Chapter 1: Kids Take Action CHAPTER 1 Kids Take Action
They streamed out of their schools, bubbling with excitement. Little trickles of them flowed from side streets into grand avenues, where they mingled with other streams of children and teens. Chanting, chatting, dressed in everything from crisp school uniforms to leopard leggings, the kids formed rushing rivers in dozens of cities around the world. They marched by the hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands.
Did businesspeople gaze down from their office windows and wonder what so many kids were doing out of school? Were shoppers puzzled by the surging excitement on the streets? Signs carried by the marchers answered those questions:
One of New York City’s ten thousand young marchers was a girl who held up her painting of bumblebees, flowers, and jungle animals. The painting was lush, but the words with it were harsh: 45% OF INSECTS LOST TO CLIMATE CHANGE. 60% OF ANIMALS HAVE DISAPPEARED IN THE LAST 50 YEARS. At the center she had painted an hourglass running out of sand.
That day in March 2019 was the first global School Strike for Climate.
STUDENTS ON STRIKE
Organizers of the first school strike estimate that there were almost 2,100 youth climate strikes in 125 countries that day. More than a million and a half young people showed up. Most of them had walked out of school—some with permission, some without—either for an hour or for a whole day.
Many of them took to the streets because they recognized a deep conflict in what they were learning about the world. Schoolbooks and documentaries had shown them ancient glaciers, dazzling coral reefs, and other living things that make up our planet’s many marvels. But at almost the same time, they were finding out that much of this wonder has already disappeared because of climate change. Much more would be gone if they waited until they were grown up to do something.
Learning about climate change had convinced these kids that things could not continue on the same path. So, like many groups before them who had fought to transform the world, they took to marching.
But many of these young people went on strike not just to prevent losses in the future but because they were already living
in a climate crisis. In Cape Town, South Africa, hundreds of young strikers chanted at their elected leaders to stop approving new projects that would contribute to our planet’s warming. A year earlier, the huge city had come desperately close to running out of water, after several years of low rainfall and severe drought that were likely caused—or at least made worse—by climate change.
In the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, young strikers yelled, “Raise your voice, not the sea level!” Their Pacific neighbor, the Solomon Islands, had already seen five small islands covered by the sea, which is rising as higher temperatures cause water to expand and glaciers and ice sheets to melt.
“You sold our future, just for profit!” the students in Delhi, India, yelled through white medical masks. Delhi often has some of the worst pollution in the world, in part because India is a major user of coal, a fuel that produces pollution. But the clouds of smog that form visible air pollution are not the only problem with coal. Burning it also releases invisible substances called greenhouse gases into the air. And as the student marchers there knew, and as you will see, these gases are the reason our climate is changing.
Hope, determination, and a bouncing globe filled the air as young people filled the streets in Sydney, Australia, during the first School Strike for Climate.
That day was the first-ever worldwide climate strike—and it was created and run by kids. With that first school strike and those that have followed it, young people around the world are demanding a say in the future of their world.
“We Deserve Better”
One hundred and fifty thousand young people poured into the streets of Australia’s cities for the first School Strike for Climate. They knew that climate change was already damaging their nation. One of its effects, as you saw at the beginning of this book, is that warming ocean water is killing the Great Barrier Reef, a natural treasure of Australia and the world.
Yet Australia remains a major producer and seller of coal. And coal, when burned as fuel to power electrical plants and for other uses, produces the greenhouse gases that drive temperatures higher. Fifteen-year-old Nosrat Fareha, an Australian strike organizer, said to the country’s political class, “You have failed us all so terribly. We deserve better. Young people can’t even vote but will have to live with the consequences of your inaction.” Like other young people in other cities, Fareha was unafraid to speak the blunt truth to those in power. That fearlessness is one of the strengths of the youth movement for change.
A SCHOOLGIRL IN SWEDEN
The School Strike for Climate in March 2019 showed the world a youth movement that was large and growing. It had begun largely thanks to a fifteen-year-old girl in Stockholm, Sweden.
Greta Thunberg started learning about climate change when she was eight years old. She saw documentaries about melting glaciers and disappearing species. She learned that burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas emits—or releases—greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and those gases contribute to climate change. Power plants, chimneys and smokestacks, cars, and planes all add greenhouse gas emissions to the air.
Meat-based diets also increase greenhouse gases, Greta learned. That’s because raising livestock, especially cattle, means cutting down large amounts of forest to create grazing lands. This deforestation removes trees, and trees absorb the harmful greenhouse gas known as carbon dioxide, taking it out of the atmosphere. In addition, cattle and their manure add methane, another greenhouse gas, to the air.
As Greta grew older and learned more, she focused on scientists’ predictions about what Earth will be like in 2040, 2060, and 2080 if humans do not change our ways. She thought about what this would mean to her own life—the disasters she would have to endure; the animals and plants that would disappear forever; the hardships in store for her own children, if she decided to become a parent.
But she also learned that the worst predictions of the climate scientists were not set in stone. By taking bold action now, humans can sharply increase the chances of a safe future. We can still save some of the glaciers. We can protect many island nations from being swallowed by the sea. We might avoid massive crop failures and unbearable heat that would send millions or even billions of people fleeing from their homes.
Why, Greta wondered, wasn’t everyone talking about preventing
climate disaster? Why weren’t nations such as hers leading a dramatic charge to lower greenhouse gases? The world was on fire, yet everywhere Greta looked, people were still going about their lives, buying new cars and new clothes they didn’t need, as though nothing were wrong.
At around the age of eleven, Greta fell into a deep depression. One reason she could not shake off her depression is that Greta has a form of autism that causes her to focus intently on subjects that interest her. So when Greta turned her laser-like attention to the climate breakdown, she saw and felt the full meaning of the crisis. She could not be distracted from it. Fear and grief for the planet overwhelmed her. Depression is complex, and there were other factors too. But it was impossible for Greta to understand why those in power were not doing much about the crisis of climate change. Weren’t they also scared and angry?
A big part of coming out of her depression was finding ways to close the unbearable gap between what she had learned about the causes of the climate crisis and how she and her family lived. She convinced her parents to stop eating meat and to stop flying. The most important change for her, though, was finding a way to tell the rest of the world that it was time to stop pretending everything was fine. If she wanted powerful politicians to treat the fight against climate change as an emergency, she figured that her own life had to express that state of emergency too.
So in August 2018, at the age of fifteen, Greta didn’t go to class when school started. Instead she went to Sweden’s center of government and sat outside with a handmade sign that read SCHOOL STRIKE FOR CLIMATE. She spent every Friday there, in her thrift-shop hoodie and light brown braids. This single action was the beginning of the Fridays for Future movement.
Greta Thunberg, a solitary Swedish schoolgirl, launched a movement that would reach every part of the world.
Public protest can be a powerful way to make a statement, but protest doesn’t always make things happen overnight. At first people ignored Greta as she sat with her sign. Gradually, though, her protest got a bit of attention in the news. This caught the eyes of people who understood what she was trying to communicate, who agreed with her and also wanted to make a statement. Other students, and a few adults, started showing up with signs. Soon Greta was being asked to speak at climate rallies, then at United Nations climate conferences, and to the leaders of the European Union, the British Parliament, and more.
Greta has said that people with her kind of autism “aren’t very good at lying.” She speaks in short, sharp truths. “You are failing us,” she said to world leaders and diplomats at the United Nations in September 2019. “But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say, we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”
Even if Greta’s speeches brought no dramatic action from world leaders, her words electrified many others. People shared videos of her on social media. They talked about how she’d inspired them to face their own fears about the climate future and to take action. Suddenly children around the world took their cues from Greta. They organized their own student strikes. Many held up signs with her words: I WANT YOU TO PANIC. OUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE.
In December 2019, Time
magazine named Greta Thunberg its youngest-ever Person of the Year for her activism in calling attention to the climate crisis. Yet she gives credit to other young activists who were her
inspiration—students in Parkland, Florida. After seventeen people were murdered at their school in February 2018, Parkland students led a national wave of class walkouts for gun control. By following their example, Greta helped to bring the youth climate change movement to the world’s stage, and by following her example, thousands more kids just like you have committed themselves to halting the dangerous progression of climate change.
