Headline: Responding to Fridays for Future and the Youth Movement for Climate Justice

For over a year, young people have been demonstrating every Friday for more climate protection.
For over a year, young people have been demonstrating every Friday for more climate protection. Shutterstock/nicostock

It has been a year since the first day of the very first school strike for climate. The school strike movement that sprung up in its wake has spread to over 1000 cities and countries around the world, with growing numbers of young people attending the weekly protest marches. As the movement enters its second year, it stands at an important turning point: either that there is a slow dismantling by way of red-tape and new rules that will force young people into submission; or societies will seize on the transformational potential of this moment to initiate meaningful responses to youth demands for climate justice.

New tactics, old arguments

The school strike for climate movement is often treated as a novelty, but while the tactic of skipping school is new, the language and the arguments are not, nor is the fact that they are coming from young people. Since Severn Suzuki’s inspiring speech at the 1992 Earth Summit, scores of young people have made bold and inspiring calls for action at international conferences on climate protection and sustainable development. The similarities in the language used by Severn Suzuki and Greta Thunberg in their calls for climate justice are striking. This is not a new narrative. So why now? Why does this particular movement tug at our heart strings in the way that other youth movements haven’t? What’s changed? And what can we hope for?

The climate strike movement, the newest mode of the youth climate movement, would not enjoy the same level of attention were it not for the many who organized, protested and fought for youth representation and more ambitious action on climate change over the previous decades. Every new generation of the youth climate movement has brought with it their own ideas, tactics, vigor and new energy that builds on and learns from those who came before. The fact that we, as a society, are listening to and debating the arguments put forward by young people shows that we have already come a long way, both in our attitudes to young people and in an increasing consciousness about climate change. Even those who might not agree with the demands of the strikers are still talking about them: the extent of mainstream discourse about climate change is a feat not achieved by any other climate movement thus far.

New demands for climate justice

Previously the climate change activism community tried unsuccessfully for decades to generate the kind of mass mobilization achieved by Fridays for Future. This is partly because early communication and campaigning strategies which centered on melting ice and polar bears didn’t resonate with people. When narratives turned to concerns for future generations and the immediate impacts of climate change on more vulnerable regions and people, climate change came to be more clearly communicated as being a threat to people and well-being. The marginal success of this tactic is perhaps also unsurprising, because there is often little emotional or psychological attachment to vulnerable groups or regions. ‘Developed’ countries have exploited people and natural resources in the Global South for centuries – and this continues to be a very real problem. Businesses and governments from the Global North are often negligent in their dealings with the Global South and exploit vulnerable regions for their own economic benefit. Legacies from colonial pasts carry over into present day exploitative labor practices, land-grabbing and other bad practices. Why would they now be concerned for the way the climate crisis is impacting vulnerable regions?

However, with this change came a deeper understanding of the intersection of climate change and justice issues. Climate justice is the idea that those who have done the least to cause the climate crisis are going to experience its impacts first, worst and will be the most vulnerable. Many environmental groups around the world have been battling environmental degradation for decades because of the way that it threatens their human rights and basic human needs. This has a particularly strong tradition in Central and South America. In many case, this was been a fight for survival. And so it is with the fight against climate change.

While other youth movements paved the way for the climate strikers, so did a growing awareness of climate justice. Underpinning the Fridays for Future movement is a deep sense of injustice. Young people have done very little to cause climate change, yet their lifetimes will be defined by this crisis, our response to it, and its impacts.

The Fridays for Future movement offers a new protagonist in the climate crisis narrative that many find easier to connect with. Young people around the world have come to understand the immediacy of the threat posed by climate change and they are naturally upset about it. For decades education has been portrayed as the silver bullet to the climate crisis. We now have a generation of young people who are well-educated on the climate crisis and ecological collapse that will continue to unfold during their lifetimes. Of course they’re angry. They know that we need a mass society-wide transformation to a more sustainable way of living, and that generations before them have been aware of this crisis for decades and have done very little to solve it. It would be sad, actually, if a whole generation was educated about an existential threat to their future and responded otherwise or not at all.

Climate justice no longer cuts only along the deeply entrenched tensions between the Global North and South, ‘developed’ and ‘developing’, poor and wealthy; there is also an intergenerational crisis in climate justice. This is what’s bringing young people to the streets and it’s time to call it what it is: a deep injustice.

