They’ve grown up in a pandemic. They’ve come of age in an era of strongman leaders. The climate crisis looms over their very lives.
Generation Z, the cohort born after 1996, has inherited a set of compounding uncertainties.
It explains, in some measure, the vibe of the youth climate movement. Powered by rage and distrust, it is decentralized and it is increasingly focused on the inequitable effects of global warming.
The global youth movement known as Fridays for Future has called on its members to organize protests around the world this Friday, March 25. Its rallying cry is “climate reparations and justice.”
Here’s what I find most revealing about this generation of climate activists:
They distrust government
In a survey of 10,000 people between ages 16 and 25 in 10 countries, three-fourths said they think “the future is frightening.” The survey was funded by an advocacy group, Avaaz, led by researchers at the University of Bath in England and published in The Lancet in December. It asked respondents to answer “yes,” “no,” or “prefer not to say” to a series of questions.
More than 64 percent said their governments were not “doing enough to prevent a climate catastrophe”; more than 61 percent said they did not have trust in their governments; and more than 58 percent said their governments were “betraying” them.
In the U.S., they are mostly female and white
Research by Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, has found that participants in climate protests in the United States in the last five years have been mostly female and predominantly white. They regard racial justice and equality as central concerns. Many of them were involved in the racial justice protests in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd. Their political views skew further left than the American public as a whole.
Their conservative peers share many of their concerns, though. A 2020 survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, for instance, found that 38 percent of self-described Republicans who are millennials, born 1981-96, or younger say they support climate activists who push lawmakers to take action. Also in 2020, a Pew Research Center poll found that 79 percent of millennial and Gen Z Republicans favored the development of alternative energy sources, a far higher share than Republican baby boomers.
Street protests are only one of their tactics
Campus groups in the United States and Britain have pressed their universities to divest from fossil fuel companies, and they have scored some wins, including at Harvard, Columbia and the University of Oxford.
American law students have sought to shame prestigious law firms with a scorecard of how much work they do with the fossil fuel industry.
Children have joined climate lawsuits in several countries, but, so far, without much success. In the United States, a landmark constitutional case was dismissed by a federal appeals court; several are pending in state courts. The Federal Court of Australia this month overturned a ruling that the government has a duty of care to protect children from climate change.
They are worried about the state of democracy
I’m a mom to one and an auntie to many. I’ve written extensively about young people for the last 20 years. So this last bit gives me pause.
Most young Americans think democracy in this country is in trouble. Or, worse, it’s failing. These were the findings of a Harvard University survey, carried out among 2,000 young people between ages 18 and 29 last year. Only 7 percent of those surveyed described American democracy as “healthy.”
This discontent was echoed in a global study concluding that younger generations have become “steadily more dissatisfied with democracy — not only in absolute terms, but also relative to older cohorts at comparable stages of life.” That study, carried out by the Centre for the Future of Democracy at University of Cambridge, concluded that, in almost every region of the world, millennials were far more dissatisfied with democracies than the two generations before them. That study did not focus on Gen Z. But the downward slide in confidence in democracy is very likely a motivating factor for those leading the protests this week.
Before you go: A long skate through the forest
No matter how much you love skating, whooshing round and round an ice rink can get monotonous after a while. But gliding over the ice through miles of pristine Canadian forest, with birds in the trees, paw prints of wildlife imprinted in the snow and a new discovery beckoning around every bend? That never gets old. Because Canada’s outdoor trails rely on natural ice, though, climate change is a big threat to their viability.
Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Friday.
Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.
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