Walking out of schools and toward climate solutions

Walking out of schools and toward climate solutions
© Greg Nash

From the halls of schools to the halls of Congress, young people are certainly talking the talk about climate change. And now, thousands of young people across the world are walking the walk, right out of school, taking to the streets to demand urgent action on climate change. 

Our generation has grown up with threats of food and water scarcity, resource wars, displacement of vulnerable communities, unnatural disasters, and other impacts of a warmer world. I recently saw a child ask a panel of climate scientists and journalists where in the world she could go to be safe. None of the panelists could answer her.

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This week’s strike is one of many actions youth across the world are taking, at every level of government, to demand bold action on climate and to stand up to the fossil fuel industry. For months, middle and high school students have boycotted school to make a statement about their compromised future; as one colorfully decorated cardboard sign asked, “Why should I be studying for a future that doesn’t exist?” 

In Washington, D.C., young leaders with the Sunrise Movement have propelled the Green New Deal onto Capitol Hill through electoral organizing, direct action, and the courage to challenge the status quo. More than 30,000 youth have signed an amicus brief to support the landmark lawsuit brought by children suing the federal government for the right to a stable climate, urging the Ninth Circuit to allow the trial to proceed.

Each of these youth-led efforts demand that elected officials act decisively and urgently to reject fossil fuels and build a clean energy economy that is fair and inclusive. From the courts to the streets, even those who cannot yet vote are raising their voices for change. We have an extremely limited window of time to prevent dangerous tipping points and avoid climate catastrophe. As such, we are unwilling to compromise, when compromise means we lose access to clean air, reliable food supplies or protection from storms that could destroy our lives in seconds.

As more elected officials wake up to the climate crisis, they must set targets grounded in science and — just as importantly — pass laws that give teeth to their pledges.  In the United States, while hundreds of governors and mayors have committed to abide by the Paris Agreement, too few of these goals are legally binding. Non-binding goals on their own do not keep a pound of carbon in the ground, but they open the door for potentially transformative climate legislation to cut emissions and lay the groundwork for federal policy. 

In state capitols across the country, young leaders are pushing leaders through that open door and advocating for policies that will account for the true costs of carbon pollution, reduce emissions, and invest in a just transition to clean energy. Youth are meeting with their representatives, organizing creative actions, and mobilizing their peers to build political will for legislation that responds to the climate crisis. In Oregon, for example, young leaders are urging their representatives to pass a bill backed by the governor that would set a declining cap on pollution and mandate that the state reduce emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

In Massachusetts, student leaders have helped secure 95 cosponsors for legislation that would put a rising fee on carbon pollution; the fee will adjust as needed to ensure goals are met. A number of politically moderate states with newly elected pro-conservation majorities are considering similar policies, including Minnesota and New Mexico. Building on this momentum, hundreds of young advocates will convene at state capitols across the country for a distributed Youth Lobby Day on April 9th, calling on lawmakers to enact proposed policies and commit to state-level action that is aligned with climate science.

Climate change demands visionary ideas and follow-through to bring those visions into reality. Young people understand this. The young leaders I stand shoulder to shoulder with are not interested in aspirational statements that look good in a press release; nor are we interested in rearranging the deck chairs as the Titanic sinks. We support policies at every level of government that are based in science, establish legally binding targets, and equitably move the economy away from fossil fuels.

Generation Z and Millennials are quickly becoming the largest electoral bloc, and for us, climate change increasingly transcends partisan affiliation. We unite behind the shared goal of a healthy planet that can sustain life as we know it. Our generation can afford nothing less.

Page Atcheson is the executive director of Our Climate, which empowers young leaders to advocate for science-based and equitable climate policy.