Young people continue to be tokenized

As someone who’s been involved in the youth climate movement for almost a decade now, I found it hard to be optimistic about Fridays for Future at first. I was worried that this new, even younger, generation could be easier to patronize and might allow efforts to deal with climate change effectively to be postponed yet again. Some people say that the public awareness that Greta Thunberg has raised and her public profile give grounds for optimism… But let’s be clear: visibility does not equal action. Never before has there been such a public figure for climate action who has attracted so much attention for young people and their calls for climate justice – the lack of responsive action is a complacency that can no longer be excused.

The elevation of Greta Thunberg into THE symbol of youth mobilization on the climate crisis is a new level of youth tokenism. More and more governments, organizations, businesses are engaging with youth strikers as a sort of ‘get out of jail free card’ for more meaningful action on climate change. No matter how many meetings take place with young people, or how many conferences they are invited to speak at, society at large is still not doing much differently. Giving a young person a microphone, while absolutely important, is not a practical, tangible attempt to deal with the climate crisis. To overcome the injustice of climate change faced by young people today we need to do more than listen to them protest, tweet about how it tugs at our heartstrings, or run climate science summer camps. Without meaningful action beyond these activities, it all remains tokenistic, superficial and patronizing.

In addition, the heroism attributed to Greta neglects so many others from all around the world who have fought and continue to fight for climate action. Ironically, often she, and other strikers, are the ones pointing this out. Over and over again I have seen and spoken to government representatives around the world who want to engage with Greta or a youth striker from another region or country with a higher profile but not their local, established and relevant youth organizations or movements.

As we heroize young people, we often fail to consider the huge impact this has on their mental-health and well-being to be a part of this fight. To be a young person fighting climate change is to constantly feel this existential threat to your life. This is very concrete in some places where livelihoods are more vulnerable to already unfolding climate impacts, but also in places where they are not as devastating yet. Young people fighting the climate crisis are tremendously resilient. Many of them have more resilience, empathy and courage than those we consider ‘leaders’ today.

Making climate justice real with inclusive future-making

For a long time we upheld a cognitive distance between ourselves and the reality of climate change, seeing it as a problem that lay in the future. But the current movement of young people is bringing it into the present and in doing so they are throwing up challenges that cut to the very core of our social, economic and political systems. The challenge here is that responding to this movement is not only about climate action, but also about appropriately engaging with young people.

There is a real risk that responses to this movement remain insufficient, superficial and tokenistic. Part of the reason why adequate responses are lacking is because we don’t really know how to do this. There are very few examples of engagement with and participation of young people that are not tokenistic or patronizing. So far, we are failing to connect the dots between the imperatives of climate science with the practices and processes of inclusive and just future-making. Instead of press releases and podiums, we need to be talking about meaningful participation, engagement and openly addressing injustices.

To respond to these demands, we need to meaningfully consider the future, their future, in a way that we’re not used to doing. What does it mean to take into account the well-being of future generations? How do we take steps towards the systemic change in our values, processes and goals of our political, economic and social systems necessary to do this? What kinds of processes can do this?

Reflecting on these questions, is where I found some optimism:

How to respond meaningfully to the climate movement: a toolkit

There is a huge opportunity in how we respond to this movement. We are now presented with an opportunity to catalyze the systemic change necessary to address the climate crisis.

Drawing on over five years of experience co-founding and running a youth climate organization, the 2050 Climate Group, and two years of experience supporting capacity building for climate change action in local government, and three years spent undertaking research on this topic, I have spent the last year consolidating this knowledge and developing a toolkit to guide responses to the question: How can we/my organization meaningfully respond to the demands of the youth climate movement?

At the end of October this ‘toolkit’ will be released and available on the IASS website. It will offer advice for local, national and international government and policymakers of all kinds on how to meaningfully respond to the demands of current youth movements for climate justice for the future and future generations. It will help identify and develop a meaningful, context-relevant, response to these movements to enhance climate action, just future-making, and climate justice, especially for today’s young people.

If you would like to receive the tool as soon as it’s released, please contact us here.

In addition to this toolkit itself, tailored advice and consultation could be available upon request. To discuss this, please get in touch at elizabeth.dirth@iass-potsdam.de.

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