Who are these young people focusing on the climate? My data shows for the first time that the youth climate movement brings in people with experience in what is sometimes called the “resistance”: the broader movement that has been challenging President Trump’s administration and its polices since January 2017. This movement has merged the efforts of various progressive movements within it (including women’s rights, gun control and climate change). That includes a significant portion of these young climate activists, as I’ll explain.
Here’s how I did my research.
In June, I launched a project to discover who is participating in this movement. Throughout the month, I conducted an Internet survey of everyone who provided an email when they signed up to participate in the two global strikes organized by Fridays for Future — the group best known for its leader Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old Swedish climate activist. To ensure that I had a robust sample of U.S. participants, I also asked U.S. groups mobilizing young people to participate in climate activism to share a link to my survey with their members in a method called “snowball sampling.” Overall I collected surveys from 611 participants from around the world, 220 of whom live in the United States. The response rate for activists involved in Fridays for Future was 30 percent, which is higher than many similarly designed studies, though it is not possible to know how different non-respondents are from those who took the survey. For the “snowball sampling,” we cannot estimate a response rate since it is not based on a known population.
As many have noted, participants in this movement are young. Like the activists living abroad, a quarter of participants living in the United States are younger than 17. An additional quarter of the U.S. activists are between ages 17 and 18, which means that they will be of voting age by the November 2020 elections. Similar to my findings from participants in protests against the Trump administration and its policies, the majority (65 percent) of U.S. participants identify as female.
These youth climate activists have been involved in school strikes around the world. Over half of all respondents reported attending the First Global Climate Strike in March 2019 (55 percent in the United States and 60 percent abroad), in which young people in 100 countries walked out of school to protest the lack of global action on addressing climate change. In the more recent events, U.S. activists reported being less involved: Twenty-six percent participated in the coordinated climate strike in early May compared to 30 percent abroad, and 38 percent participated in the Second Global Climate Strike later that month, compared with 73 percent abroad. Both of these more recent events got little U.S. media attention.
Many of these young people have been involved in protests since Trump’s election.
Although U.S. youths have been less active in school strikes than their non-U.S. counterparts, these young people have come of age as part of the movement that has been protesting the Trump administration and its policies. A quarter of these young U.S. climate activists reported that their first experience protesting was as part of one of the large marches and even more have attended the demonstrations, as I discuss in detail in my book about this movement.
One year — almost to the day — before the first global climate strike, 49 percent of these U.S.-based activists were part of the March 2018 U.S. National School Walkout against gun violence, which was motivated by the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. Fully 44 percent say they participated in the March for Our Lives 10 days later.
Many also reported going to one or more of the three Women’s Marches that have taken place since Trump’s inauguration: Forty-seven percent said they attended in 2017, 40 percent in 2018 and 33 percent in 2019. These activists participated in other demonstrations at higher levels than they did in the more general (i.e., not youth-focused) People’s Climate March in April 2017, which 28 percent attended.
Moreover, U.S. participants are much more civically engaged than their compatriots abroad. Activists reported participating in a number of activities like reaching out to elected officials and attending town hall meetings: Seventy percent had contacted an elected official in the past year and 58 percent had attended a public, town or school meeting. U.S. youth climate activists were also more engaged in confrontational tactics, with 53 percent saying they’ve been involved in some form of direct action, which involves breaking the law or even violence. U.S. participants were also more engaged in consumer activism: Seventy-six percent said they had boycotted or deliberately bought a certain product for political, ethical or environmental reasons.
The youth climate movement has tapped into a very engaged cohort of American young people who have come of age in the movement to protest the Trump administration and its policies. Given that many of these young people have participated in activism around a range of issues, keeping them focused on climate change will take work. Regardless of what they focus on, however, 75 percent of these young activists will be eligible to vote in 2020 and are highly likely to cast ballots and do much more to make their voices heard.