‘Our future is what we are fighting for’

They've come of age in a warming world. Now, students in nearly 100 countries and dozens of U.S. states are skipping school to fight climate change.

In rain and snow and summer heat, every Friday for the past 29 weeks, a 16-year-old Swedish girl named Greta Thunberg has skipped school to protest outside her nation’s parliament building. Her aim: to demand aggressive action against climate change.

Thunberg’s “school strikes for climate” movement has inspired youths in Belgium, the United Kingdom, Germany and Australia to follow her lead. On Friday, her reach will extend much farther. Students in nearly 100 countries around the world have pledged to join her protest, including in the United States.

“Young people realize the urgency,” said Isra Hirsi, a 16-year-old from Minneapolis who is co-organizing the U.S. climate strikes with New Yorker Alexandria Villasenor, 13, and Coloradan Haven Coleman, 12. “We know whatever happens with climate change will affect us the most.”

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the planet’s average temperature has risen by about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 Fahrenheit), transforming environments from the Arctic to the Amazon and contributing to deadly extreme weather around the world. A recent United Nations report found that people must cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 if we hope to avoid the most catastrophic climate impacts. By then, around the time when many of the climate strikers will be graduating from college and starting their first jobs, global temperatures may rise as high as 1.5C (2.7 Fahrenheit), if no action is taken.

The three U.S. organizers have joined with dozens of peers to plan protests in at least 35 states and the nation’s capital. They’ve won the backing of major environmental organizations, including Greenpeace, Sierra Club, 350.org and the Sunrise Movement. But the kids have also received pushback from political leaders; when British students walked out last month, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Theresa May criticized the “waste of lesson time.”

“I want people to realize that even if we are so young,” Hirsi said, “We’re not going to back down.”

The Washington Post spoke with kids around the country about who they are and why they're striking. They told stories about climate change touching their lives, shared photos from their social media accounts, and explained why they are no longer willing to wait for adults to act on their behalf. Their interviews are edited for length and clarity.

Feliquan Charlemagne, 17

Junior, West Port High School

Ocala, Fla.

Photos Courtesy of Feliquan Charlemagne; Left and center: Photo by Abner Hernandez

Photos by Abner Hernandez; Top and second from top: Courtesy of Feliquan Charlemagne

(Courtesy of Feliquan Charlemagne)

I’m actually from the Caribbean, from the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. So I’ve been directly affected by this. I moved here when I was 2 months old because my area’s economy and the surrounding islands continue to take hits due to climate change. I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of my family now lives in Florida because hurricane after hurricane just keeps making it worse. And not only my island, but all the islands of the Caribbean.

Just recently, Hurricane Irma came through and put my island in complete shambles. Even more of my family had to move here, either temporarily or permanently.

They all live here in Florida. And that’s not even a sustainable solution, because Florida’s going to be one of the areas that’s hit the most.

The rest of my life is literally on the line. I’m going to have to grow up in this if we don’t take action and don’t turn it around. And my kids will have to grow up with it, and my grandkids. It’s not a question of whether we know what the effects will be. We know the effects, and they could be even worse than what we think they are. We’re already seeing the effects everywhere, and it’s just going to keep getting worse and worse.

That’s not the type of world I want to live in. Not the type of world anyone should have to live in.

Isabella Fallahi, 15

Sophomore, Carmel High School

Indianapolis

Photos courtesy Isabella Fallahi

Photos courtesy Isabella Fallahi

(Courtesy of Isabella Fallahi)

This is not a Republican issue; this is not a Democrat issue. This is a human rights issue. People are not going to have clean air, clean water if we keep letting the same patterns go on and on.

I don’t want to live in a world where the future is unclear. I have big plans for myself. And I know my younger siblings do. I know that my family wants me to have a future. But unfortunately, it’s just so cloudy to see how it’s all going to play out. I have dreams to run for president in 2044, but will that even be a possibility for me if we don’t do anything by 2030?

People generally perceive it as us kids, we’re just whining. We don’t know what we’re talking about. Why would we miss school? It’s just a waste of time.

Unfortunately, adults haven’t done enough for us to make this future clear for me and for my peers. So we’re taking it into our own hands.

I don’t think that this strike is going to be one moment. It’s going to spark a movement. And it has sparked a movement in Europe, in Australia.

And now here in the U.S., it’s our turn to join them.

Liam Neupert, 16

Junior, One Stone School

Boise, Idaho

Photos courtesy Liam Neupert

Photos courtesy Liam Neupert

(Courtesy of Liam Neupert)

We need to figure out how we can keep the momentum up and not just make it a one-day strike that happens and then it’s over. Something where people stay engaged and stay active. Some past protests have done great things — something that comes to mind was the gun violence protests last year. We had a really impactful protest, but pretty shortly after nothing happened and nothing changed. People went to living their daily lives.

Gun violence is a crisis, and so is our Earth. So is climate change. We just need to make people understand the extreme measures we need to take and hope that people will get on board with that.

Mishka Banuri, 18

Senior, West High School

Salt Lake City

Photos courtesy of Mishka Banuri ; Right: Photo by Ella Baker-Smith

Photos courtesy of Mishka Banuri ; Above: Photo by Ella Baker-Smith

(Courtesy of Mishka Banuri)

I am a Muslim American. Being a good steward of the Earth is one of the biggest values I grew up with.

Once I learned about this climate crisis we were having, I felt really compelled to do something about it. A lot of my motivation for being a climate organizer is my faith, because I think the health of the land is very much connected to the health of the people.

