Planning protests, not prom: Inside today's youth climate strike movement | Earth Day Network

By Brandon Pytel

On a Friday afternoon in early autumn, 17-year-old Jerome Foster II was not at school. He wasn’t at home, either. Foster was outside the White House in Washington, D.C., holding a sign that read, “School Strike for Climate,” and protesting government inaction on climate change.

“Most of the time I’m here by myself,” Foster told me, a different scene from two weeks earlier when Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg joined him and hundreds of youth climate activists to strike outside the White House.

Foster speaks in rapid cadences, his voice spurting forth in call-to-action phrases and rhetoric that echoes an urgency found in the youth climate movement. Most days Foster is easy to point out. He wears a bright blue and green bike jersey embedded with the words, “Think Globally Bike Locally” — it’s become a sort of signature.

But when I spoke to him outside the White House, Foster wore a hoodie. Sweating under an abnormally hot autumn day and in direct sunlight, he said he wore the hoodie because he was battling a cold. Several times he had to excuse himself to cough.

On top of sacrificing his health for the cause, Foster sacrifices a traditional high school experience by climate striking. He’s a senior at Washington Leadership Academy in Northeast D.C. and, like many of his classmates, is enrolled in a handful of AP courses in preparation for college. All those classes are put on hold when he strikes.

“Some teachers fully support my striking, but other teachers are like, ‘You’re going to get a zero.’ Okay, I’ll take the zero,” said Foster.

Jerome Foster II holds his climate strike sign. Foster, originally from Washington, D.C., strikes outside the White House every Friday.

That attitude reflects the mindsets of countless youth climate activists around the world who strike in the name of climate action. To them, climate change is a crisis that must be prioritized above all else —even if that means forgoing an A.

Kids from all over the world have been striking and using their voices to demand change. Some are inspired by the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg; others are inspired by each other; others are just fed up by climate inaction.

“We have no more time,” Jamie Margolin, founder of youth climate movement Zero Hour, told me several weeks earlier. “People are dying, and it is important that [world leaders] step up and give a damn.”

Margolin’s Zero Hour movement was how Foster became formally involved in climate activism. Foster loves writing, and he hopes to be a journalist someday — something he worries might clash with his activism. Two years ago, he started a blog called The Climate Reporter.

While searching the Internet for stories for his blog, Foster came across the Zero Hour movement. Surprised to discover there was an entire organization of young people organizing against climate change, he emailed and asked how he could help. That set him off on a course of climate action.

“I just knew about the climate crisis, and I wanted to educate myself more and more,” said Foster. “And I felt that if us young people aren’t going to be taken seriously, then we’re going to make sure we are by uniting globally.”

The youth climate movement is an entire community. Zero Hour isn’t the only environmental organization mobilizing youth — there’s also Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, Earth Guardians, Earth Uprising and Fridays for Future, the last of which was started by Greta Thunberg.

Jerome Foster II and other activists at the White House strike in early September 2019.

Though the climate movement has been going on for a couple years, only recently have national media and world leaders begun taking notice.

“It has just been accelerating and growing,” said Margolin. “The pressure has been magnifying. Something is going to tip the scale, and we do not have a choice.”

Margolin started Zero Hour in 2017 to organize a youth climate march. She and Zero Hour succeeded, organizing the Youth Climate March in 25 global cities on July 21, 2018, a little more than a year after the People’s Climate March and the March for Science, both in April 2017. Now Zero Hour is a staple of the youth climate movement.

From marches to strikes

These marches and movements are converging with the recent climate strikes, the latter of which has been widely attributed to the rise of Greta Thunberg. Many consider Thunberg the face of today’s global student strike movement and the reason many, including Foster, initially started striking.

“She knows so much more than anyone,” said Foster, who spoke with Thunberg after a White House strike. “She knows everything you can know about the climate crisis and understands the urgency.”

In August 2018, Thunberg began striking against climate inaction, sitting outside Swedish parliament in Stockholm every Friday and holding a sign that read Skolstrejk för Klimatet (school strike for the climate).

Thunberg remained committed, striking through the cold, wet Scandinavian weather. People took notice. The New Yorker profiled her. In December of 2018, Thunberg spoke at the U.N.’s COP24.

