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Youth are changing the game on climate change

Kids protest to fight climate change

In the span of just months, children around the world have pushed climate change discussion into the heart of policy debates, the mainstream media and public conversation. Youth-led efforts like the Sunrise Movement, the Youth Climate Strike and the lawsuit Juliana v. United States have grabbed attention.

At the forefront of one of the efforts is 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, an inspirational yet unlikely leader of weekly school strikes that have become perhaps the largest global protest movement.

She has "compelled the EU's Jean-Claude Juncker to dedicate every fourth Euro to be spent between 2021-27 to climate action," said Leah Qusba, deputy director of Alliance for Climate Education, a non-profit climate education organization "That is translating youth movement building into real political action."

On Friday, the youth climate strike movement will arrive on U.S. soil. Young people across the country are planning to skip school to call for action on climate change.  

Alexandria Villasenor, the 13-year-old co-leader of the U.S. protest event, said 400 strikes are planned nationwide on Friday.

"We are striking because if the social order is disrupted by our refusal to attend school, then the system is forced to face the climate crisis and enact change," says the movement's mission statement. "With our futures at stake, we call for radical legislative action to combat climate change and its countless detrimental effects on the American people."

Villasenor's mother, Kristin Hogue, said that over just a few weeks her daughter has processed media requests at a pace more typical of rock stars and A-list celebrities -- over 200 and counting.

Steve Vanderheiden, a professor of Political Science and Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said today's youth were born into a climate-changed world, and that it's part of their consciousness. Their clarity and authenticity are media magnets.

"That some of these kids would get media attention for expressing this concern should not be surprising, especially given how eloquently and poignantly some of them have been able to express it," he said.

Qusba of the Alliance for Climate Education said the young people her organization works with "are inherently creative and tirelessly passionate."

"They show up, sit in, and rally for what they want," she said.

It's that same just-do-it attitude that has propelled the Green New Deal onto the U.S. political stage. The initiative, which seeks to shift the U.S. economy to rely solely on renewable energy by 2030, is often associated with rookie lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But its recent success is partly rooted in the work of the Sunrise Movement, a youth activist group. The Green New Deal has amassed over 100 co-sponsors in the House and Senate, including most of the Democratic presidential hopefuls.

While Vanderheiden doubts there will be any major congressional action on climate in the next two years, he said success should be measured differently.

"I would define social movement success as mostly in the agenda-setting and public pressure phases, and these youth movements have been effective at keeping these issues on the agenda, gaining allies among some elected officials and bringing pressure on others," said the University of Colorado Boulder professor.

The elevation of climate change in Congress has raised its exposure in the news.

"We saw climate coverage start trending up in some outlets after the February release of the Green New Deal resolution," said Lisa Hymas, who tracks media coverage of climate change as director of the climate and energy program at the not-for-profit Media Matters for America. "Younger Americans are now changing the game by calling for dramatic action and demanding attention."

Attention is just what they got when Saturday Night Live parodied a recent interaction between Senator Dianne Feinstein and students. Last month, Feinstein had a heated exchange with a group of middle and high school students who asked her to support the Green New Deal. A clip of the exchange went viral.

Another example of the youth movement's momentum is the attention one legal action recently got from CBS' "60 Minutes." An episode that aired March 3 highlighted Juliana v. United States, a youth-led climate change lawsuit filed on behalf of 21 kids. In the words of correspondent Steve Kroft, "Of all the cases working their way through the federal court system none is more interesting or potentially more life changing than Juliana v. United States. To quote one federal judge, 'This is no ordinary lawsuit.'"

Michael Gerrard, who directs the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, thinks the chance the case will ultimately win in the Supreme Court is slim. But he believes it is succeeding in winning over public opinion.

"As the '60 Minutes' piece demonstrates, the case is extremely well framed to garner maximum attention and sympathy for the plaintiffs," he said.  

Gerrard said that if the case eventually goes to trial, it "could be a significant embarrassment to the U.S. government - bringing media attention every day to the impacts of climate change and the role of the U.S. government in allowing or encouraging it."

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