Youth Environmental Activism

“We are Power Shift” is a grassroots online community acting as a clearing house for the youth climate movement. It provides a “State Networks Toolkit” for those who want to organize regionally.[i] Youth activists interviewed by Kristin Moe at a conference for young environmental and social activists often had “a radically holistic view of environmental justice that differentiates them from past generations of activists.”[ii] They see the environment connected to labor, race, class, immigration and education, the common activist theme of intersectionality. Her article in Yes! Magazine features activists as young as 11 working on local environmental problems such as mining, fracking (Kids Against Fracking was founded by Emma Bray, 14), and the Keystone XL pipeline. Teenagers in Colorado are involved in Our Children’s Trust where young people from all the US states are plaintiffs in a class action suit against their state governments for failing to protect the atmosphere under Public Trust Doctrine.[iii] It’s derived from English Common Law that defines water as a public resource.

Siddhant is an Indian 20-year-old engineering student who plans to be a professional environmentalist. I also asked him about New Delhi gaining on Beijing as the most polluted city: “Delhi is improving. Its one of India’s greenest metros and all the public buses are CNG [natural gas] powered. People are becoming more aware and are speaking up. The newer areas of Delhi are green, at least compared to other Indian metros.” However, I was surprised at how little green I saw in New Delhi and other Indian cities and that people don’t use flat rooftops for pot gardens or in used truck tires. Siddant told me his family has a terrace garden and they’re common in smaller cities. He acts on his environmental goals by writing and organizing tree planting. “I am basically into cyber-activism [see his informative blog and Facebook page].[iv] He is also a journalist for YouthLeader magazine.[v])

As a high school student, Siddhant founded GreenGaians in 2009. The group organized a campaign in schools and government offices to plant trees. Siddhant added, “More than activism, I prefer to lead by example, trying to follow a green lifestyle.” About the role of young women, he said they are some of his best supporters: “They are loyal to the cause and don’t get distracted, that’s what I like about them.” I asked him what motivated him to be a teen changemaker; “I guess my motivation came from my love for the planet. When children used to watch Cartoon Network, I would watch National Geographic or Discovery. I became a vegetarian when I was nine due to ethical reasons.” Again we see the influence of Western media on children globally. Being a Hindu is another influence, “The respect I have for other creatures has come from my religion. We worship the elements, and therefore respect them.” His parents are both teachers and as an only child they “have always been very supportive in everything I’ve done.” (Also in India, recycled plastic is used to maker more than 3,000 miles of roads, innovated by Professor Rajagopalan Vasudevan.) However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi set aside environmental protections to encourage economic growth, relying on businesses to voluntarily disclose pollution impacts of new projects in the new good faith policy. Projects in forests no longer needed to seek approval of tribal councils and mining construction on less than 247 acres no longer required government inspection.

Dutch student Boyan Slat delayed going to university to study engineering to raise money for his plan to collect plastic debris from the Pacific Ocean. Diving in Greece, he saw more plastic bags than fish, so when he was 17, he developed a passive cleanup system. He coordinated a 530-page feasibility study, spoke on TEDx[vi] and turned to crowdsourcing to raise $2 million to build the structures needed to collect plastic and recycle it into oil or other materials like the cover of the report.[vii] (Also in the Netherlands, olivine is used as a pebble ground cover because it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.) Other young European environmentalists are active in Young Greens party.[viii] In the UK, a Bio-Bus, known as the poo bus, can travel 186 miles on biomethane fuel made from five people’s human waste and food garbage.[ix] Painted on the bus are people sitting on toilets.

A 17-year-old environmental activist addressed the Rio+20 Earth Summit, with a similar message to that given 20 years previously at the first Rio Summit by 12-year-old Severn Suzuki from Canada. Both girls’ speeches are on YouTube. Brittany Trilford told representatives of 188 nations at the largest-ever environmental summit that she represented the world’s three billion children who demand action so they can have a healthy future. In an interview with radio host Amy Goodman she said that youth are a powerful force, but they sometimes underestimate their strength and should “take power” as “the voice of youth is so strong, so clear, so truthful.”[x] The UN compiled a report on “Youth in Action on Climate Change: Inspirations from Around the World” (2013), available online.[xi]

The 2012 Rio+20 environmental conference bowed to Vatican pressure and didn’t include references to reproductive rights and gender equality in its final document or any other real action items, despite being physically surrounded by pollution in Rio’s water and air. Youth activist members of the UN Major Group for Children and Youth responded from Rio de Janeiro in disgust on their webpage: “You failed to liberate yourself from national and corporate self-interest and recognize our need to respect a greater more transcendental set of boundaries.”[xii] They wrote defiantly,

So get out of our way and…

We will create strong global institutions

We will create new paradigms of wealth and prosperity

We will act as the voice for future generations, one that you so willfully ignored.

We will stand united beyond borders and bridge the national interests that divide us

We will implement what you have not.

 We are moving forward decisively with action. We are not deterred.


The official conference report “The Future We Want” was mocked outside the plenary hall in the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition’s handout titled “The Future We Bought.” They formed an Occupy-style protest with the human mic and consensus decision-making as people stopped to see what the crowd was about. After two hours they decided to leave their conference badges in protest, chanted “Walk out—don’t sell out,” and joined the people’s summit in another part of Rio. The National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds predicts that little action will be taken by these conferences in the next decade but has hope that technology will develop cheaper and cleaner fuels like natural gas.

“Climate is an issue of intergenerational justice,” said Beatrice Yeung, a Hong Kong high school student at the UN climate talks in Qatar, 2012. “Youth see the urgency. Our leaders don’t.”[xiii] Youth under 18 were prohibited from attending the conference, as were students who had protested at the previous climate talk in Durban such as Canadian college student Anjali Appadurai. She told the climate conference that, “You’ve been negotiating all my life [21 years]. In that time, you’ve failed to meet pledges, you’ve missed targets, and you’ve broken promises.”[xiv] When NGOs were allowed to speak at official sessions in Qatar, they were given a one-minute time limit. Yeung said she learned “the hard lesson that world leaders will not lead on this issue. We must create the solutions ourselves.” As usual the conference did not achieve a binding agreement to reduce global warming, agreeing only to implement an agreement in 2020, ignoring the fact that warming increases at an alarming rate.[xv] The UN climate conferences began in 1992 but produced only one treaty, in Kyoto in 1997, never ratified by the US Senate. The 21st conference occurred in Paris in 2014. Climate scientists stated in 2014 that the world had about 15 years left to reduce emissions without great costs, although the planet already suffered from global warming.[xvi]

In response to inaction in the UN climate change conference in Qatar in 2012, youth met at the Change-Course-Conference in Switzerland to focus on grassroots local actions to help communities adapt to climate change.[xvii] A leader of the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change, Ibrahim Ceesay (27) said solutions rest with young people. He explained, “They are innovative, energetic and can make the bridge between those who make the policies and those who are affected by them. When I go back to Gambia, my task will be to tell a woman in a village how she is going to be affected by the warming of the planet.”

The United Nations Constituency of Youth Non-Governmental Organizations (YOUNGO) organizes or reports on a multitude of youth activities to end global warming, including tree planting, making bamboo bikes, collecting or making biofuels, lobbying for green jobs, pressuring politicians, environmental curriculum youth conferences, and think tanks.[xviii] The UN and other websites provide information for youth who want to protect the environment.[xix]School environmental education projects are provided by organizations like the Center for Ecoliteracy so that youth can be more informed about the science of climate change and what to do about it, i.e., painting flat urban roofs white is the equivalent to removing half the world’s one billion cars off the roads.[xx] The San Francisco school district hired an environment specialist who helps schools improve energy usage, resulting in saving almost half a million dollars in fiscal year 2012 to 2013. Specialist Nik Kaestner’s efforts included tree planting, reducing landfill wastes, school gardens, environmental education, and solar panels.

CliMates is a network for “student solutions to climate change.”[xxi] The realities of environmental degradation are spelled out on the book webpage, including global warming, pollution and waste, resource scarcity and a growing population, and renewable energy. Some high schools are training students to do green jobs, like the Sustainable Practices program and School Garden mentor Program at Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa, California. The National Youth Climate Exchange gets teens from environmental youth organizations like Global Kids together to create action plans. Aware of intersectionality, they explain they are, “poor kids, working-class and middle-class kids. We are a multiracial group of kids who . . .also represent LGBQQT kids and undocumented kids.”[xxii] UNESCO sponsors Education for Sustainable Development.[xxiii]

Activist youth environmental organizations in the US include Generation Waking up and Yes! The website It’s Getting Hot in Here explains that it is “the voice of a growing movement-–a collection of voices from the student and youth leaders of the global movement to stop global warming. Originally created by youth leaders in 2005, It’s Getting Hot in Here grew into a global online community with over 300 international writers.[xxiv] Other large active environmental groups started by young people are the Energy Action Coalition and Kids F.A.C.E. (Kids for a Clean Environment). It was started by a nine-year-old girl in Nashville in 1989 and grew to over 2,000 club chapters in 15 countries, claiming to be the world’s largest youth environmental organization.[xxv] The members have planted over 1 million trees. In 2008, university student Tim DeChristopher bid on an auction of public land in Utah to oil companies, causing it to be cancelled.[xxvi] He was sentenced to two years in prison in 2011, and then went on to attend Harvard Divinity School. He reminded activists that all social change in the US required nonviolent civil disobedience and founded Peaceful Uprising climate action group.

The People’s Climate Mobilization organized a huge People’s Climate March on September 21, 2014, to coincide with a UN Climate Summit two days later, followed by an anti-capitalist ‘’’Flood Wall Street” sit-in at Wall Street to protest the corporate link to climate change. A banner stated “Socialism is the cure.” The march was said to be the largest climate demonstration in history, with over 300,000 marchers in New York City (organizers claim 400,000) including the UN’s Ban Ki-moon, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Al Gore, some film stars, and members of Pussy Riot. The president of a teachers’ unit explained, “I’m here because I really feel that every major social movement in this country has come when people get together. It begins in the streets.”[xxvii] Greenhouse gas emissions increased 2.3% in 2013, mainly because of large increases in China and India, according to the Global Carbon Project. Bill McKibben observed that the climate change movement had come of age with the huge march. Activist Gopal Dayaneni believes that systems change is the umbrella goal that unites and unifies the climate movement, the global justice movement, the antiwar movement in their focus on grassroots movements.[xxviii] He’s active in the Our Power campaign to organize in communities such as the Navajo Black Mesa Water Coalition. Seven must-see climate action videos were collected online.[xxix]

Over 2,800 actions took place in over 166 countries: Avaaz reported that over 675,000 people marched around the world, as shown in their photos.[xxx] Videos and photographs publicize the issue and reported on the events, barely covered by US TV stations.[xxxi] More than 500 buses transported demonstrators to New York, marching bands played, and 26 blocks were cordoned off, followed by a huge block party and discussion. The Free University provided direct action training and many organizations were involved including, Avaaz (delivered a petition with 2.1 million signatures),, the Sierra Club, Energy Action Coalition and many university student groups.

A large youth convergence met to focus on divestment at their universities, led by the Fossil Fuel Student Divestment group, and encourage youth to vote and lobby against the XL pipeline. Signs read “Youth Chose Climate Justice,” “Sustainability Student,” signs with their university name, “This Country has a Koch Problem,” “Ban Fracking, Ban Carbon,” ”Cook Organic, Not the Planet,” The Seas are Rising and So are the People,” and “A Good Planet is Hard to Find.”