“I’ve learned you are never too small to make a difference,” said Thunberg at COP24. “And if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school, then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to.”

As Margolin and Foster were organizing for Zero Hour, another soon-to-be youth activist was on her own quest. And Thunberg’s speech helped guide her journey.

Fourteen-year-old Alexandria Villaseñor, now known for her weekly strikes in front of New York’s United Nations headquarters, had just returned from Northern California, where she saw directly the impacts of climate change on communities.

In autumn of 2018, Villaseñor traveled to her birthplace of Davis, California. Davis is only an hour from Paradise, where the now infamous Camp Fire broke out last year, a wildfire that killed 85 people and destroyed 150,000 acres and 18,000 buildings. The smoke eventually got to Davis. Suffering from asthma, Villaseñor had to return to New York prematurely.

Fourteen-year-old Alexandria Villaseñor, known for her weekly strikes in front of New York’s United Nations headquarters, introduces Greta Thunberg at the global climate strike in New York City on September 20, 2019.

“When I got back to New York City, I was so upset because all my friends and family were still in that fire, still experiencing the effects of the smoke,” said Villaseñor, at a youth climate panel co-hosted by Earth Day Network and Twitter. “I started to research, and I came across how the climate crisis is linked to California wildfires. I started to see the effects of the climate crisis all around the world.”

That curiosity to make sense of the world drives many climate activists. It’s a self-education that often ends in frightening revelations: The world is changing rapidly, and the youth are sensing that they’re inheriting a much less inhabitable Earth than the older generations have lived in.

“My generation will be impacted the most by the climate crisis, more so than any generation before us,” Villaseñor told me after the panel. “It is important for young people to stand up for our futures and demand action because we are the ones being handed this future.”

The more Villaseñor learned, the more she wanted to help. But she didn’t know how. That’s when she saw Greta Thunberg give an impassioned call to action at COP24. On December 14, 2018, Villaseñor took her up on that call and started striking at the U.N. Headquarters in New York. She’s been there every Friday since.

Villaseñor and Foster crossed paths months later at this year’s March for Science. That’s when Villaseñor encouraged Foster to strike.

“I was too scared [to strike], then I met Alexandria,” said Foster. “She gave me a pep talk and said I should do a climate strike at the White House. The day I came back from March of Science, I striked here. It was an amazing experience.”

It’s the science, stupid

Besides the urgency, the self-education and the sometimes-blunt messaging, a common theme throughout the youth climate movement is a steadfast reliance on science.

When Thunberg testified to U.S. Congress in September, she submitted landmark 2018 research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as her testimony. The special report gives us a dozen years to curb greenhouse gases to avoid 2 degrees of warming and limit the effects of a climate catastrophe.

Sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg at a strike in Washington, D.C. Many consider Thunberg the face of today’s global student strike movement and the reason many initially started striking.

“I am submitting this report as my testimony because I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists,” Thunberg said. “And I want you to unite behind the science. And then I want you to take real action.”

Thunberg was presenting new research, but at the same time, she was backing climate science that has been known for decades.

The IPCC was formed in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the U.N. Environment Programme to assess climate change based on the latest science. This corresponded with climate scientist James Hansen’s testimony to U.S. Congress in June 1988. As part of his testimony, Hansen, who was director of the NASA Goddard Institute at the time, said, “The global warming is now large enough that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship to the greenhouse effect.”

A day later, The New York Times ran a headline that read “Global Warming Has Begun.” Bill McKibben’s book “End of Nature,” the first climate change book for a general audience, came out a year later.

Many consider these events in the late ‘80s the line drawn in the sand — the time when the public first learned about the potential impacts of climate change. Since then, however, very little has been done to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Paradoxically, each year since then the amount of greenhouse gas emissions we spew into the atmosphere has increased.

Part of the urgency of the youth climate movement is driven by this blatant disregard of decades-old climate science. Political leaders have known about this since well before many of these activists were born. Rather than ignore these reports, like so many before them, these activists are using them as a sort of fuel.

“We need politicians to have the courage, we need them to have the moral clarity and for them to have the ability to actually say what the facts are,” said Foster. “For them to actually act on them and not make speeches.”

