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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Youth Climate Activists Are Fed Up, and We Don't Blame Them

By Mary Mazzoni
Youth Activists Greta Thunberg Climate Strike

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (center) holds up a portion of a banner reading "fight for climate justice" at a march in Berlin, Germany, on Friday.  

Hundreds of thousands of youth activists took to the streets for a global climate strike on Friday, including in New York City where leaders gathered for Climate Week and the U.N. General Assembly. Their message was simple: Stop stealing our future. 

Considering today's youth will live through three times as many climate disasters as their grandparents, and nearly half of young people say fear about climate change impacts their daily lives, activism seems a natural antidote to festering concerns about an uncertain future. But as global climate negotiations fail to yield measurable results, youth activists sound increasingly fed up, and we can't say we blame them. 

Young people take to the streets in a global climate strike

The global climate strike included protests in more than 1,500 locations around the world, from the U.S. and Europe to Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

The demonstrations were organized by Fridays for Future, the youth climate action movement that launched in 2018 when Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, then 15 years old, started a solitary climate strike outside her home country's parliament to demand stronger action from governments. The movement took hold, and young people from around the world began rallying every Friday in support of climate action. 

Following two global climate strikes in 2019, which together gathered around 8 million people, Friday's action represents the largest in-person push since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and analysts are hopeful it could put wind back in the movement's sails. 

“Demonstrations are not something that social movements can compensate for with other things," Sebastian Haunss, a political scientist at the Protest and Movement Research Institute, told Inside Climate News. "The idea that the internet would make it possible to demonstrate effectively without physical protests was contradicted during the pandemic.” Yusuf Baluch, a 17-year-old youth activist in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, agreed. "Last time it was digital and nobody was paying attention to us," he told Reuters at a strike in Pakistan last week. 

At the demonstrations, youth activists demanded action from business and government that meets the scale of the climate crisis and ensures the most vulnerable can cope. "Everyone is talking about making promises, but nobody keeps their promise. We want more action," Farzana Faruk Jhumu, a 22-year-old activist in Dhaka, Bangladesh, told Reuters. "We want the work, not just the promises."

"They simply don’t give a damn about us," Thunberg added at a rally in Berlin on Friday, speaking of lawmakers in Europe and beyond. "There's no going back now. We can still turn this around. People are ready for change, we want change, we demand change and we are the change." 

youth activists global climate strike Uganda
Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate (front row, second from left) joins a global climate strike demonstration in Uganda on Friday. (Credit: Vanessa Nakate/Twitter)

Youth activists voice skepticism at U.N. talks in Milan

This week, many of those same youth activists — 400 young people in total, from 180 countries — will meet for the Youth4Climate summit, a three-day event in Milan that will send recommendations to the U.N. COP26 climate talks in Glasgow next month.

U.N. organizers clearly had high hopes for the event, saying it will "provide young delegates an unprecedented opportunity to put forward ideas and concrete proposals on some of the most pressing issues on the climate agenda," but youth activists remained skeptical as the summit kicked off on Tuesday. 

"So-called leaders have cherry picked young people to meetings like this to pretend they are listening to us, but they clearly don’t listen to us," Thunberg said in Milan. "Our emissions are still rising. The science doesn’t lie."

She's not wrong: Global carbon emissions are on track to increase by 16 percent by 2030, according to the U.N., rather than fall by half, which is what's needed to cap global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst impacts of climate change. 

Thunberg didn't mince words when discussing how those projected increases reflect on business and government: “Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders: Words that sound great but so far have not led to action," Thunberg said. "Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises.”

In her opening remarks, lauded Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate called out wealthy nations for failing to make good on their promise to deliver 100 billion euros in annual climate finance to vulnerable countries. "Funds were promised by 2020, and we are still waiting,” she said in Milan on Tuesday. “No more empty conferences. It’s time to show us the money. It’s time, it’s time, it’s time.” 

At the Milan talks, youth leaders will break up into groups to discuss solutions to key climate challenges. Their proposals will be vetted by climate and energy ministers before making their way to leaders at the Glasgow talks, Reuters reports. But not everyone seems convinced those recommendations will actually reflect the concerns of young people. “They have people in the rooms who are watching what we say. The topics we have been split into have been decided for us,” Saoi O’Connor, an Irish activist in the Fridays for Future movement, told the Associated Press

Privately, many major figures involved in the Glasgow talks share the activists' skepticism about the outcome, with key players admitting to the Guardian the original aim of the talks — to rally pledges from major emitters that will halve global emissions by 2030 in alignment with the Paris Agreement — will be missed.  

Still, youth advocates are far from despondent. They are simply shifting where they place their hope — namely in themselves and other organizers, rather than in big business or government. “We can no longer let the people in power decide what is politically possible," Thunberg said in her remarks in Milan, as quoted by the Guardian. "We can no longer let the people in power decide what hope is. Hope is not passive. Hope is not blah, blah, blah. Hope is telling the truth. Hope is taking action. And hope always comes from the people.”

Image credit: Flickr/Stefan Müller and Twitter/Vanessa Nakate

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni