Throughout history, most large social reform movements have been characterized by a charismatic figurehead. For the Civil Rights Movement, it was Martin Luther King Jr. In the fight for Indian independence, it was Mahatma Gandhi. The climate movement is less centralized than either of my previous examples and thus does not have as clear of a leader, but if I had to label someone the figurehead of the climate movement, it would be Greta Thunberg. While it is true that there are many powerful figures leading the climate movement, such as Mary Robinson, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Al Gore, none of them have become cultural icons in relation to the movement in the same way that Thunberg, who began her work at a young age, has.
It is very telling about the nature of the climate movement that the closest thing it has to a leader is a twenty-year-old activist whose work began when she was fifteen. The fact that the movement is led by someone as young as Thunberg highlights a key component of the climate movement: it is a space that empowers young people. This is partially thanks to the nature of climate change as an issue. Most of the political matters of our time are based in the present — economic issues such as job creation revolve around the current state of the economy, and immigration issues revolve around the current influx of migrants into a nation. Climate change, however, is an issue that we will only truly see the magnitude of in the future.
If the average age of a senator in the United States of America is around 65, it is unlikely that many of them will live to see the full fury of climate change. Young people, however, will grow up and raise children in a world locked in combat with the climate crisis. This is a textbook talking point when speaking about the climate, but it illustrates that the climate movement draws in youth because it is dedicated to a grave issue that will primarily fall on their shoulders.
Beyond this, I also believe that youth are driven towards the climate movement because it provides a way to rage against the machine in a way that no other current social movement does. Issues such as immigration, gun reform, or student loan forgiveness are all important ones, but they all exist, to a degree, within the status quo — progress on any of these issues will not drastically shift the way that society functions. Climate change, however, is an issue that merits radical change to combat. There is simply no easy way out. For this reason, the fight against the climate crisis represents more than avoiding danger; it represents the destruction of the status quo. It represents tearing down unsustainable institutions and taking dramatic steps towards progress. This radicalism is especially appealing to adolescents, for a benefit of being young is that you are not yet engrained enough in societal systems to accept them without question. Joining the fight against climate change helps young people direct their societal frustrations towards a specific end, which is both a source of appeal and empowerment.
As a result of these factors, the climate crisis has brought a boatload of opportunities for upstanding youth to make change in their communities and the world at large. There are, of course, the cases of famous young leaders such as Greta Thunberg, John Paul Jose, or Andover’s Salvador Gómez-Colón, all of whom started as activists at very young ages. However, there are also, and perhaps more importantly, large amounts of students across the world who perform acts of climate resistance with organizations like Sunrise, Fridays for Future, or XR Youth. The existence of movements like this, which are targeted towards youth, serve as a testament to how the climate movement champions youth action. Youth movements and organizations extend beyond planting trees and recycling — they allow youth to participate in activities such as demonstrations or lobbying, which prompt genuine political engagement.
My views on the nature of the climate movement certainly reflect my observations of it, but they reflect my personal experiences with it as well. In Freshman Year, I became involved with the Phillips Academy Sustainability Coalition (PASC), which then led me to join a different advocacy group called Our Climate Massachusetts. My work with Our Climate has granted me a degree of political agency that I did not think was possible for a high schooler. It has taken me from the steps of the Massachusetts State House to the halls of Congress. Although my political activism often seems like a pointless battle against partisan politics, the most important thing that I have learned is that it is genuinely possible for young people to meaningfully participate in the political process. The climate movement is one of the best tools by which we can do this — climate change is universally relevant, and almost anyone can speak upon it without being an expert. It is the perfect jumping-off point for making your voice heard on the political stage.
I would like to close by pointing out that although I have spent considerable time gushing about the opportunities the climate movement presents to young people, it is often difficult to find those opportunities. Climate work is a big commitment, which often leads to homogeneity in climate spaces, as they usually only consist of people who can afford the large time commitment that comes with being an activist. Furthermore, young people lead busy lives — there is often not enough time for them to consider issues like climate change that can be easily dismissed as existential in nature. Thus, while the climate movement already serves as a bastion for youth activism, it can do so to an even greater degree. Large institutions, schools in particular, possess the power to provide opportunities for climate activism to their students, through education and action-oriented programming. With the climate crisis becoming more urgent by the day, it is high time they do so.
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