Almost everyone I’ve talked to in the youth climate movement mentioned these IPCC reports in some way, mostly as a call to action that compounds an already urgent tone.

Climate strikers in Washington, D.C., for the global climate strike.

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, a 19-year-old indigenous hip hop artist and climate activist, has been involved in the climate movement since he was six. He said he was tired of politicians dragging their feet and falling short on their promises.

“We have eleven years to radically transform every sector of our economy to guarantee a job to everyone who needs one and get our economy towards a renewable energy to make sure that we have a dignified and livable future,” said Martinez.

“We are demanding that action is implemented immediately to treat this like exactly as it is: a global emergency, a crisis,” he said. “We have so little time.”

Building momentum

Halfway through my conversation with Foster, a passerby interrupted us. She was visiting D.C. from Hawaii and recognized Foster. She briefly said she appreciated what Foster was doing and then was on her way. Foster was all smiles.

“[Striking] seems to have a ripple effect,” Foster told me. “People that walk past may not know anything about climate change… But if they see ‘School Strike for Climate,’ they see how important it is. I’m taking time out of school to come here and strike. That just shows the extent of the climate crisis.”

That climate crisis seems to be getting worse. With each passing day, greenhouse gas emissions left unchecked are causing irreversible damage to our planet. And this isn’t just a problem for future generations (although climate impacts will get more and more devastating in the coming decades); we’re already seeing the damage of climate change in the form of record droughts, hurricanes, floods and wildfires.

People are taking to the streets to force the issue into public view, driving more awareness to climate change than ever before. Organizations like Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion are shutting down city streets and legislative offices to draw media attention and turn the heads of policymakers. If not with the carrot, then with the stick.

Climate activists from Extinction Rebellion take to the streets in Washington, D.C.

“One of the best ways for people to support this movement is to go out and do civil disobedience in forms of strikes or other direct actions,” Villaseñor said. “Now is the time for us to take to the streets because that is how we can see the most change.”

The first time I talked to Jerome Foster was before a Fridays for Future White House strike that brought Thunberg to Washington, D.C. The event turned out hundreds of youth activists, press members and interested bystanders.

“I’m not seeing action. There’s no hope without action,” Foster told me before the strike. “We won’t stop striking until we see global action to the levels that meets the global crisis.”

About an hour later, Foster gave an impassioned speech — which he later told me was improvised — that helped kick off the event. The speech hits on several main points of the youth climate movement and is included it in its full length below:

I have been striking at the White House for about 14 weeks now, and today, I want to call to action and say that young people around the world are not striking for pity. They’re not striking for forgiveness. They’re not striking for any other reason. We’re striking to demand action, because we don’t want change, but we need change. We need global change.

Because if you look around the world, we’re seeing natural disasters happening at every corner of the planet, from the Bahamas and the hurricanes there, from Central America to the droughts that are happening there, and also in the Middle East, where droughts are happening. And also around the world, we’re seeing entire communities being decimated by the climate crisis.

We’re all acting as if nothing is happening.

That’s why we strike here today. That’s why we strike here every Friday: to say that world governments must have the moral clarity, they must have the political courage and they must be willing to work internationally to solve this crisis because that’s what this crisis demands.

We stand here today to say yesterday was the best day to take action. Today might be okay, but tomorrow is too late.

And that’s what we’re saying today is that today is the day for action to be taken. Today is the day that youth around the world mobilize to say that enough is enough and that our future will not continue to be burned, that our future will not be continued to be taken away, that our future is a right, that clean air, clean water and a livable future is a right.

And that’s what our government must understand. And that’s what world governments must understand: that the economic systems of today will not work for the climate of tomorrow. And that’s what we’re saying is that we must have a call to action. Our economic system must reflect not growth but equitable development around the world.

We stand with communities around the world, from indigenous people to black and brown people, from men to women, no matter your sexual orientation, your age, your gender, anything that you’re fighting for. We are united in this crisis, because if we’re united in crisis, we must be united in our advocacy, we must be united in our activism, and we must be united in our solutions.

And that’s why we’re here today, to say that today is the last day where politicians will continue to ignore the youth of the world. Because the youth are standing up.

Welcome to Fridays for Future movement, and this is the White House climate strike. Thank you.

