Burning Questions: A Climate Change Series, Part 1
As the adults unhitch the 18-foot boat from its trailer, traffic begins to stall. Nathaniel Walcott, 16, stands in the background, replaying what he must do: Stand on the boat, handcuff hands, remove shoes, glue feet. Simple instructions for an outlandish task, all in the name of attracting attention to an ongoing tragedy.
Once the boat is in position, blocking the intersection of West 44th Street and Broadway in the middle of New York City’s Times Square, Nathaniel scrambles to help assemble the mast, which he will soon be attached to by handcuffs. Once his hands are secured around the pole, Nathaniel slips his feet out of his shoes. Thankfully, the fall morning chill has waned slightly – his toes aren’t that cold. Holding a small tube of Krazy Glue in his cuffed hands, Nathaniel lifts his right foot and awkwardly squeezes the adhesive onto his bare skin. He stomps his foot down to bind it to the boat beneath him.
All around, a small group of fellow activists are doing the same thing. “It was a lot of adrenaline,” Walcott said on a January day in a Manhattan café. “I wasn’t really nervous because we had rehearsed it, and whatever we could do, we’d already done.”
Others are gluing their arms inside of pipes and handcuffing themselves to any pole they can find. Walcott’s dad is walking around the boat with extra tubes of glue. He approaches his son and squeezes lines of the Krazy Glue back and forth on Nathaniel’s other foot. Walcott stomps down, and his dad quickly traces both of his feet with more glue, ensuring the job is done before gluing his own hands to the front of the boat. Walcott’s bright orange life vest stands out like a flag at the top of the mast, sending a distinct message: Soon, Manhattan will be underwater.
In front of the commotion, other members of Extinction Rebellion (XR) circle the boat and hold up orange fencing – the kind that you might see on a beach to guide guests in a different direction. Meanwhile, passersby stop to take photos, still unsure of exactly what is unfolding, until the chanting begins. “Whose air? Our air! Whose planet? Our planet!” The refrain replaces radio waves as drivers lean out their windows, and it only grows louder as more members of XR march into the crossroads of the world, arriving from a decoy rally nearby.
Walcott stands above it all, glued to a bright green boat, desperate to direct attention to the crisis at hand. If no one acts, the world he knows – from the areas of upstate New York where he spends his summers as a camp counselor to the shorelines, canyons, deserts and communities he’s yet to see – won’t be livable anymore. This is not a fight to just preserve the flowers and the trees; it is a fight to make sure Earth remains a place where 7 billion residents might survive with dignity. The only way to do so is to treat the ground we walk on with just that: dignity.
Walcott tries to wiggle his toes to make sure his feet do not fall asleep; he doesn’t know how long it will take for the police to detach him before he is ultimately arrested. “We needed diapers,” Nathaniel recalled. It took roughly two hours for police officers to remove Walcott and the other XR activists from the boat – long enough to be considered a successful action.
Activism requires a lot of things, not least among them grit and optimism – two characteristics youth often enjoy en masse. It’s not surprising, then, that movements around the world and throughout history have been youth led. Climate activist Daniel Hunter writes in his book, Climate Resistance Handbook or, I was Part of a Climate Action. Now What?, of the creation of the Mongolian Democratic Union in the midst of authoritarian rule in the 1980s, an accomplishment made possible entirely by the bravery of youth. The 1960 Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins were famously conducted by four students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. And more recently, the Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives movements have reaffirmed the power of the collective youth voice.
When Greta Thunberg began striking outside of Swedish Parliament in 2018, she was only 15, and yet she sparked a chain reaction similar to those seen in years past. Thunberg’s defiance reminded people everywhere of the power of one, and they continue to come together today to demonstrate the power of many.
The ensuing Fridays for Future movement – the organization advancing Thunberg’s Friday school strikes worldwide – quickly became the face of youth climate activism. For FFF in particular, the overarching demand is fairly simple, but it also reflects the dismal location of the starting line: “Unite behind the science.” World leaders can’t even publicly agree on the crisis at hand – bushfires rage in Australia, drought has led to famine in Zambia, and natural disasters are increasing in intensity across the globe – and how to go about combating it. Meanwhile, nearly two years have already passed since Thunberg began her strikes, and change has been far from substantive, let alone systemic.
Unlike Baby Boomers, Gen X and even some older millennials, the youngest generations are unfazed by legacy systems. Change occurs so rapidly in their world that barriers to it seem almost incomprehensible. Instead, younger people tend to see facts where those jaded by the system see chaos or threats to profit. But Gen Z does not have the luxury of expecting everything to work itself out. Instead, the United Nations’ dire warnings of “long-lasting or irreversible” impacts fall on terrified young ears.
Over the course of two years, more and more Tylt voters are expressing their anxiety about global warming. In April of 2019, 43 percent said it was “unethical to have kids in the era of climate change,” proving just how far fear of the future goes. A few days prior to Walcott’s arrest in Times Square, I spoke with a mother about what brought her to a separate XR rally in New York City’s financial district. She was blunt: “Because my teenage son told me he is the only kid he knows who wants to have children….They don’t have hope that their kids will be okay.”
