As Buffalo Springfield sang in 1967, “There’s something happening here…”
But today’s youth revolution is happening far beyond the Sunset Strip. The Trump administration’s dismissal of climate change as a legitimate concern is energizing a new generation of teenage activists. Emboldened and supported by groups like Earth Guardians, Heirs to Our Oceans and the Alliance for Climate Education (ACE), young people are taking their knowledge of climate science into the streets and into the courts, pressing for environmental change and for more government action now to protect their future and ours.
Corina MacWilliams is a high school student in Eugene, Oregon. She and her fellow students regularly attend city council meetings to testify on how climate change will affect their generation. “At first I was like really nervous to go and testify,” she says, admitting that public speaking “wasn’t initially my favorite.” But, she continues, “you write your testimony, maybe it’s like a page, and then you go up and read it in front of the city council for about two or three minutes, and then it’s over.”
And it’s effective: thanks to their efforts, Eugene’s city council voted unanimously to act on a climate legislation bill that had been languishing on the books.
James Coleman is another student not content to fall back on “clicktivism.” Moved by the plight of the Standing Rock protesters, the South San Francisco High School senior organized a drive to raise money and supplies to North Dakota. He now makes it his mission to raise the awareness of other young people. At the Stand Up for Science rally at the Moscone Center in 2016, Coleman spoke publicly for the first time, in front of a crowd of geophysicists.
“I was extremely nervous, heart beating out my chest,” he recalls. “But I got through it, and I see it as a real milestone in my life.”
An aspiring scientist, Coleman notes that “right now we’re seeing that politics and science are merging together, and that scientists have to be a voice in our society. They have to get out; they have to tell us what the facts are, and how we should use our policy to fight climate change.”
Lou Helmoth is deputy director of Our Children’s Trust, which is suing the federal government over its climate policies on behalf of twenty-one young people.
“[The plaintiffs] are accusing the federal government of violating their constitutional right to life, liberty and property,” Helmoth explains. “They’re also accusing the federal government of not preserving the public trust. We all need to share in our common resources and we have to make sure that we don't use them up today so that they're not available for future generations.”
The lawsuit asks the federal government to prepare a science-based national climate recovery plan that will bring carbon dioxide to below 350 parts per million by the year 2100. And results have been encouraging: a preliminary ruling in November states that the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life. “That's what these twenty-one young people secured,” Helmoth reports with pride.
It may be hard to imagine teenagers, already buried in schoolwork, family and social lives, spending what little free time they have raising environmental awareness.
But as MacWilliams puts it, “I would rather be doing that than anything else.”
“I think it's the most important thing in my life,” she continues. “I have kind of made this conscious decision to dedicate everything, every decision that I make, to mitigating climate change.
“Because to me, it’s the most important thing that I can do with my time and energy.”