The time for action is now – this is the mantra being taken up by Generation Z across the world. Already this year, thousands of high school students across the world have skipped school to protest their governments’ inaction on climate change. The students were inspired by 16-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg, who started the movement by skipping school every Friday since August 2018. This is only the beginning: further demonstrations are already scheduled for the coming weeks.
Gen Z has the most to lose from the negative effects of climate change, and Thunberg made a compelling call to action at the recent COP24 conference in Katowice, Poland: “You say you love your children above all else – and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes,” she told global leaders during the climate summit. “Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis,” she added.
Despite the urgency in Greta’s speech and calls for climate protesters to get more radical, the outcomes of COP24 left much to be desired, in terms of actionable steps to cut emissions. It remains to be seen whether Greta’s call to action will take root and drive meaningful change. But our intuition is that, armed with social media and growing economic clout, Gen Z is best positioned to influence business practices, rather than global climate agreements, where political gridlock appears to be the status quo.
A proud history of activism
A look back at recent social and environmental movements proves that youth activism can shape the current debate around climate change. Approaching the 60th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-ins – where students flouted segregation by occupying seats at diners – it’s timely to recall the instrumental role young people played throughout the American civil rights movement’s most critical moments. Their actions helped to desegregate schools, challenge racism and advance voter and civil rights legislation.
Other notable youth movements over the past 50 years have included the Vietnam War protests, Tiananmen Square and the Arab Spring. While each of these movements is unique to its time and place in history, they share a common element: a clear authority to protest against.
Arguably, young climate activists today face an even tougher challenge than their historical predecessors. Getting political action on climate change is a seemingly impossible task, and youth movements over the past 30 years have been unable to influence global policy in any meaningful way. This is largely because no single government or organization has the necessary authority to create the kind of change needed to address climate change on a global scale.