On September 22 about 3,000 demonstrators wore blue to convey the flood theme with the slogan “Stop Capitalism! End the Climate Crisis!” Speakers included Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014), the new handbook of the climate movement. She said acting on climate change is “our best chance to demand and build a better world,” saying no to powerful corporations in a conflict between “capitalism versus the climate.” She pointed to the German example of encouraging decentralized local energy generators and predicts that change will occur because of leadership from below, as it did with the abolition movement in the 19th century. Another speaker was singer and environmentalist Ta’Kaiya Blaney, age 13. She represents the Sliammon First Nation in British Columbia. For four years she has spoken at UN global climate conferences and advocates, “Actions speaks louder than words.”[xxxii] Vermont’s was the first governor to announce his state would divest from fossil fuel companies and New York City major announced his plan to reduce emissions 80% by 2050. Police arrested 102 people, including a man wearing a realistic polar bear costume.

Seven teenagers and the iMatter Youth Council sued the US government in 2011 to require the government to reduce carbon emission by 6% each year, cap emissions at 2011 levels, and do reforestation.[xxxiii] The leader of the iMatter Movement is 17-year-old Alec Loorz, who was initially galvanized at age 12 by watching Al Gore’s video An Inconvenient Truth. Andy Lipkis (age 18) founded TreePeople in Los Angeles where he leads agencies to work together to utilize water to mitigate flooding and drought and has planted over two million trees.[xxxiv] Los Angeles high school students are involved in greening their schools, as are students in South Africa shown in a video.[xxxv]

University students are taking the lead in environmentalism. (A website tracts college student activism in North America.[xxxvi]) The Sierra Club’s annual ranking of the greenest colleges in 2013 put the University of Connecticut at the top of the list, followed by Dickinson College, University of California at Irvine and at Davis, and Cornell University. A Yale University dropout founded what he says is the largest youth organization in the world to address the climate crisis: Billy Parish became the head of Energy Action Coalition when he was 25. His organization developed campaigns to have colleges commit to zero carbon pollution, started a company called Solar Mosaic where the public can invest in ecological enterprises, and wrote Making Good: Finding Meaning, Money, and Community in a Changing World (2012) with co-author Dev Aujla. Parish says, “Change starts with the simple belief in progress.” He recommends, “Choosing the right people to work with is the single biggest factor that will impact your success.”


[ii] Kristin Moe, “Meet the New Climate Heroes,” Yes! Magazine, October 25, 2013.







[ix] Sam FRizell, “UK’s Frist ‘Poo Bus’ Rides on Human Waste Fuel,” TIME, November 22, 2014.

[x] Democracy Now, June 21, 2012.



[xiii] Stephen Leahy, “Civil Society, Youth Pushed to the Margins at Doha,” Inter Press Service, December 3, 2012.

[xiv] “ ‘Get It Done: Urging Climate Justice, Youth Delegate Anjali Appadurai Mic-Checks UN Summit,” Democracy Now!, December 9, 2011.


[xvi] Editorial Board, “Running Out of Time,” New York Times, April 20, 2014.

[xvii] Isolda Agazzi, “Youth Call for ‘Change of Course’ to Solve Climate Crisis,” AlterNet, December 11, 2012.

[xviii] The Swedish Young Masters Programme on Sustainable Development.


International Youth Forum Go4BioDiv



[xxii] Evie Hantzopoulos, “Youth Climate Activist Manifesto,” Huffington Post Blog, April 22, 2013.



Generation Waking Up, plastic

International Youth Climate Movement:



[xxvii] Lisa Foderaro, “Taking a Call for Climate Change to the Streets,” New York Times, September 21, 2014.

[xxviii] Laura Flanders, “The New Grassroots Heroes,” Yes! Magazine, November 14, 2014.

[xxix] Stefanie Spear, “7 Must-See Climate Action Videos of 2014,” EcoWatch, December 26, 2014.





“Youth Leadership: Generation Green,”




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