Two years ago, The Tylt asked the same question about having children in a climate-change world. Back then, the concern was limited to 31 percent of voters. As the polling shows, younger people are increasingly terrified for the quality of life children will have after them – a notion many Gen X and Baby Boomers fail to reflect. This empathy gap is a mobilizing force.
As a result, Thunberg is Time’s 2019 Person of the Year. Millions of students have participated in school strikes in the name of saving the planet, and movements like XR brand themselves with slogans like “love and rage” in order to express their empathy for all impacted by climate change, while simultaneously demonstrating the outrageousness of the ongoing crisis.
It is essential to the movement to prioritize the voices of frontline communities, meaning those already impacted by climate change. For many, when signs of the climate crisis appear on the news – such as the Amazon burning at alarming rates, temperatures breaking record highs, or ongoing bushfires in Australia – their reaction is sympathy, rather than empathy. It is difficult for many to truly understand the dangers climate change poses before being exposed first-hand to catastrophes like these. Young people in the climate movement don’t have to make an additional effort to empathize with frontline communities already impacted by climate change; most understand it is a future they will all share unless their demands are met.
When Alice Brownotter, a now 16-year-old member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, was 12 years old, she did not listen unfeeling upon hearing news of a pipeline being built in her homeland. Instead, she immediately understood that the Dakota Access Pipeline would completely change her people’s way of life, along with many others. Her empathy for her people, and the generations after her, inspired a remarkable action: She and a group of roughly 30 others, largely youth, literally ran more than 1,500 miles from their homeland in North Dakota to Washington D.C. in an effort to stop the creation of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
After returning once more to Washington D.C. (this time, not on foot), Brownotter told me her original journey was “just something that [she] knew was the right thing to do.” She then posed the obvious question: “How would you feel if your grandchildren don’t get to have clean water or any of the resources that we had? That’s very selfish.” Unfortunately, too many outside the youth-led climate movement still fail to understand, and some leaders still refer to climate change as a hoax.
Meanwhile, for those who have only had a taste of the negative impacts of climate change, "climate anxiety” reigns. In a newspaper created by 9-year-old activist Aaron Elguera, one interviewee explains her own “climate grief,” saying, “I sometimes think about how New York City will be underwater when the ice caps have fully melted, and I worry that if too many animals go extinct the ecosystem will completely fall apart.” Adults typically drive away nightmares for young children; now, older generations are the perpetrators.
Upon witnessing the type of activism typical of XR, many adults wonder, “What difference does this make?” Seeing kids “skip” school or glue themselves to boats or shut down bridges sparks eyerolls from a pocket of skeptics: Those who believe there is no reason to panic. “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future,” President Donald Trump tweeted in December, referring to Thunberg after she was named Person of the Year. “So nice to see!” Since taking office, Trump has actively worked to reverse every single climate protection in place on the federal level, ranging from exiting the Paris Climate Agreement to weakening fuel economy standards for cars. Carbon emissions in the U.S. are once again on the rise.
The message Walcott, Thunberg, Brownotter and others like them want to get across is the exact opposite: Not only is it time to panic, it’s past time to panic. Groups like XR and FFF are just a few of many climate-activist organizations focused on rallying the public to demand systemic change. As Roger Hallam, the co-founder of XR, often says, 30 years of campaigning on this topic has failed; now is the time for drastic measures, such as sacrificing one’s education, blocking traffic, or shutting down bridges, or else the world will reckon with the irreversible impacts of which the U.N. has already warned.
Prior to the global Sept. 20 climate strike, The Tylt asked its audience who planned on participating in the historic demonstration. Of those who voted, nearly 50 percent said they planned to attend the strike. Almost half The Tylt’s respondents felt galvanized enough to get past step one: showing up. Amid all the chaos the morning of Sept. 20, Olivia Wohlgemuth, 17, a core organizer for FFF NYC, shared with me that she’d just heard an entire group of her classmates had walked out of LaGuardia High School in order to join her at the climate strike. Being one of the only climate activists at her school, Olivia was elated by the news. All her work – all the days walking through the subway with a protest poster hanging from her shoulders, all the sliding of flyers under lockers, all the times striking up conversation with strangers – it was making a difference in her community.
Jerome Foster, 17, another FFF activist based out of D.C., recently decided to widen the scope of his own community by founding One Million of Us, a youth-run organization aimed at registering one million young people to vote in 2020. Foster, who attends school in D.C., began striking in solidarity with Thunberg early on, but discovered his own way of educating others on the climate crisis: He lets them see it with their own eyes.
Foster designs virtual reality landscapes, and can put people in the environments impacted by climate change first. From ocean pollution to oil refineries to a story of a young girl attempting to flee to the U.S., Foster’s virtual reality – his art – is the perfect 21st century crossroad for the five issues One Million of Us focuses on: climate change, racial equality, immigration reform, gender equality and gun violence.
In a conversation prior to the holidays, Foster spoke about one of the very first VR projects he created. The story “was of a young girl from Guatemala, escaping the droughts and ensuing violence, and escaping to Texas,” he said. According to Foster, showing people this kind of story is one key to waking them up from ongoing ignorance and bringing them into the fold of empathy. “At the epicenter of [her journey] is the climate crisis,” Foster said. “This isn’t just a person climbing over a wall. This is a person fleeing a drought. The VR helps people understand the trauma people go through.”
As Foster explored this storyline, he came to better understand the intersection between immigration reform and racial injustice within the climate crisis. This relationship is also why activists like Walcott may decide to be arrested for civil disobedience through XR. For those who are able to exercise their privilege in order to make a greater point, Walcott and many others believe it is their duty to do so. Being arrested is not free, can be dangerous and – as seen time and again – is unfortunately subjective to the police officer doing the arresting. Therefore, organizing, planning and participating in a mass arrest is a privilege, not unlike the privilege to drink clean water and breathe fresh air. Civil disobedience is one strategy to utilize that privilege for the sake of front-line communities.
On one cloudy autumn Friday outside the United States Capitol, Kallan Benson, 15, another original FFF activist in the United States, was flanked by colorful leaves, her characteristic monarch butterfly cape, and three friends. While sitting on a bench, Benson explained to me her reason for returning Friday after Friday to demand environmental justice. “Being out here every Friday means people can’t forget about the issue,” she said. “People can’t ignore us.”
Although civic participation is at an all-time low among adults in the U.S., young people have no choice: They have to be seen to be heard through activism. According to Benson, “Some people don’t even view [minors] as constituents,” because they do not have voting power. Some politicians refuse to prioritize their requests, believing adults are more familiar with the youth’s best interest than young people themselves.
During a worldwide XR hunger strike, one group of activists occupied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in Washington, asking for a one-hour meeting to discuss the severity of the climate crisis. On day five of the strike, Nick Brana, 30, briefly exited Pelosi’s office to join Jane Fonda’s Fire Drill Friday rally on the lawn of the Capitol. Afterwards, he sat down with me to share his experience. His words came slowly and his movements were careful. He spoke of hunger pains that kept him and his fellow protesters awake during the night. Despite the deterioration of this group’s condition before Pelosi’s staff’s eyes, “Nancy Pelosi has refused to acknowledge us,” Brana said, speaking barely above a whisper. “They have refused to even send a member of staff to meet with us, or to schedule an appointment at a future date.” Although the group in Pelosi’s office was largely over the age of 18, minors participated in the hunger strike around the world, and to almost no avail.
Among their cries for wide-scale change, many climate activists also want to see a Climate Council created with permanent seats for members of frontline communities and youth representatives – this was one of the three demands made by FFF NYC prior to the global Nov. 29/Dec. 6 climate strikes. As activists circled City Hall in New York City on Dec. 6, crowds rallied in front of BlackRock and Wells Fargo in Washington D.C., demanding they divest from the fossil fuel industry.
In D.C., Benson took hold of a microphone – only to give it up for a megaphone – in front of the crowd, shouting, “I don’t want another generation to take this on.” Shortly thereafter, a group of elementary and preschool-aged girls rode up to the protest on bikes and in wagons, singing “Hey, hey, ho, ho, climate change has got to go!” Perhaps it is too late to save future generations from having to participate in this fight, but as FFF continues to point out, it’s not too late to alter every decision-making process to include the youth’s perspective.
The climate movement is youth-led because many of the adults in power have not proven themselves to be responsible caretakers of the Earth. Rather than wait to cross the legal threshold into adulthood, the voice of the youth drowns out the social constructs in place telling them their opinion is not yet of consequence. This is not just a fight for a response to the climate crisis; it is a fight to create a permanent space for youth to actively contribute to decisions that will impact their futures more than anyone else’s. No generation should have to handle a problem fed by irresponsible greed and willful ignorance, and by including youth representatives at the decision-making table, the hope is that no other generation will.
As Walcott sipped his water in the café where we met, I kept an eye on the clock. The first XR Youth meeting of the new year would be starting in a little over half an hour, and I did not want to make him late. His mind, however, was captivated once again by the prospect of civil disobedience. “I want to be arrested again,” he told me. “I want to keep doing this.”
When I asked him why, he explained that climate activists are done asking for change. If change does not come, they will continue to act out until it does. And doing so with a global community by your side, he explains, is a reason to be happy in the midst of it all. No one wants to march alone, go on strike alone, run alone or even glue themselves to a boat alone. The power of the youth voice is not that they found it – saying so would imply a lack of awareness of its existence, which is certainly not the case – the power of the youth voice is in how they are using it.
Before bundling up and heading to his XR meeting, Walcott left me with this: “When a lot of people learn about the reality of what’s going on, they feel like they can’t be doing anything else.” Where adults shake their heads upon seeing images of singed koalas in Australia and where politicians promise distant action in response, young people understand waiting means certain death. Their action is yesterday, today and tomorrow – and they will continue acting until they’re the ones in power. Only difference? They’ll leave a space for the young voices behind them.