Jumping Forward with Charles

A conversation with a high school climate activist

Charles Long at the May 3rd Boston youth climate strike

This article was written by Joshua Hirschfeld-Kroen in collaboration with the Sunrise Movement Boston Media Team.

I was sitting outside of Brookline high on Thursday evening when Charles Long leapt down a flight of stairs, waving frantically. His smile (and his braces) beamed. Charles is fifteen, a first-year at Brookline High, a resident in Jamaica Plain, a thespian, and a newly minted climate activist.

The next morning, he would be striking with hundreds of students outside of the Boston statehouse, and alongside thousands worldwide. Charles recently joined a rapidly growing international movement of students who are sounding the alarm on the existential breakdown of our climate and ecological systems. I wanted to hear from Charles about how he had personally experienced the impacts of climate change, how the tepid political response from the “older generations” made him feel, and how he now thinks about the future that we are hurtling towards.

When Charles was ten, he moved to China to live with his father for two years. He recalls the thick veil of pollution that hung over his city, how he had to wear masks to school every day, occasionally getting days off “that were kind of like snow days”. As a fourth grader, he didn’t worry much about the pollution. But he doesn’t look back on this experience lightly, either. At the climate strike he held up a cardboard sign that read: “I’m sorry to bother you, but 2 million children under 5 die because of pollution each year”.

It was also during his time in China that Charles learned to love the natural world, partly because of how rarely he was able to experience its splendor. “You could only really enjoy that, like, once every three months; there would be one clean day when you could go outside and play. So when I came back to America, I really kept that joy with me.” It was only when he got older that he learned more about how climate change was threatening the nature he’d come love, how it “wasn’t just in factories in China, but all around the world and in the oceans too.”

“And now”, he says, “I’m just kind of angry … Older generations haven’t really taken action on this because they don’t see it as a big threat to them. People like Greta Thunberg, and youth like me, are taking action because we’re not going to have a future if we leave it to older generations who aren’t worrying about it at all. We need to panic. We need to act.”

Learning about climate change hasn’t just changed his vision of the future environments he’ll live in. He used to dream of being a screen actor, a thespian, a slam poet. Now, he feels as if he has to abandon those dreams as impractical in a warming world. “It’s dawned on me how unrealistic pursuing a career as an actor might be, because fewer people are going to be watching movies when they are facing such big issues.”

I tried to convince him otherwise. I floated the idea that people who are in the throes of a crisis potentially have the most to gain from art that is original and visionary. Grinning, he gave me a gentle punch in the arm, and quipped “Oh my god, you just inspired me so much.”

Young people like Charles are, and will continue to be, powerful representatives of this growing movement, not just because they have so much at stake, but because they embody a hope and an unflinching imagination that, in this dark and uncertain hour, is a beacon we desperately need.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that we need to cut our global emissions in half by 2030 to stay under 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial temperatures. This is a herculean task, and would require a radical reimagining of, well, pretty much everything. So I made Charles an offer: “You get to take a time machine to 2030, to when you’ll be 26 years old, and you get to witness the more hopeful world that we might live in. Can you tell me what you see?”

He didn’t skip a beat.

“Every single house has a solar panel. And there are wind farms instead of coal plants. And everything just looks so much more futuristic, like a sci-fi.” He went on to describe a world in which an ethic of sustainability and recycling makes everyday household objects take on more meaning: “It won’t be the thing where you have companies mass producing spoons that all look exactly the same; and I feel like that would add a lot to culture. What I’m seeing is people with clothes and chopsticks that are passed down from their parents, that have all kinds of intricate designs and represent all kinds of memories and cultures.”

To finish off the thought experiment, I asked him if he could jump back in the time machine, come back to 2019, and give us some much needed advice on how we might navigate these trying times.

He paused, smirked, and then spoke in earnest, as if the weight of civilization was resting on his shoulders: “Don’t worry about how other people will think of you now. Just act how you think you should act, knowing what you know. If you go in the future 11 years to 2030, people will remember you, and they will be in awe and admiration of you, knowing that you did something.”