After decades on the political periphery, the climate movement is entering the mainstream in 2020, with young leaders at the fore. The Sunrise Movement now includes more than 400 local groups educating and advocating for political action on climate change. Countless students around the world have clearly communicated what’s at stake for their futures, notably Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who just finished her yearlong school strike for climate. Youth activists have been praised for their flexible, big-picture thinking and ability to harness social media to deliver political wins, as Sunrise recently did for U.S. Sen. Ed Markey’s primary campaign. They necessarily challenge the status quo.
“Every social movement in the U.S. that has been successful has always had strong youth and students out there leading the charge—and in most cases, leading the charge more aggressively and demanding actions over and beyond the general population,” says Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. That’s certainly true for climate, with youth demanding a radical transition away from fossil fuels on decidedly tighter timelines than their predecessors have advocated for. Pressure from youth such as Varshini Prakash, the co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, led Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden to endorse a bolder $2 trillion climate platform over the course of the campaign.
Sena Wazer, co-director of Sunrise Connecticut, describes how her work is often viewed by older activists: “The main response that I think many of us get from older folks is, ‘Well, you’re so inspirational and give me hope,’ which is nice, but it ends up getting really frustrating, because we’re not here to give you hope, you know? We’re here to get something done.”
Bullard says it’s critical that we, as a society, allow youth’s energy and optimism bubble to the top, and to empower young people to assume the leadership they’re seeking. Having written more than a dozen books on environmental justice, he considers himself an elder in the movement. In contrast, Bullard calls young people “the tip of the spear,” and says it’s absolutely critical to have them out there “pushing hard for transformative change.”
A Convergence of Issues
The unequal impacts of a changing climate have become extremely clear in 2020, so equity has come to the fore of climate conversations in every corner of the country. A global deadly pandemic continues to rage out of control in the U.S., heat waves are setting new temperature records, wildfires are scorching American Western states, and the hurricane season has already made it to the end of the alphabet for naming storms. In all cases, low-income, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are bearing a disproportionate amount of the impacts.
“Today, the scab is off, the ugly reality of injustice is hitting us up close and personal, made more realistic by this COVID pandemic,” Bullard says.
This year the decidedly youthful focus on intersectionality is a big part of what defines the transformation of the climate movement. Climate is not just an environmental issue, according to youth activists. It’s also a racial justice issue, an economic issue, and an access-to-health care issue.
Today, the different movements are converging, and I think that convergence makes for greater potential for success.
“Environmental justice is really seeing the intersection of these issues,” says Alex Rodriguez, a community organizer with the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, which aims to make environmental issues a priority for the state’s elected leaders. The group is now focusing their efforts on the coming election and recently succeeded in persuading the state to allow absentee voting in November. “We want people to be safe when casting their vote,” says Rodriguez, 26, whose fellow grassroots committee members range from age 16 to 60.
Rodriguez, who also serves on the equity and environmental justice working group for the Governor’s Council on Climate Change, says, “We see our programmatic work as a way to help lawmakers see what they can do to improve the dignity of those suffering from environmental racism, systematic racism, and economic oppression.”
Seeing the overlap and bringing these issues together is a strength that Bullard says was missing from the civil rights organizing he was involved with in the 1960s. He says 2020 is unique in many ways.
“The number of marchers is unprecedented, from different economic, ethnic, and racial groups—an awakening unlike any that I’ve seen on this Earth in over 70 years,” Bullard says. “Today, the different movements are converging, and I think that convergence makes for greater potential for success.”
Young and Old
But young people are one essential demographic among many when it comes to climate action. With all that’s on the line for climate in the coming elections, up and down the ballot, collaboration becomes key. Bullard says previous generations of climate activists can now play the critical role of mentoring, assisting, and supporting. Standing with, not in front of, youth.
“Youth are leading us and taking on frontline activity,” says Jayce Chiblow, the community engagement lead for Indigenous Climate Action, a Canadian organization that works for Indigenous-led climate justice solutions. But in doing so, she says many young Indigenous activists are experiencing the trauma of violence, getting arrested, and being taken away from their land. “All of our older people are supporting those youth: Elders, mentors, people trained in nonviolent action,” Chiblow says. “The youth aren’t alone.”