If you look at our history in the United States, almost every single grass-roots movement has been sparked by young people. So, when people say that young people don’t have the power to make change, that’s just completely ridiculous.

I personally have no idea what my future is going to look like, even if somehow we get our politicians to stop all fossil fuel projects and transition to renewables. Even if we did that, I know that climate change is going to have an impact on my life.

The whole point of the strike is to kind of disrupt normal, day-to-day life, because we want people to realize that this impending crisis, the climate crisis, is not normal. And it should not be normalized.

Saraphina Forman, 16

Sophomore, Northampton High School

Northampton, Mass.

Photos courtesy Saraphina Forman

Photos courtesy Saraphina Forman

(Courtesy of Saraphina Forman)

I grew up in the country a little bit outside of Northampton, tapping trees for maple syrup, skating on a nearby pond, and I know that the effects of climate change are already happening.

I’ve always believed that it’s my responsibility and the responsibility of individuals to protect the world around them and protect the future.

When I was in elementary school I used to walk dogs for charity. And I organized a fundraiser called “Hike for What’s Right” to raise money for clean water in communities in developing countries.

When I came across Greta Thunberg, I think she really sparked a movement around the world. I was very much inspired by her and wanted to do the same.

The way she told it just made so much sense. That we can’t really just go on living our normal lives, going to school, putting up with everything, when we know there’s such an immediate threat on our hands.

I thought, why shouldn’t I do this?

It’s the duty of everyone.

Brendan Ireland, 18

Senior, Novi High School

Novi, Mich.

Photos courtesy Brendan Ireland

Photos courtesy Brendan Ireland

(Courtesy of Brendan Ireland)

People who deny climate change are getting rarer and rarer. Almost everybody I know believes in it and is aware of the problem. They’re aware of how bad an effect it can have. But it’s almost so big of a problem, it’s easy to ignore and almost push away. Don’t think about it because it’s so scary.

One of the biggest goals of this strike is to push it back in people’s faces. We will see this in our lifetimes. It’s already being experienced.

Aditi Narayanan, 16

Junior, Basis Phoenix charter school

Phoenix

Photos courtesy Aditi Narayanan

Photos courtesy Aditi Narayanan

(Courtesy of Aditi Narayanan)

A lot of people view climate change as this, like, big thing that’s so distant from them. They’re like, “The glaciers are melting. That’s not my problem.” But I’ve seen climate change affect so many people in my own community, in my own backyard. For example, the summers over the years have only gotten hotter.

So, it’s not an abstract concept. I would say that’s what worries me the most, is how it’s affecting people every day.

I’m going to be real with you — I feel like activism without an actual goal isn’t really much of a point. I think the importance of spreading awareness is important. In Phoenix, we’re backing specific local bills and specific legislation.

We have concrete plans of what we want to accomplish.

Before 2018, I was just like, “Eh, the world is changing. But I can’t affect anything.” And then I saw all these examples of all these activists rising up around the country, and I was like “Dang, maybe I can.”

It was inspirational.

Rosalie Daval, 17

Senior, Jackson Hole High School

Jackson, Wyo.

Photos courtesy Rosalie Daval

Photos courtesy Rosalie Daval

(Courtesy of Rosalie Daval)

Living in the mountains, I’ve seen some beautiful scenery, and I realize the importance of protecting the environment that surrounds us. But Wyoming is also a fossil fuel-based economy.

I think a lot of people in Wyoming are really hesitant to consider something environmentally related because there’s this large fear about the impact on the economy.

So we’re trying to be realistic. The national campaign has listed its goals, and we agree with those goals. But we’re also focusing our protest on asking our representatives to consider investing in sustainable energy because it’s more tailored to our state.

We want to emphasize that we are going to have to pay for the impact of climate change at some point. And every day that we are inactive means we have to pay more in the future.

Abbie La Porta, 17

Senior, State College Area High School

State College, Pa.

Photos courtesy Abbie La Porta

Photos courtesy Abbie La Porta

(Courtesy of Abbie La Porta)

Since I was in elementary school, I have been learning about climate change as a given. In fourth grade, I remember we did our first research project on an extinct species. And it kind of dawned on me, maybe our parents weren’t having this as their science lessons, you know? We’ve grown up with the facts of climate change and that’s just been sticking with me.

In general, I did not think that kids could be activists until I saw the March for Our Lives. And then it hit me that I’ve been choosing not to say anything. When you’re young, you definitely will face people who want to disregard you and dismiss you and cut down your credibility because of your age. But then I saw, here are all these people who aren’t letting that stop them, and I knew I had to start getting involved in what I really believed in.

I will be in the middle of writing an email or making a social media post or catching up on messages for the climate strike or for another movement and then remember that I’m supposed to be deciding which college I’m supposed to go to next fall. That does get a little hard to balance.

But ultimately when something is really important to you and you’re determined, you can find time to do it.

People who don’t want me to strike or who argue against the strike have said to me, “You need to go to school.” But why is school important? It’s important for your future. And our future is what we are fighting for. We won’t have a livable future if we don’t enact change now.

Design by Joanne Lee; Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof; Video editing by Luis Velarde

Sarah Kaplan

Sarah Kaplan is a science reporter covering news from around the nation and across the universe. She previously worked overnights on The Washington Post's Morning Mix team.

Brady Dennis

Brady Dennis is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on the environment and public health issues. He previously spent years covering the nation’s economy. Dennis was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for a series of explanatory stories about the global financial crisis.

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