A week later, on September 20, 4 million people turned out for the first of two global climate strikes, the largest-ever day of climate action. The next day saw 3.6 million people take to the streets. At the main U.S. rally in New York City on September 20, Thunberg spoke to a crowd of 250,000 people.

“We are united behind the science, and we will do everything in our power to stop this crisis from getting worse, even if that means skipping school or work, because this is more important,” said Thunberg at the rally.

Jerome Foster II speaking at the Fridays for Future strike outside the White House in Washington, D.C.

The New York strikes led right into the U.N. Climate Action Summit, convened by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to discuss national contributions to the 2015 U.N. Paris Agreement, the international agreement that aims to limit global warming to “well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels” this century.

Juxtaposed against the urgency of the climate strikes, the summit fell noticeably flat. Much was said but little was done in terms of concrete action, particularly from the world’s largest emitters. U.S. President Donald Trump stopped by for about 15 minutes. He was refused a platform to talk, given his stance on climate action: The U.S. — the world’s second-largest emitter and largest emitter per capita — is the only United Nations member state to announce a withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.

There was, however, a silver lining. Thunberg was given another opportunity to fuel the climate movement. And she did so by eviscerating heads of state as the world watched.

“People are suffering, people are dying. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is the money and fairytales of eternal economic growth,” she said, voice shaking and on the verge of tears. “For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away.”

Thunberg called out politicians for their blatant disregard of scientific reports that spell out the threat of our climate crisis. As she continued, the room fell silent.

Youth activists gather at the Ellipse in Washington, D.C., to protest government inaction on climate change.

“You are failing us,” she said. “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, we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now, is where we draw the line.”

This message, coupled with the fact that world leaders committed little concrete action at the summit, will inevitably create even more urgency among youth climate activists.  People talked. The media covered. Thunberg, if you were living under a rock, was now impossible to avoid. So was the youth climate movement.

From climate strikes to Earth Day

Did it happen all at once? Or are we just now paying attention?

The convergence of environmental degradation, climate activism and public attention has created an inflection point in our fight against climate change. The IPCC special report on 1.5 degrees gave us a timeline in this fight. Legislative proposals like the Green New Deal provide us frameworks for action. Meanwhile, protesters continue to take to the streets, demanding a new way forward.

Back in front of the White House a few weeks later, Foster talked about the reaction to Thunberg’s speech in New York.

“She was a celebrity,” said Foster. “It was so cool to see that she is speaking truth to power, unapologetically having this anger because that’s how we feel.”

A general sense of restlessness and intolerance for inaction is seeping into public consciousness, reminiscent of an environmental call to action 50 years earlier. The youth of today — their anger, their sense of urgency, their demands — reflect the youth movements of years passed, including those who mobilized for the first Earth Day in 1970.

“We need politicians to have the courage, we need them to have the moral clarity and for them to have the ability to actually say what the facts are.” – Jerome Foster II, youth climate activist

“Pressure has been building and mounting for so many years,” said Jamie Margolin, the climate activist who started Zero Hour. “We need to just finally push over the edge and get this mass momentum, like what happened with the first Earth Day, when there were all these bills passed and sweeping legislation and sweeping mobilizations.”

In 1970, a 25-year-old graduate student named Denis Hayes coordinated the first Earth Day, which helped launch the modern-day environmental movement. Much like climate strikers today, Hayes wasn’t just representing the conservation community; he was representing the millions of young people who would no longer tolerate the ignorance wreaking havoc on our environment.

“We find ourselves in the prologue to unanticipated disaster,” Hayes wrote in 1970. “It is already too late to avoid mass starvation, widespread internal diseases, exhaustion of valuable resources, and the senseless death of trees and lakes and people.”

Sound familiar?

“All that we can now avoid,” he continued, “is the ultimate compounding of our mistakes — the death of our planet — and time is running out.”

At a panel in September, Foster spoke about maintaining the momentum of the youth climate movement, echoing the messages of Hayes 50 years earlier.

“We won’t stop striking until we see global action to the levels that meets the global crisis.” – climate activist Jerome Foster II, who strikes outside the White House every Friday.

