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As Climate Crisis Grows, Youth Environmental Movements Are Radicalizing

Failed by their governments and faced with an unlivable future, young people are fighting for their lives.

Participants hold placards as they march on a street ahead of Earth Day on April 22, the annual environmental awareness day, in Jakarta, Indonesia, on April 21, 2024.

Carrying a rifle, a young Indigenous man searches the Amazon forest for illegal loggers, followed by a crew from the 2023 documentary film We Are Guardians. Five thousand miles away, youth from Just Stop Oil throw soup on the painting “Sunflowers” by Vincent Van Gogh at the National Gallery in London in 2022. They yell as reporters film them, “What is more important? Art or life?” Three hundred miles away, in 2024, activist Greta Thunberg twists in the arms of the police as she and others are arrested for blocking a road to The Hague to protest the Dutch government’s tax giveaways to oil companies.

The climate crisis is radicalizing youth. Tech savvy and globally connected, Gen Z and Millennial activists are becoming increasingly militant as runaway fossil fuel development destroys their future. They attained early victories. They have put ecocide, the utter razing of nature, at the forefront of politics. They drew global attention with protests. They sued governments and won. The wins fly in the face of an older generation of corrupt politicians, paid off by the oil industry.

Yet the danger of environmental breakdown threatens to overwhelm their initial victories. Climate refugees pour across borders. A global network of fascism is trying to dismantle democracy and snuff out civil society.

Young climate activists are at a turning point. Faced with an unlivable future and caught in a bleak present, they push and push and push. They have no choice. They are fighting for their lives.

The Shadow of the Future

The kids are not alright. They are very, very scared. A worldwide survey by Bath University showed teens and young adults look at the years ahead and tremble. Researchers collected over 10,000 responses across 10 countries and found young people felt anxious and “betrayed by their governments.” Helplessness and anger permeated Gen Z and Millennials from Nigeria to Portugal, from the Philippines to the United States. The anxiety is highest where the risk is greatest: in the Global South.

Imagine how it feels to be 16 years old and growing up with the climate crisis hanging over your head. You look around and see cars and airplanes spewing carbon. You see plastic bottles spill from trash cans and garbage floating in the river. You hear about or directly experience catastrophic weather events with each passing season. A deep hopelessness fills your heart. Everywhere you look and everyone you see is racing to enjoy the good life now even though it is your death sentence. No one seems to care enough to stop.

Many youth have been traumatized by the destruction of their homes and forced migration. Driving through a wildfire is terrifying. Watching your home flooded and your memories wrecked is emotionally devastating. The World Bank estimates that by 2050, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia will produce 143 million climate migrants, according to the Brookings Institution. Each family that leaves their home carries more than their backpacks and children — they carry the pain of being wrenched from their lives. A traumatized person’s nervous system is like a tree ripped from the earth with roots exposed and raw.

How do youth replant themselves into a future that crumbles into dust? Fight. Fight. Fight.

Getting Into the Ring

Yelling at the top of their lungs, youth activists blocked the road to Vice President Kamala Harris’s Los Angeles home. They held bright signs that read, “Fund Climate Action! Not Genocide!” referencing Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza. Forty protesters with the Sunrise Movement chanted fiercely as cops arrested six who sat on the road and refused to move. One said to LA Times reporters, “My generation is spending our teenage years organizing for climate action because people like Kamala Harris have failed us!”

Climate activists had put more than 2,180 cases on the docket as of late 2022.

Transforming anxiety into action, youth across the world have surged into environmental groups from the mainstream to the militant. The umbrella organization Youth Climate Movement, which at first focused on school strikes and marches, has now scaled up to demand deep systemic change. The group needs funding. They are wrestling with tactics. Some youth leaders speak at global conferences like the United Nations’ COP28. Others grind teeth, impatient with yet another can-kicking summit, wanting more direct action.

Scrappier and more in-your-face groups like the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion lead the charge. Sunrise is a 501(c)(4) political action organization that first made headlines in 2018 by staging a sit-in at the office of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It has grown into a powerhouse with $13 million in funding, 400 hubs across the country and a vision to get a Green New Deal passed. Their activists hound Democrats, which has drawn the ire of centrist Democrats who get huffy, with one saying anonymously, “the extremism … is the reason that even a lot of moderate, thoughtful people are annoyed with environmentalists.” Yet what drives youth climate activists is desperation at a future going up in flames. Sunrise Executive Director Varshini Prakash sighed in despair at the failure of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better, “It’s like, we voted, we marched, we striked, you know? There were, like, 16-year-olds doing phone banks. What more do we need to do to win?”

Extinction Rebellion is a United Kingdom-based group that gets rowdy in the streets. Using nonviolent direct action, the group staged attention-grabbing protests: occupying Greenpeace offices in 2018, blocking bridges across the river Thames and, even more recently, upstaging a Broadway play, Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.” An activist stood up in the theater and yelled, “I am against the silencing of scientists” and walked out wearing an Extinction Rebellion shirt. Two others disrupted the play later.

More recently, Greta Thunberg joined Extinction Rebellion for a protest at The Hague. One of the group’s co-founders, Roger Hallam, was arrested and given a suspended sentence for planning to stop airplanes at Heathrow Airport using a drone. The organization also recently protested at the Science Museum in London, with more actions planned for the summer.

Add to this the legal victories that youth climate activists are notching. In 2023, a Montana judge ruled that the state violated the rights of its young citizens by allowing fossil fuel companies to destroy the environment. In another case called Genesis B. v. EPA, 18 teens from California sued the Environmental Protection Agency for “failing to protect them from climate change.” Around the world, legal cases are mounting. Climate activists had put more than 2,180 cases on the docket as of late 2022. The goal is to create a legal infrastructure that, alongside protest, allows civil society actors to stop governments and fossil fuel companies from colluding to eviscerate the environment for profit while people die.

The risk, of course, is that legal tactics can fail. In June 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the EPA’s ability to curtail carbon emissions, and continues to roll back the agency’s power. Against the legal and political wall, climate activists are becoming desperate. Youth go on hunger strikes. Youth get arrested in nonviolent protests. Youth make connections between climate change and racial justice movements. Youth call and knock on doors and host teach-ins and spread memes and march and go vegan and stop taking airplanes and get arrested again.

All of this — and yet the progress is too slow: 2023 may have been the last year below the “key climate threshold” of 1.5 degrees Celsius, and other historical calamities are continuing to unfold in the global environment.

Hints of another direction bubble up in popular media. A 2023 film, How to Blow Up a Pipeline based on the book of the same name by Andreas Malm, showed a small crew of youth climate activists blowing up an oil pipeline and publicly taking credit. The internet is littered with hand-wringing articles on the possibility of desperate activists turning to property destruction like the Earth Liberation Front of the 1990s. Critics fear such a turn will alienate middle-class sympathizers and stall the movement.

Youth climate activists are between a rock and a hard place. They see their future on fire. They know people are suffering and dying right now from climate change. They watch as millions flee drought and monsoons, begging at the borders of the Global North for safety.

They fight to save themselves. They fight to save life on Earth, the only planet in the vast universe that we know harbors it. They fight by the rules of a rigged game. How long before they throw the rules out?