Commentary: A year of resistance, as youth protests shaped climate change discussions

Commentary: A year of resistance, as youth protests shaped climate change discussions

The actions of today's leaders on climate change will determine how much more vocal youth will become in 2020, say two observers.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has taken her disarmingly straightforward message --
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has taken her disarmingly straightforward message - "listen to the scientists"-- around the world. (File photo: AFP/CRISTINA QUICLER)

TORONTO: Greta Thunberg made history again this month when she was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.

The 16-year-old has become the face of youth climate action, going from a lone child sitting outside the Swedish parliament building in mid-2018 to a symbol for climate strikers — young and old — around the world.

Thunberg was far from the first young person to speak up in an effort to hold the powerful accountable for their inaction on climate change, yet the recognition of her efforts come at a time when world leaders will have to decide whether — or with how much effort — they will tackle climate change.

Their actions or inactions will determine how much more vocal youth will become in 2020.

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GENERATIONAL FRONTLINES

Thunberg coined the hashtag #FridaysforFuture in August 2018, inspiring students globally to hold their own climate strikes. Many of them argued that adults were not doing enough to address the climate catastrophe.

Today’s youth saw themselves on the generational frontlines of climate change, so they walked out of their schools to demand transformative action.

The strikes spread throughout the fall and winter, and spilled over to 2019. Students in the United Kingdom joined the movement on Feb 15, 2019 with a mass mobilisation, on the heels of Australia, Switzerland, Germany, Japan and many other countries around the world.

They skipped school because they felt there was no point to school without a future, and their resistance took their grievances around generational injustice directly to elected officials.

Global Climate Strike in Berlin
Students take part in the Global Climate Strike of the Fridays for Future movement in Berlin, Germany, September 20, 2019. (File photo: REUTERS/Christian Mang)

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Fridays for Future now estimates that more than 9.6 million strikers in 261 countries have participated in climate strikes. And Thunberg herself has met with hundreds of communities and numerous heads of state.

While Thunberg’s celebrity has paved the way for the climate strikes to scale up — her work rests on decades of climate activism that have made this year’s mobilisations possible.

MOMENTUM FOR ENVIRONMENT JUSTICE

Activists like Vanessa Gray, Nick Estes, Autumn Peltier, Kanahus Manuel and many others whose work bridges sovereignty and environmental damage have also played an important role.

They have helped shift the climate movement toward the framework of climate justice, which acknowledges the intersections of colonialism, racialisation, capitalism and climate change.

This moment also builds on environmental justice movements. Young activists like Isra Hirsi, Cricket Cheng, Maya Menezes and others have been building movements where a racial justice lens brings the climate movement into focus.

While these leaders may not have been recognised with Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, their work has significantly reshaped the climate movement.

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Time cover features Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg named the magazine's Person of the Ye
Time cover features Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg named the magazine's Person of the Year for 2019 in this undated handout. (Photo: TIME via REUTERS)

They are helping politicise a new generation of climate activists who understand climate change not as an isolated phenomenon, but one with roots in a capitalist system.

RESISTANCE FROM COMMUNITIES

This year has also seen Indigenous-led resistance to climate change and the related oil, gas, fracking, hydro and other natural resource extraction too.

Secwepemc leaders and their allies have built tiny houses to prevent the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion from being forced through unceded Secwepemc territory.

There’s been resistance to fracking. Across northern Manitoba, Cree and Nishnaabe communities are resisting hydro projects they say will devastate their communities.

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In British Columbia, nations have fought the Site C dam, which threatens to flood communities, change watersheds and escalate violence against women through work camps filled with men. Inuit and Cree communities in Labrador have resisted the Muskrat Falls hydro project.

This mirrors Indigenous-led environmental action against energy projects around the world, including work in Karen communities in Thailand, Indigenous peoples in Colombia, Waorani peoples in Ecuador, among Saami peoples and countless other Indigenous nations.

REJECTING INACTION

The climate strikes are an example of youth becoming politicised, rejecting adult inaction and demanding more from governments.

Climate protests hit the global headlines in 2019
Climate protests hit the global headlines in 2019. (Photo: AFP/Marc Piscotty)

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In the coming years, we can expect the climate movement to keep growing, become even more politicised and escalate the intensity of tactics.

When governments resist reasonable requests, decades of social movements teach us that activists escalate.

\We can look at the histories of the HIV/AIDS movement, the Civil Rights movement, African liberation struggles and “poor people’s movements,” which show us that when people get pushed out, they turn up the pressure.

That escalation is necessary to win substantive change. Escalation is not usually seen by the public as nice as polite entreaties, but research clearly shows that direct action leads to change.

Greta’s recognition by Time Magazine will continue to inspire more young people to join their peers in demanding bold climate action like the Green New Deal and to use the legal system as a tool by suing governments over climate inaction.

If elected officials fail to act, we can expect these young people to adopt more disruptive tactics and do the work on the ground to elect new leaders.

Even if they can’t yet vote themselves, there are many ways they can- and will continue to- shape our politics and our future.

Joe Curnow is Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Manitoba. Anjali Helferty is a PhD Candidate at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation.