Why the Youth Movement Matters

Students from across Arizona State University conduct a walkout as part of the Global Climate Strikes.

By Peter Schlosser, Steven Beschloss and Nina Berman

This week 16-year-old Greta Thunberg offered a clear, powerful statement and rebuke to the world leaders gathered together at the United Nations. “The eyes of all future generations are upon you,” she said, her voice pulsing with anger. “If you choose to fail us, I say: ‘We will never forgive you.’ ”

She was speaking for herself, she was speaking for young people gripped by the awareness of the climate crisis, and she was speaking for everyone who recognizes that the status quo is not acceptable and action is critical.

“For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear,” Thunberg added. “How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.”

It was a remarkable moment, made more remarkable by an estimated 4 million young people who took to the streets several days earlier to let their voices be heard. On September 20, on every continent, in thousands of cities and towns around the world, protestors demanded climate action, including reducing carbon emissions, halting global warming and confronting mass species extinction.

“You had a future, and so should we,” chanted marchers in New York City. “Rebel or burn out” was emblazoned on a protestor’s sign in Bogota, Columbia. Signs in San Francisco read: “The sea is rising, so must we.”

We admire this energy and the determination to drive change at this time of great urgency. We believe it’s important to listen to the voices of young people, seeking their common global voice, confronting the shape of their future.

But more than just listen, we believe it’s our responsibility to seek out the views and insights of young people to help us, to work with us, to shape our shared future. This is a moment, a bottom-up movement that only rarely emerges, that should capture the attention and spur activity at all levels of society. In the coming months, we intend to gather together the thoughts and stories of students and other young people to enrich our collective understanding and expand our capacity to make smart decisions and mobilize change.

This week the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its third special report in the last 12 months, produced over three years by more than 100 scientists, looking at the impact of climate change on our oceans and the ice locked around the North and South Poles and in mountain regions. In essence, the waters are warming, the world’s ice is melting, sea levels are rising, and all of this has serious consequences for nearly every living thing on Earth. While that general message is not new and points to largely the same set of issues indicated in the previous reports, the extent of the rising danger is new.

Sobering challenges like these call for creative responses. We recognize that workforce strikes, school walkouts and other kinds of strategic collective actions may be controversial, but when handled safely and non-violently they represent a valuable part of how we come to grips with our urgent responsibilities to create a livable future. As educators and scientists, as citizens and students, as members of the human species, it is up to each of us to expand our knowledge, listen to each other, reflect on our purpose and duty, respond to what our eyes and ears are telling us, and identify how we can contribute to ensuring a habitable planet.

A year ago, in August 2018, then 15-year-old Greta Thunberg sat outside the Swedish parliament, alone. It was her first climate strike. A year and one month later, she was joined by millions who shared her fear and hope that change is possible.

No one knows exactly what set of actions will meaningfully shift the trajectory of our future. It’s not yet clear whether the current social advocacy will lead to a sustained global political movement. But Thunberg has already proven that even one person can move the world. Imagine what’s possible when we’re working together, on many fronts, with common purpose.

About the authors:
Peter Schlosser is the vice president and vice provost of the Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University.
Steven Beschloss is a professor of practice for the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the senior director for narrative development for the President’s Office at Arizona State University.
Nina Berman is the director of the School of International Letters and Cultures at Arizona State University.

About the Global Futures Laboratory:
Using the model of the multi-focused National Laboratories, the Global Futures Laboratory is creating a platform for an ongoing and wide-ranging exchange across all knowledge domains to address the complex social, economic and scientific challenges spawned by the current and future threats from environmental degradation. This platform positions a new world headquarters for an international network of scientists, scholars and innovators, it lays the foundation to respond to existing and emerging challenges and it uses innovation to purposefully shape and inform our future. The Global Futures Laboratory provides key engagement spaces for scientists, educators and leaders across ASU and around the world to address critical issues related to the future of planet Earth. Rather than solving problems after they arise, we seek to design a future in which humanity not only survives, but thrives.

Arizona State University Global Futures Laboratory

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Designing and shaping a future in which Earth will thrive.

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