That support can go a long way. “There’s a lot of anger and a lot of fear, and that’s understandable,” says Wazer of Sunrise Connecticut. “I definitely feel those things, too, just considering the ways that our future has been threatened and kind of trashed by older generations.”
Under the Trump administration, the number of environmental rollbacks alone can be disheartening, not to mention new drilling permits in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge going up for auction.
An intergenerational approach can leverage the individual strengths of youth and older people in all their diversity.
Wazer is frank about the risks of burnout, depression, and anxiety from the stress of it all, but draws inspiration from the example of the late U.S. representative and lifelong civil rights activist John Lewis. “That forgiveness and that ability to keep fighting and stay motivated … I think that that is something really powerful to learn from older generations.”
An intergenerational approach can leverage the individual strengths of youth and older people in all their diversity.
“The elders hold our stories,” says Chiblow, who is Anishinaabe from Garden River First Nation, Ontario. Those stories include lived experiences, culture, history, and generations of adapting to changes in climate. Such collective experience continues to inform Indigenous knowledge and connections to the land, as well as how people manage and govern themselves in relation to it. This knowledge is passed on through relationship-building and storytelling.
“Every time you hear that story, you’re at a different point in your life, and you’ll pick up something else … something new,” Chiblow says.
Changes in perspectives that come with time and experience are among the reasons why intergenerational learning and coalitions are critical to the climate movement. To combine that living and learning is to expand the reach and meaning of the message exponentially. As part of her research for her master’s degree, Chiblow brought together youth, community leaders, and knowledge keepers in her community to workshop climate action. “Those relationships are vital to keep that movement going,” Chiblow says.
Intergenerational collaboration around climate issues, particularly in this election season, starts at home.
The value of intergenerational relationships resonates far beyond Indigenous cultures, too. Rick Lent, a member of Elders Climate Action in Connecticut, says he is motivated to act for his granddaughter. He recounts the time she said to him, “Please tell me that there is something hopeful regarding the climate in our, in the future, because I’m going to be living with the repercussions, and I’m scared.”
Lent takes that request seriously and says that working on behalf of future generations translates into effective messaging. “When you show up as a group of elders, and you’re talking to your legislator, our pitch is, ‘I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing this for my grandchildren.’ So it gives you a whole different story about who you are and why you’re doing this work.”
Elders Climate Action was part of the push to get Markey reelected, and also has campaigned to pass a decarbonization plan in the Massachusetts legislature, which would set a net-zero emissions goal for 2050 and codify environmental justice in state law. With the November elections fast approaching, the group’s focus is now on assuring everybody can vote safely. In some states, the group’s chapters are pushing for voter registration and in others, ensuring people can vote by mail.
“We’re going to be in a pandemic in this year’s elections,” Lent says, which poses risks to people’s health, especially that of older voters. And because most poll workers, traditionally, have been seniors, Elders Climate Action is also encouraging youth to take up that mantle. “We need vote-by-mail,” Lent says, “And we need more poll workers, younger poll workers.”
The Unique Value Proposition of Elders
Older activists bring unique strengths to the table, according to gerontologist Mick Smyer, who designs strategies to move people from anxiety to action on climate. He calls himself “the aging whisperer to climate groups” and “the climate whisperer to aging groups.” He is quick to point out that the learning can go in both directions.
“I think older adults are untapped resources,” Smyer says. “Older adults bring several resources, one of which is their circles of influence. Just by virtue of having lived longer, older adults are going to have denser and richer networks,” Smyer says. “The second is, when it comes to voting and civic engagement, older adults, as an age group, outperform all other age groups.”
He uses the 2016 presidential election to illustrate his point: “The older age groups, 70% of them voted. Nobody [else] came close.” He is cautious about making sweeping statements about older people broadly, but he says that ageism is alive and well. And that can deter the kind of collaboration that would beget necessary progress on climate action.
