Interviewed in Seattle, Kiran Oommen smiles. “At 22, I’m at the upper end of the youth climate movement. When I was a high school sophomore, I was alone. I worked with older activists, about the age I am now. My younger siblings are part of a whole movement at school.”
Greta Thunberg is one of those younger siblings, at least in spirit. In August 2018, when she was 15, she protested alone outside the Swedish parliament, launching what would become the School Strike for Climate campaign.
Two months later, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report laying out the need to limit global warming to 1.5°C over pre-industrial times. It estimated that the world has only until 2030 to drastically cut fossil fuel emissions and increase measures like reforestation to pull carbon out of the atmosphere.
Young people around the world took the dire warnings to heart. And they are remaking the environmental movement by calling for climate justice for those who are poor and ignored in tandem with the demand to protect the planet.
The movement takes off. One of the organizations playing a role in the upsurge is Rising Tide, an international coalition created in 2000 by established environmental organizations for action at COP6, the sixth annual conference of countries who are party to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. In the U.S., groups include Sunrise Movement and Zero Hour, both started in 2017. Sunrise led protests at Congressional offices in November and December 2018.
Extinction Rebellion is multi-generational, with a youth wing. It began in 2018 and held high-profile civil disobedience actions in London in November 2018 and April 2019.
The School Strike for Climate inspired by Greta Thunberg, also known as Fridays For Future or FFF, rapidly became global.
In November and December 2018, students rallied on Fridays to coordinate with the U.N. climate conference in Poland (COP24). In 2019, strikes mobilized more than a million people in 125 countries on March 15, and hundreds of thousands on May 24. From Sept. 20 to 27, as many as 7.6 million people demonstrated in 185 countries.
More strikes are planned for Nov. 29 and Dec. 6, to address the Dec. 2–13 U.N. COP25 in Madrid.
The courts are another front in the fight. Kiran Oommen is one of the 21 plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States. The case argues that the government, by its failure to act against climate change, has significantly harmed the claimants’ rights to life and liberty. This dramatic case has managed to stay alive in court since 2015 despite determined efforts by the federal government to kill it.
Oommen emphasizes how they use the lawsuit for organizing. “We call rallies whenever we have court dates,” he tells the Freedom Socialist. “We see ourselves as part of the movement. Ours was one of the first, but now there are lawsuits like this globally, of young people demanding accountability from governments and corporations. Many of us are youth of color, so we represent the span of people affected by global warming.”
Another suit, Sinnok v. the State of Alaska, is made up of 16 young Alaskans between 5 and 22 years old. The lead plaintiff is Esau Sinnok, an Inupiaq from Shishmaref, an island village being destroyed by rising seas and melting permafrost. By promoting the fossil fuels that destabilize the climate, the state is jeopardizing the very survival of these young people.
Fighting for climate justice. In the past, the drive to protect the environment largely focused on ecology as a single issue and its champions often saw attempts to inject social justice concerns as divisive. This has changed.
The FS interviewed Mara Orenstein, also a 22-year-old activist, together with Oommen. She says, “The youth climate movement is about justice for all the marginalized.”
Orenstein describes her cause as anti-colonial and anti-imperialist and speaks of opposing the rise of the far right in Bolivia as an example. “Defending the rights of indigenous people fighting for their lands is not separate from the environmental movement.”
“Immigrant and refugee rights are another tie-in to environmental justice,” she adds, with Oommen pointing out that these are the people uprooted by environmental destruction.
Oommen condemns the U.S. military as being among the worst climate actors. “For our generation, war was normalized. Soldiers come back, talking about the destruction our country is carrying out.” He and Orenstein are working with Seattle Rising Tide in solidarity with the Kurdish people of Rojava in northern Syria and for Palestinian rights. “It’s all connected,” he says.
The two work with climate activists who also fight the military’s patriarchal, anti-queer policies and the ban on trans people in the military. They defend unions and workers’ rights and call for creation of jobs in clean energy.
Youth of color are prominent in today’s climate effort. They include, among many others, Alexandria Villaseñor and Bruno Rodriguez, school strikers in New York City and Buenos Aires; Autumn Peltier, First Nations water protector in Canada; and Helena Gualinga, from the Ecuadorian Amazon.
What way to survival? The global climate strikes in September 2019 were directed to a U.N. Climate Action Summit that took place on Sept. 23 in New York City — and once more failed to deliver strong action to solve the planet emergency. World leaders, who are charged with maintaining a status quo of, by and for the corporations, for the most part continue to fiddle while the planet burns.
In some senses, we’ve been here before. The nuclear ban movement of the 1950s faced the same existential issue of human survival. The March 2003 global demonstrations against imminent war in Iraq were the largest in history. These and other movements have been ignored by the powerful. So, with so much at stake, how can the climate movement now stop a dance with death where others have failed?
We can learn from the past, and it’s imperative that we do. Eco-activists and writers increasingly identify capitalism as the cause of the climate crisis. But proposed solutions still tend to avoid the logical conclusion: the profit system must be directly confronted and replaced. The only path forward is a revolutionary one, and that course requires the kind of collective, disciplined, democratic planning and action that a revolutionary organization can provide.
The current youth-led movement, with its expanding consciousness and broadening composition, holds enormous promise. The challenge now is to go all the way.