Young People Stand Up Against Climate Change

Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, began skipping school in 2018 to pressure lawmakers to act against climate change. She is one of many young climate activists around the world who are working with their communities to prevent the worst ravages of climate change. These young activists have successfully gained attention and built movements. On March 15, 2019, an estimated 1.4 million young people in at least 123 countries participated in climate change protests and school strikes. Another strike is scheduled for September 20, 2019.

This Teaching Idea explores the reasons why young people are calling for action against climate change and strategies they can use to make a difference on this issue or other issues they care about.

  1. Why are young people organizing against climate change?

    Begin by sharing some general information with your students about climate change. Climate change—caused by heat getting trapped in the earth’s atmosphere by greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide—is accelerating rapidly. While greenhouse gases have always been part of the atmosphere, climate scientists have established that their concentration has increased dramatically due to emissions from human activity. Journalist David Wallace-Wells writes in his book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, “more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades.”1

    Most climate proposals aim to prevent the earth from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius above the global average temperature before industrialization. The average global temperature has already increased by around 1 degree Celsius, according to the IPCC.2 The effect of this increase is already being felt in every region of the world through deadly heat waves, desertification, decreased agricultural productivity, more extreme weather events, and rising sea levels. If humans do nothing to reduce emissions, we will be well over 2 degrees before the end of the century. Wallace-Wells writes that even a 2-degree rise in temperatures will have catastrophic consequences for hundreds of millions because of water scarcity, unlivable cities, and extreme heat.3 (To read more of Wallace-Wells’ reporting on climate change, see his New York Magazine article The Uninhabitable Earth.)

    Ask your students:

    • How do you feel when you think about climate change?
    • How has climate change been appearing in the news?
    • What do you know about how people are responding to evidence that the climate is changing?

    Then, play the video of Greta Thunberg’s TED Talk, The Disarming Case to Act Right Now on Climate Change, for your students. You can also distribute copies of the transcript, available on TED’s website. After watching the video, discuss with your students:

    • Why do you think so many climate activists today are young people?
    • What perspectives on climate change do you think young people can offer that are different from those of older generations?
    • What strategies does Greta use to gain attention about climate change? Do you agree with her use of these strategies? What choices and actions do you think we need to make to combat climate change?
    • How does Greta see her diagnosis of Asperger’s as an advantage in her work as an activist?
    • What, according to Greta, is the relationship between hope and action relating to climate change?
  2. How can young people make a difference on the issue of climate change?

    This activity uses a framework that legal scholar Martha Minow uses to analyze the ways in which people can make change. She observed that one of the biggest barriers that individuals face in getting involved is that it is hard to know what actual steps to take:

    Often times we see something that's unjust and we wonder, “Where do I go? What do I do?”4

    To help individuals identify concrete actions to take when they “choose to participate,” Minow developed a “levers of power” framework to map out the organizations, institutions, and technologies that can enable us to strengthen the impact of our voices and our actions. The levers include:

    1. Government (National, State, Local)
    2. Nonprofit Organizations/Charities
    3. Industry/Commercial Organizations
    4. Professional Media
    5. Social Media/Internet
    6. Schools and Education
    7. Influential Individuals (Authors, Lecturers, etc.)

    Briefly explain Martha Minow’s framework to your students. Share with your students that many people feel paralyzed when they think about climate change because it is such a big issue, and it can feel like our individual actions will not make enough of a difference. Ask your students:

    • Do you ever think about taking action on climate change or another issue that impacts your community?
    • What obstacles do you think can make it difficult for you or other young people to act on issues that you care about?

    Explain to your students that understanding “levers of power” can help them think of ways to act for change. Introduce each lever of power to your students and then discuss the following questions:

    • What can each group or lever do to combat climate change?
    • What strategies can young people use to influence each lever?

    Note: You can organize this activity as a full-class discussion. Alternatively, you can write each lever on a piece of chart paper and post the chart paper around the room. Divide your class into seven groups, and assign each group a different lever to start. After they have discussed their first lever, they can rotate to the next one, and so on, until each group of students has had a chance to discuss each lever.

Extension: Climate Change and Inequality

Climate change is affecting every person, but it has an even greater impact on groups of people already suffering from structural inequalities. You can discuss the following articles with your students to introduce them to the ways in which climate change and inequality interact, both with communities and on an international scale:

Additional Resource

Our unit 10 Questions for Young Changemakers helps students explore strategies that they can use to change the world.

Citations

  • 1 : David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019), 4.
  • 2 : Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Global Warming of 1.5°C” (Switzerland: IPCC, 2018).
  • 3 : David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019).
  • 4 :  Martha Minow, “Levers of Power” (Lecture), Day of Learning from Facing History and Ourselves and Project Zero, Cambridge, MA, March 13, 2015.

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