Living with autism isn’t easy. For most people, says Greta, it “is an endless fight against schools, workplaces and bullies. But under the right circumstances, given the right adjustments, it can be a superpower.”
And this is why Greta credits her autism for her clear vision of the problem and her power to speak clearly about it. “If the emissions have to stop, then we must stop the emissions,” she says. “To me that is black or white. There are no gray areas when it comes to survival. Either we go on as a civilization or we don’t. We have to change.”
Learning about the ways our climate is changing can lead to sadness, anger, or fear. But Greta discovered that she could help deal with those feelings by taking action and making a public stand—and when she did that, she became someone for many others to stand beside. Like the tiny piece of sand inside an oyster that causes a pearl to form around it, Greta’s small act of protest helped create something beautiful and strong.
A LAWSUIT FOR CHILDREN’S RIGHTS
Young people are not just taking the climate movement to the streets. They are also taking it into the courts. Can they use international law to fight climate change? Sixteen kids from twelve countries on five continents are going to find out.
In September 2019 these climate activists, ranging from eight to seventeen years old, filed a legal complaint with the United Nations under an international treaty called the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This treaty took effect in 1989 to protect children’s rights in the countries that signed it. It says, among other things, that every child has the “right to life” and that governments “shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.”
The complaint singles out Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey. Among the nations that have signed the UN treaty, those five produce the highest amounts of greenhouse gases. (The United States and China emit more greenhouse gases, but the United States has not signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child. China has not signed the part of it that would allow it to be sued.)
The sixteen young people who filed the complaint say that by not doing enough to limit or prepare for climate change, the five countries have failed in their duty to protect children’s rights to life and health. It is the first UN climate complaint made on behalf of children around the world.
The next step will be for a committee of human-rights experts to review the complaint. This process could take several years. If the committee agrees with the children, it will make recommendations to the five countries on how they can meet their duty under the treaty. Although the committee does not have the power to force the countries to follow its recommendations, the countries that signed the treaty did pledge to live up to it.
The sixteen young activists are Greta Thunberg and Ellen-Anne of Sweden; Chiara Sacchi from Argentina; Catarina Lorenzo from Brazil; Iris Duquesne from France; Raina Ivanova from Germany; Ridhima Pandey from India; David Ackley III, Ranton Anjain, and Litokne Kabua from the Marshall Islands; Deborah Adegbile from Nigeria; Carlos Manuel from Palau; Ayakha Melithafa from South Africa; Raslen Jbeili from Tunisia; and Carl Smith and Alexandria Villaseñor from the United States.
Catarina Lorenzo of Brazil spoke in September 2019 about a complaint filed at the United Nations by sixteen young people who accuse multiple countries of failing to act against climate change. Carlos Manuel of Palau (left) and David Ackley III of the Marshall Islands (right) were also among the sixteen.
David, Ranton, Litokne, and Carlos know firsthand that the need for action on climate change is urgent. They live on the island nations of the Marshall Islands and Palau in the Pacific Ocean. They are surrounded by dying reefs, rising seas, and ever more violent storms. Their message to the world is that even if people don’t see climate change happening in their own home country or town, it is
happening right now, and it will affect us all soon.
“Climate change is affecting the way I live,” said Litokne in the complaint. “It has taken away my home, the land and the animals.”
Carlos, from Palau, said, “I want bigger countries to know that us small island nations are the most vulnerable countries to be affected by climate change. Our homes are being slowly swallowed up by the ocean.”
No matter what the committee of human-rights experts decides about this lawsuit, kids like you have shown that they are fierce and determined defenders of life on Earth. Other young people have followed their lead and filed similar climate-related lawsuits around the world.
Now that you’ve seen some of what young people are doing to call attention to the climate crisis, you may find yourself wondering what fueled their desire to act on such a large scale. The next chapters will give you a closer look at the climate crisis and its causes. You’ll see what is driving so many kids like you to devote themselves to changing the world for the better.