“We are resorting to going to the streets and yelling and trying to get [leaders] to understand we aren’t just fighting for a river, we aren’t just fighting for a mountain, we aren’t just fighting for a singular home,” said Foster. “We are fighting for your brother, your sister, your mother, your child and your father. We are fighting for everyone that you know.”

The first Earth Day brought together 20 million people – 10% of the U.S. population at the time – as they took to college campuses, auditoriums and streets to demand change. That Earth Day spread across America to shake citizens out of complacency and unite millions in a shared call for action.

The legislation that followed — the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency — was a testament to the power of a nationwide movement organized by a 20-something grad student from Wisconsin.

Today, young people around the world are looking for similar transformative legislation. They’re looking for real commitments, not broken promises. And they’re hoping this movement can capture that.

To help drive change, Foster started his own international youth advocacy and voting organization called OneMillionOfUs, which works to unite five major youth social movements: climate change, gun violence, immigration reform, gender equality and racial equality.

According to its mission statement, OneMillionOfUs is a “diverse movement of young people with one common agenda, which is to have one common objective based on our belief that today we strike and tomorrow we vote.”

“We have to call everyone from Congress and say that it’s unacceptable that we are ignoring this issue,” said Foster. “We’re in a crisis and we have to act on it. We can’t be focused on what’s politically or economically possible but on what is necessary to take action.”

EARTHRISE: The next global mobilization

So now, up against not just regional or national problems but an enormous global crisis, the planet needs another collective movement. That catalyst of change starts with young people, just as it did 50 years ago. Climate strikes, led by activists from youth movements like Fridays for Future, Zero Hour and Sunrise Movement, is the start of this change.

April 22, 2020, marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. To meet this moment, Earth Day Network is launching EARTHRISE, a movement that will continue to build the momentum started half a century ago, revitalized by today’s youth climate strikes.

Climate strike signs litter the lawn of the Ellipse before a strike in Washington, D.C.

The stated goal of EARTHRISE is “to mobilize thousands of organizations, communities and schools and millions of individuals worldwide in a united demand for greater protections of our planet.”

“We need to channel the energy, urgency and indignation of the global youth strike movement to rally around a central message — that we cannot afford to wait any longer as climate change permanently alters our planet — as we push our leaders into action,” said Earth Day Network President Kathleen Rogers.

The similarities between the environmental protests that culminated with the first Earth Day and the youth climate strikes of today are noteworthy, as the success of the first Earth Day provides a call-to-action framework in our fight forward, while the rallying cry of youth activists provides the endurance and energy needed to demand change.

“The tasks ahead are enormous; our accomplishments to date have been trifling,” wrote Hayes in 1970. “But there’s little survival value in pessimism — and we are beginning to dare to hope.”

After we finished talking, Foster’s mother comes up to us and we exchange small talk.

When I look back, Foster is already preoccupied with another group of people — they’re students from a local university, seeking his endorsement for one of their environmental organizations. Seeing Foster standing there with his sign, coughing and sweating through his sweatshirt and talking to students only several years older than him, I’m reminded that Foster is only a kid. He has classes, homework, a couple hobbies, I’m not even sure he can drive yet.

Protesters take to the street in New York City for the global climate strikes on September 20, 2019.

Despite the rockstar status given to these strikers — their popularity granting them first-name familiarity (Greta, Alexandria, Jamie) in climate circles — these kids aren’t superheroes. They’re kids with hormones, social lives and looming deadlines for college applications.

When you talk to these youth climate strikers, though, their passion and eloquence overshadows their age. It’s easy to forget these activists are also just teenagers. When I was 17, the most memorable thing I did was learn to (poorly) play guitar and form a (terrible) pop-punk band. Foster and others — Thunberg, Villaseñor, Margolin — have given up all the things that shape a typical high school experience so that they can strike for the planet. So they can force world leaders to get their acts together.

Previous and current generations let fossil fuels burn despite knowing the devastating consequences. These people have left today’s youth with a responsibility they don’t deserve to inherit — namely, getting us out of this mess — and we must acknowledge the burden placed on them.

“We earned the title young adults because we are acting as adults,” Foster said, weeks earlier at a panel. “We are trying to mobilize like adults when adults are acting like children.”

Or, like Thunberg said at the U.N. Climate Action Summit, “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean.”

Yet they’re here, striking for our future.