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Young Climate Activists Aren’t Leading Tomorrow — They Are Leading Today

If we wait to be “leaders of tomorrow,” it will already be too late. That’s why we’re leading now.

Climate activists demonstrate in Central Park to end all fossil fuels as President Joe Biden is in town for a campaign reception, on May 10, 2023, in New York City.

As a young person in the climate movement, I am so proud of my generation and our dedicated work in addressing the climate crisis. Seeing the amazing news of young people fighting against climate change fills me with the courage to continue doing my part. I am empowered every day when I see the way young people around the world are leading the fight. This is why I’m puzzled when older people follow up their compliments to youth advocates with the well-intentioned comment: “I can’t wait for you to lead the future.”

This statement seems innocuous at first glance, but as I look at the amazing work young activists are doing today, I wonder why we are expected to wait. The leadership that young people demonstrate today is remarkable, yet we aren’t taken seriously. From the young Montanans suing the state, to young Indigenous land defenders in the Amazon, to young people protesting outside the COP27 conference, we have all demonstrated our leadership today, and we aren’t waiting for tomorrow.

One of the inherent issues with framing young people as tomorrow’s leaders on climate change is that it minimizes the work that young people are doing now, and erases the urgency of the present. Young people are tackling the climate crisis from a multitude of avenues and have found really creative ways to harness collective power. The aforementioned 16 Montana youths, one as young as 5 years old, have levied the first lawsuit by young people on climate change that has gone to trial. They have demonstrated amazing dedication; plaintiff Lander Busse shares he’s been waiting for this trial for three years. Well-known activist Greta Thunberg got her start by protesting in front of the Swedish Parliament. Ugandan environmentalist Vanessa Nakate joined youth climate movements and has spoken on the international stage addressing climate and its impact on developing countries. So why is this not enough?

When discussing young people and future leadership, people often reference traditional positions of power like politicians, executives of legacy companies, and directors of nonprofits. Many of these positions are not immediately attainable for the average young person. Once they are attainable to most young people, the climate would have already suffered significant and irreparable damage. By the time I can qualify to run for president in the U.S. in 2035, we would have already reached an ecological tipping point. So if young people wait to be the “leaders of tomorrow,” it will already be too late.

This expectation for young people to lead us into the future also obscures the responsibility that we all must bear today. The time to act and respond to climate change is not tomorrow, but today. Officials can’t eschew this responsibility any longer, and displace this burden onto young people.

Framing young people as tomorrow’s leaders on climate change minimizes the work that young people are doing now, and erases the urgency of the present.

If we hope to empower young people to continue to act, then we must all respect and nurture the innovative ways young people have begun to lead. Claire Vlases, one of the plaintiffs in the Montana case, shares that her early experience with demanding climate action was in middle school. She asked her school to put solar panels on the roof, and after facing rejection due to cost, she raised the money herself. It is moments like this when the seeds of leadership burgeon in the hearts of young people. Claire is far from an anomaly; if we look around there are young people all around us who are excited to play a role in addressing climate change. Society owes it to us to hear us out, nurture that spark and follow our lead.

Following the lead of young people requires challenging the mainstream perception of what are “acceptable” ways to demand change. Greta Thunberg rose to international fame as she became a vocal teen activist, scolding world leaders for their slow actions and hollow promises. She was lauded by the media for her boldness and her story was widely shared. However, her recent string of arrests during protests didn’t receive the same adoration as her speeches. It seems like the inspiring young teenager speaking up on a podium has a different reception than an angry young woman who gets arrested. Similar tensions arise when various groups with strong youth followings like Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil host public demonstrations and perform civil disobedience. They are told they are being too loud and a public nuisance.

This dichotomy between the support of “proper” and “improper” forms of climate action arises in many young advocacy spaces. It seems like young advocates are only liked when their anger can be scripted into an “inspiring story.” But once youth challenge this narrative of “proper” action, and engage in protest and civil disobedience, then they must be stopped.

If young people wait to be the “leaders of tomorrow,” it will already be too late.

This tension is even more complex for advocates of color, and those from the Global South. Young advocates of color often note how their stories are left out and erased because they are not seen as palatable as those of their white counterparts. Their realities also highlight the fact that the impacts of climate change are linked to systems of racial inequality and colonial legacies. Their stories simply aren’t as “inspiring” to many mainstream Western media consumers. When reflecting on the work of young advocates, it’s important to note how biases may come into play in what experiences are valued.

Young people confronting the climate crisis are angry and are growing agitated with labels like “inspiring,” while seeing little to no concrete action from our leaders. Greta Thunberg explains when talking to world leaders, “I don’t want your hope … I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis.”

As the climate crisis continues to threaten us all, young people are bravely asserting our right to a livable environment. We have shown an incredible capacity to lead and harness the power of people across the world, and we are ready for action today. Tomorrow will just not cut it.

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