destruction of the ozone layer, young people of this era hold the burden of climate change and the drastic effect it will have on their future. The United Nations published several resolutions with the goal to increase youth participation in global affairs and encourage active engagement (Takavarasha 2018).
Luckily, there are many organizations that lead and encourage youth activism through education, non-violent resistance, and civil engagement. Many of these organizations, such as Sunrise Movement, are almost entirely youth led. I had the opportunity to speak with three of these young activists in my area.
When asked how these young women got involved with youth activism, they described that after attending a protest as a social event with their friends, they realized the number of people that were there to truly make a difference. They went home and began to research the numerous organizations that promoted youth activism. Sunrise Movement appealed to them since the organization itself was led by other youth. Once they officially joined, these three high schoolers started a new hub in their area. As a team, they work to raise awareness about climate issues, lead events (such as marches and rallies) and schedule guest speakers.
In regard to why the youth movement inspired them, one of the young women stated, “we are the future, our voices become the forefront, and we have to be heard now because we won’t have time to be heard as adults.” They also explained that “protests are simple and easy ways for our voices to be heard” and that, “this is the last chance and we deserve to be heard since we are the ones to clean it up.”
Protests and non-violent action are not the only way for young people to create wide-spread change. For young individuals that are of age, voting is the most democratic way for their voice to be heard. Tonyisha, a youth activist with Alliance for Climate Education working to combat environmental injustice, states:
“it’s time to take action, and we need to do something about it (environmental injustice). One of the best ways to start is by voting. We are the next generation. We are the future politicians and scientists and activists,” (Tonyisha).
Youth can also write to local lawmakers about problems in the community and changes that can be made.
Youth possess the passion, energy, and numbers to make systemic change necessary to achieve a sustainable future. They are the future and ones left with the abysmal state of our current resources and environment. Luckily, modern youth power movements have the ability to change policy and society for a more sustainable and just future.
Chenoweth, Erica, and Kenneth Wallace. “The Success of Nonviolent Civil Resistance.” ICNC, Nov. 2013, www.nonviolent-conflict.org/resource/success-nonviolent-civil-resistance/.
Edwards, Steven. “10 Things You Didn't Know about the World's Population - Office of the Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth.” United Nations, United Nations, https://www.un.org/youthenvoy/2015/04/10-things-didnt-know-worlds-population/.
“Greta Thunberg Quotes: 10 Famous Lines from Teen Activist - CBBC Newsround.” BBC News, BBC, 25 Sept. 2019, www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/49812183.
Salas, Kateri. “The Power of Young People to Change the World.” WYA, World Youth Alliance, www.wya.net/op-ed/the-power-of-young-people-to-change-the-world/.
Takavarasha, Mercia. “The Power of Young People as Changemakers.” Generations For Peace, Generations for Peace, 11 Dec. 2018, www.generationsforpeace.org/en/the-power-of-young-people-as-changemakers/.
Tonyisha, director. Climate Justice and Air Pollution in Illinois. Alliance for Climate Education, Alliance for Climate Education, acespace.org/our-work/#storytelling.
United Nations. “Home | Department of Economic and Social Affairs.” United Nations, United Nations, sdgs.un.org/#goal_section.
* Laurel Manley, Author, is a 4th year student at Colorado State University with dual majors in Biological Sciences and Ecosystems Science & Sustainability, Intern for Earth Protect, summer 2020
*Carol Barbeito, Ph.D., Education Editor, is President and Managing Director of Earth Protect, with a mission to use film and digital media to engage people in actions leading to a sustainable future.