As the twin global patterns of an aging population and a changing climate continue arm in arm, Smyer says a good place for starting this work is within one’s family.
“We each have that power to use in our circles of influence, particularly in our families, and we don’t realize it,” Smyer says. Whether it’s via Zoom or FaceTime or a phone call or a chat in the living room, Smyer says, family members have a superpower: They will listen to each other, and they’ll at least start the conversation.
“Intergenerational collaboration around climate issues, particularly in this election season, starts at home, and then goes to the polling booth,” he says.
Speaking the Same Language
As an individual’s network of family, friends, and connections becomes wider and more diverse, the more work will need to be done to have them all working toward the same goals. That is equally true for the climate movement at large.
In bridging the gaps among baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials, Bullard says, “Each generation will have some idiosyncrasy and uniqueness about it that another generation will not understand or comprehend.”
If everybody in a group or institution is similar, then there’s no need to explain a lot, Bullard says. There’s usually a fair amount of shared knowledge and values. But the more diverse that group gets, in age, race, gender, or culture, he says, the greater the potential for making mistakes, stepping on people’s culture, and causing pain. But the potential for learning also increases exponentially.
We’re finally at the turning point where we could start to make real change.
Chiblow says successful collaboration comes down to being able to speak in shared concepts. The term “justice,” for example, is an English word that’s hard to translate into the Anishinaabe language. Chiblow says that because her community sees itself as belonging to the land, and being part of the land, the Anishinaabe worldview, and therefore their understanding of justice, is necessarily more holistic than the mainstream.
“Indigenous people have been feeling [the effects of climate change] for so long,” Chiblow says. Today, as wildfires rage across the West, the mantra of “I can’t breathe” is being driven home on a grand scale. For better and worse, climate justice is finally a front-page story.
“It’s affecting the broader society,” Chiblow says. “We’re finally at the turning point where we could start to make real change because … people are really starting to feel that urgency.”
The urgency will be tantamount in the coming election. A lot is at stake, says Chiblow: “Incentives, funding, all-around agreement, and also the way we’re able to manage our lands and ourselves as people.”
Bullard, too, is insistent on urgency. “This election is one of the most important elections of a generation, because there’s so many things at stake,” he says. “We can’t wait another 40 years on climate. We don’t have that much time. We don’t have 40 years to get justice.”
There’s a lot of knowledge built up in experience, and there’s a lot of energy that’s stored in young people.
Issues of climate justice will be on the ballot in state and local elections this fall, such as Nevada’s proposed renewable energy standards and Louisiana’s proposed disaster funding. And the topic has finally made it onto the national stage. Joe Biden called Trump a “climate arsonist” for not acting on or even admitting that the wildfires in California are clearly climate-related. The frequency and intensity of such disasters is indisputable.
“Hurricanes don’t swerve to avoid red states or blue states. Wildfires don’t skip towns that voted a certain way,” Biden said in a speech on Sept. 14. “The impacts of climate change don’t pick and choose. That’s because it’s not a partisan phenomenon.”
In many ways, the results of the upcoming elections will reflect the ways youth activists and older activists are able come to a common understanding of what climate justice means and what they want the future world to look like.
“There’s a lot of knowledge built up in experience, and there’s a lot of energy that’s stored in young people,” Bullard says. “When you put those two together, you have … an excellent recipe for potential success.”
Additional reporting by Krista Karlson.
Breanna Draxler is the climate editor at YES!, where she leads coverage of environmental justice. An award-winning journalist with nearly a decade of experience editing, reporting, and writing for national magazines, she won a 2020 National Magazine Award for a collaborative climate action guide that she published with Audubon Magazine. Breanna also writes, reports and edits for National Geographic online, Grist, and Audubon Magazine, among others. She serves as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Northwest Science Writers Association. She also has a Master’s degree in environmental journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder. Breanna is based out of Seattle, but has worked in newsrooms on both coasts and in between. Her previous staff positions include editing at bioGraphic, Popular Science, and Discover Magazine. She speaks English and French.