Rising temperatures threaten to make regions across the Mediterranean and Middle East that are home to over 400 million people, uninhabitable in the next 30 years. Intensifying natural disasters that seem unrelenting in some places, have started to take a toll on the mental health of residents. And mounting conflict over natural resources spans from Idaho to Iran, offering a terrifying glimpse of what’s to come as necessities like clean water and food become scarce.
My generation has been told that it’s our duty to save the world – to fix the wrongs committed by our parents and our grandparents. But instead of setting us up for success, current leadership continues to hide behind shallow commitments, while still actively degrading our planet.
This is the fight of our lives, and it often feels like we’re alone. Even after implementing groundbreaking legislation, its success is tenuous and still short of the necessary overhaul we’ll need to initiate to meet the goals set out in the Paris Climate Agreement. Twenty- and thirty-somethings have been part of this movement for a long time now, and we’re ready to step up as the adults in the room.
World Organizations such as UNICEF have declared that almost a billion children will be exposed to numerous climate hazards during their lifetime, impacting their health, education, safety, and futures. Headlines like this have been in regular circulation for as long as I can remember. It’s a reality the next generation has lived with their whole lives. I started my climate activist journey in middle school, consumed by the energy I saw in my optimistic and determined peers, collectively organizing demonstrations in front of City Hall every first Friday of the month. I became devoted to political demonstrations because I could see our voices being heard. Even though the majority of us were under the age of 18, our collective power had an impact as we pressured the local government to consider policy changes we put forth like divesting in fossil fuels and establishing environmental councils.
And then COVID-19 hit. As our marches (and everything else) moved online, our mental health and our determination were tested, with 44 percent of high schoolers reporting feelings of hopelessness or depression for prolonged periods. As we looked to balance our education, our activism, and – for some of us and our families – our survival, our resilience reached new depths. Even as the pandemic made gathering and marching less feasible, Gen Z and Millenials continued to take action, with around 30 percent attending rallies, donating money, writing to elected officials, or volunteering compared to just over 20 percent of Gen Xers and Baby Boomers doing the same.
For me, the question has always been, how can we, future changemakers, move the needle? Even as the pandemic has subsided and lockdowns have ended, young people have been slow to return to the height of advocacy we’d established before the pandemic. Marches have thinned. The town hall steps remain empty.
Without youth-led marches, the climate movement will stagnate. While the few who remain are fierce and determined, they need numbers to get back to pre-pandemic levels to have the same level of impact. In 2019, over three million young people participated in that year’s climate strike in New York City. In 2021, only 600,000 turned out. And it was clear who was missing. The demographic had shifted. Our base was younger, and I, the 20-year-old college student in the crowd, was the odd one out.
But this transition is exciting and essential. Millennials and older Gen Zers who’ve been at the forefront of climate activism have the ability to equip these emerging leaders with the tools to use their voices, but we have to support them. Of course, as we’ve gotten older our responsibilities have increased. Like many activists my age, I’m struggling to simultaneously push for legislative climate action while also managing a rigorous academic course load, graduate-level research, and applying for internships. But the 2021 march made it clear to me that even as I get older, there’s still an important role to play in the youth-led climate movement.
College-age climate leaders now attending university need to focus on how we can pass the baton to the next generation of climate activists. Joining forces means we can put pressure on public officials through our congressional internships, our college campus networks, and through connections with leaders we've spent years building. As we age into the middle of the pack, we can be the liaisons between generations to demand political change in a way that resonates across demographics.
We also have lessons to pass down. I have worked on institutional climate change projects like introducing composting and waste management on multiple school campuses, and have seen firsthand how the bureaucracy in governmental agencies and educational institutions is often supportive in words but falls short of creating tangible action. But I’ve also seen what can happen when we stay the course, recruit allies, and focus on equitable solutions.
In 2019, I drafted and proposed a motion adopted by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to establish a 25-person youth climate commission. At first, we were dismissed. Yet, we continued to push public officials, skipping school and missing classes. We urged elected officials to adopt the motion, which they eventually did, and after four years the inaugural commission will launch in September 2022. Achieving progress is a long game, but I can testify to the next wave of young people that it’s possible.
We must learn what it takes from other movements to be radically inclusive, to weather the challenges ahead, and stay persistent. And we must allow ourselves to grow up into the adults we wish we had on our side so that those who come after us don’t have to follow in our footsteps. For the youth climate movement to succeed, it will need us – the older youth activists – to help guide it.
Delaney Michaelson '24 is a current student at Barnard majoring in anthropology & environmental science. She serves as the Vice President of Student Services with the Barnard Student Government Association (SGA).