Wikipedia describes a hero as someone who “combats adversity through feats of ingenuity, bravery or strength.” Well, when it comes to climate action, we have adversity (and adversaries) to spare. Donald Trump has packed his administration with climate doubters and deniers.
So where are the climate heroes to combat it?
Don’t look to the corridors of power. Look to the hallways of schools. It’s young people whose climate activism is most likely to leave me in awe these days. Like the teens in Parkland, Florida, who refused to believe that meaningful progress on gun control wasn’t possible, young climate activists are fearless in challenging the establishment. And a lot of the time, they’re winning.
On March 7, for instance, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco denied the Department of Justice’s request to dismiss the lawsuit that 21 young people have brought against the federal government. The youth say, accurately, that the government is failing to address climate change and endangering their right to a livable planet. Yesterday’s decision means that the case will likely go to trial later this year. What’s more, it’s not the only case of its kind. Similar lawsuits have been filed by youth plaintiffs in Washington, Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Oregon.
Here’s another recent example: Last year, the Idaho legislature yanked all references to human-caused climate change from its approved school curriculum. Last month, students like 17-year-old Emily Her testified before the State Senate education committee and got it put back in. Score one for science and common sense.
Students have also been a big part of the fight to stop dangerous fossil fuel pipelines. There were the 30 or so Indigenous youth who ran from South Dakota to Washington, D.C., to call attention to the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, before almost anyone knew about it. (If you watched the Oscars a couple of weeks ago, you may have seen one of them, Alice Brownotter, who is now all of 14 years old.) But there are also heroes like 16-year-old Rose Whipple, who along with 12 other young Minnesotans applied (successfully) to intervene in the state’s regulatory process regarding Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline replacement project.
I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t speaking truth to power all that often before I had my driver’s license. What’s driving these kids, many of whom aren’t even old enough to vote? The meteorologist and writer Eric Holthaus, who has an essay about his own “climate change anxiety” in the current issue of Sierramagazine, has speculated that “It seems as though fearlessness among teenagers who haven’t yet reached voting age is one symptom of the cultural and environmental anxieties their generation is steeped in.” Maybe. This much we do know: The younger someone is, the more likely they are to believe in man-made climate change and to want our leaders to do something about it. For older Americans, climate change has been warped into yet another partisan issue. For any American under 30, climate change is the future where they expect to spend most of their lives. Imagine how it feels to a teenager.
One more thing: I’m proud to say that some of the young people working on climate activism — like these awesome students at Michigan State — have been doing it through the Sierra Club. The Sierra Student Coalition has offered activist training through a summer program called Sprog for many years now. If you’re interested, or know a young person who might be, you can find out more about this year’s training here. We need all the heroes we can get.