‘We’re looking to build an army of young people’

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‘We’re looking to build an army of young people’

Politically savvy US teenagers are determined to make climate change a political priority – and the young activists are getting organised, writes Siobhan Brett


A new voice: Sunrise protesters inside the office of Nancy Pelosi call for Democrats to support the Green New Deal. Photo by Michael Brochstein
A new voice: Sunrise protesters inside the office of Nancy Pelosi call for Democrats to support the Green New Deal. Photo by Michael Brochstein

Marlow Baines is 16 years of age. She’s a basketball player on a varsity team in Colorado. At 6ft 1in, she occasionally models. She persuaded her parents to let her develop a homeschool curriculum after her high school left her feeling “discouraged”.

Baines is also the regional director of Earth Guardians, a global organisation of young climate activists. Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, the group’s director, addressed the UN in New York in 2015 when he was just 15. Since then, the organisation has spread to 44 countries.

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But Baines, Martinez and their fellow activists are no longer wunderkind outliers; across America, a new wave of environmentally and politically minded young people are protesting climate change.

Environmental policy is arguably the subject of the biggest surge of youth activism since the 1960s. Baines first got involved when she was 14, when she moved schools and discovered that not everyone knew about climate change. “Ten miles outside Boulder, which is known for being conscious, and green, there was a huge population of people engaged in climate science denial,” she says.

Baines’ dedication to climate activism was galvanised in 2016 when she and her mother went to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to support the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would have threatened the water supply to the reservation.

The activists achieved what the New York Times said was “one of the most galvanising environmental victories in years – and it all began with a group of teenagers”.

“This was people power,” she says of the protest. “These people came together with the intention of protecting people’s water and people’s futures. It was a full-blown community.”

Her return home to Colorado was laden with a sense of urgency. Baines decided she wanted to graduate early from high school and become and environmental lawyer. She had learned about Earth Guardians on her journey to Dakota. She applied and was accepted to one of its national training programmes that summer, and hasn’t looked back.

Of the many “passionate and engaged young people” Baines met while learning about climate change, organising and leadership were plaintiffs in a case known as “Youth vs Gov”. Juliana vs United States is a landmark constitutional case, taken in 2015, that has survived challenges from both the Obama and Trump administrations and intervention from the fossil-fuel industry. The Juliana in question is Kelsey Juliana, a 22-year-old from Oregon who was first a named plaintiff on an environmental lawsuit when she was 15 years old.

The group backing the lawsuit is Our Children’s Trust. “Our complaint asserts that, through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources,” its website states.

The case was due to go to trial on October 29 last year. Young people from Our Children’s Trust, Earth Guardians, and other movements gathered in their hundreds outside the federal courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, and in solidarity rallies in each of America’s 50 states. A temporary stay from the US Supreme Court delayed the trial.

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Marlow Baines was in Oregon that day. An Instagram post shows her looking ahead with a tear-stained face. “These tears are for the mothers who feel fear for their children’s future,” her caption reads. “These tears are for the rights of me and my peers. I will stand up, I will not back down.”

Another prominent youth-led organisation lobbying for fresh commitments on climate change is the Sunrise Movement, or Sunrise, which was founded in 2017. In 2019, its primary focus is on the House of Representatives’ Democratic majority, and its support of what they call a Green New Deal – a set of resolutions with American carbon neutrality its uniting aim.

Garrett Blad was one of 200 Sunrise activists to occupy the office of the latest speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, in the week that followed the midterm elections.

“We’re looking to build an army of young people to make climate change a political priority,” Blad says, who is in his mid-20s. “We want to expose the oil industry, its lobbyists, and elect a new generation of leaders to our government who will advocate for all, not just for the wealthy few.”

There was an understanding among the group that they were going to have to be responsible for the biggest intervention in the midterms, Blad says, and “we had successfully elected 19 of 30 Democrats” who had reclaimed the House. But some of these Democrats did not put climate as a priority and, in Blad’s words, “for Sunrise, that wasn’t good enough… so we decided to sit in Pelosi’s office and demand otherwise”.

In advance of the demonstration, a group of Sunrise activists gathered at a church in DC. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic congresswoman from the Bronx, came by to support. “She stood up on a table and told us she would not stop fighting for an economy that works for everybody, in everybody’s interest,” Blad says. He was so moved, he started to cry.

For the most part, Sunrise is excited by the young people it meets, Blad adds. “The youth of the US understand the threat of climate change. Even fifth and sixth graders, really young kids. We watched a teacher recently ask a class that young: what does climate change look like?

“The children replied: Hurricane Irma. Hurricane Maria. The fires of Southern California. They got it,” he says.

According to a 2015 report on youth civic engagement by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the World Bank identifies the exercise of active citizenship as one of the most important activities for a healthy transition to adulthood for the next generation.

One of the contributors to that report, Pat Dolan, is the UNESCO Chair in Children, Youth and Civic Engagement and a professor of political science and sociology at NUI Galway.

“Young people were the first to step up to help in 9/11, the first to help after Hurricane Katrina,” Dolan says. “Young people have a positive agency. Generally speaking, they are better at taking action than adults.”

Concern about climate among young people is not limited to the US, Dolan notes, referring to the third annual Youth Climate March in Brussels last weekend, which was attended by approximately 70,000 protesters.

“With youth civic engagement, the overall sense is that if young people are given opportunities to use their voice, they will take those opportunities,” he says.

Last autumn, 2,000 supporters of Sunrise registered for a national conference call. Almost 1,000 young people subsequently pledged to attend the first 2020 presidential debate, representing the group. “They don’t even know where this debate is going to be held yet,” says Blad, at once bewildered and admiring. “But they know they’re going to show up.”

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