When young people speak out, the world sometimes does something truly rare: Slowly, begrudgingly, it starts to listen.
Consider Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Though she was dismissive when faced with a scrum of young Green New Deal advocates in a recent viral video, she later tweeted, “I want the students to know they were heard loud and clear.” Better yet, look back at how 15-year-old Greta Thunberg excoriated negotiators at a United Nations climate conference in Poland. Her school strike is taking place in more than 100 countries on Friday.
Watching this movement germinate on our own shores fills me with nostalgia. A decade and a half ago, I, too, was a teenage climate activist. Though I recently entered my 30s and have traded advocacy for a career in scientific research, I still ruminate on one campaign in which we also demanded that political leaders think of their kids and address climate change. I believe it offers some hard-won lessons for today’s young activists. We came close to getting a generation of Alaskans speaking with one voice, but demanding international societal changes requires a worldwide chorus.
Global crises like those created by climate change need bold, creative action. That’s what first pushed Thunberg to the steps of the Swedish Parliament and sparked 13-year-old Alexandria Villasenor’s protests at the U.N. Breaking the logjam of climate inaction demands new tactics. Maybe that means organizing a race along Miami’s 2050 projected beachfront or creating a compendium of stories from your grandparents of environmental changes they’ve witnessed. More school strikes in more places is essential, but it can’t eclipse trying novel tactics to reach people in new ways.
The seed of our campaign was a writing exercise. In 2005, Verner Wilson III, a Brown University-bound Yup’ik student from the Bering Sea hub of Dillingham, penned an open letter on climate change to our elected officials as part of a summer training for Alaska Youth for Environmental Action (AYEA). Wilson cited the science on melting glaciers, coastal erosion and beetle outbreaks following warm winters, alongside “Our elders’ traditional knowledge,” and called for support for “national legislation to cap greenhouse gases.” Other participants asked to co-sign it.
That fall, AYEA’s leadership voted unanimously to make Wilson’s letter the nexus for all our education, outreach and advocacy activities for the year. Upset over what I viewed as an egregious gap in Alaska’s science curriculum, I turned the letter into a PowerPoint presentation on the impact of a warming Arctic that we took on the road. Others printed out dozens of bright yellow petition booklets with Wilson’s words emblazoned at the top of each page.
Our campaign caught fire that winter. I redoubled my involvement after the gutting loss of most of my final competitive cross-country ski season to repeated warm spells and a lack of snowfall. Just a month into the spring semester, my parents received a warning that I was under attendance probation from skipping out on my own courses to present in others. I shrugged it off.
A week later, three friends and I drove through a snowstorm, past a dozen stranded cars, to visit classrooms in Sarah Palin’s hometown. One sophomore approached us after our first round of presentations and wryly introduced herself as one of Wasilla High’s five democrats, but even there most students signed Wilson’s letter.
Our clearest successes emerged out of our ability to make climate change feel immediate and concrete. We could sometimes hear the empathy growing as we projected images of houses damaged by melting permafrost. I remember one student cried when I told the story of Shishmaref, a village being clawed into the Chukchi Sea as temperatures rise.
But listening to Thunberg’s U.N. speech, I think we should have been more forceful in our framing of the issue. She pointedly used active language: “You say you love your children, but yet you are stealing their future in front of their eyes.”
When our wealthy and powerful society refuses to pay the costs of mitigation now, we push astronomical costs onto others, particularly future generations. Young people cannot let older ones sweep that fact under the rug. When we pollute, we desiccate their crops, kill off their biodiversity and spread malaria-vectoring mosquitoes to new regions. The rhetorical urgency of these young climate leaders is a major part of why they are breaking through with their peers around the world.
Bolder language would have helped the last leg of our campaign. Spring 2006 saw Wilson and five of us AYEA-ites zigzagging the halls of Congress, petition booklets in tow. The 5,000 signatures we had collected represented more than one out of every six Alaskan high schoolers, among them members of more than 100 communities, from Aniak to Yakutat, spanning all corners of a state 2½ times the size of Texas. Though both Alaskan senators listened, and eventually co-sponsored a bill to cap greenhouse gas emissions, no federal legislation ultimately passed.
From our congressional meetings, I learned that personal stories are the currency of our elected leaders. Facts matter, but if rational discourse alone shaped policy, we would have weaned ourselves off coal decades ago. Legislative success requires aligning an emotional imperative with intellectual understanding. But what I failed to appreciate at the time was that national action would have required a tapestry of stories woven from young constituents from every office we visited.
I wish I had done more as a youth activist to spread our movement beyond Alaska. Younger activists will have to now. The urgency of this moment means their generation cannot luxuriate in half-wins as I did. They will need something that keeps their inner fire lit, even in the face of seemingly immovable obstacles. For them, maybe that pilot light is a love of coral reefs or winter sports, or maybe, like Thunberg and Villasenor, it’s a righteous indignation at the catastrophically blasé attitudes of those in power. Whatever it is that irresistibly ignites the embers of your strength and resolve, you will need to both hold it tight and spread it widely.
Watching those flames soar around the world gives me hope for the future.