Youths assume activist role in climate change fight

Climate change demonstrators rally at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Sept. 20. (Photo: Associated Press/Rich Pedroncelli)

Climate change activism in California is gaining a newer, more youthful face.

In Sacramento, a crowd of more than 1,000 people, including teenagers and pre-teens, rallied recently at the state Capitol to urge lawmakers to sign onto a National Climate Emergency Declaration, which seeks to halt new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Leading the charge was 13-year-old Supriya Patel.

When she was 10 years old, Patel traveled with her family to India. She was excited to go, but upon arriving she was horrified by the amount of pollution in the air. The pollution made the journey especially difficult for Patel, who has asthma. It was shortly after that this trip that Patel says she learned that air pollution and the climate crisis were linked. She began to devour information on the climate crisis, reading articles and books like An Inconvenient Truth. 

The event was part of a larger global movement started by Thunberg called Fridays for Future.

Fast forward three years and Patel, inspired by 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, is leading a youth climate strike on the steps of the California state capitol building and scolding lawmakers for their inaction.

“You choose to be spineless, bowing down to corporate interests, and being scolded by a 13-year-old girl,” Patel said in her speech at the  Sept. 20 strike.

The event was part of a larger global movement started by Thunberg called Fridays for Future. The movement called for students to walk out of class on Fridays and demand action be taken to address the climate crisis.

The strike was also the opening act for an entire week of action put together by several different organizations, including three youth movements: Fridays for Future Sacramento, Sunrise Sacramento and 350 Sacramento Youth (the youth branch of 350 Sacramento).

A handful of youth activists also met with Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) and the staff of Rep Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento), to discuss climate policy. Later,  more youth activists demonstrated outside of Sacramento City Hall asking city officials to declare a climate emergency.

The policy demands of youth activists
One of the goals of the global youth climate strikes is to bring attention to the climate crisis by disrupting day-to-day life.

Logan Dreher, a Clean Mobility Fellow at GRID Alternatives and the Sunrise Sacramento Hub Coordinator, believes this is where the movement’s power lies. Dreher recently moved to Sacramento from Rhode Island, where she completed her undergraduate degree at Brown University.

“We feel that there hasn’t been a lot of public urgency around climate and we really need a declaration to ring the alarm bells.” — Supriya Patel

Dreher, who helped organize the climate week of action, said that taking to the streets to show how many people care about climate change is important.

“I think that’s where the core of our power is as a movement,” Dreher said. “It’s all of the people who have something at stake.”

According to Patel, the youth climate strike in Sacramento had three demands.

First, they called for Matsui, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Reps. Ami Bera (D-Elk Grove) and Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove) to sign onto the National Climate Emergency Declaration. During the protests, Bera, Matsui and Feinstein issued statements in support of the youth strikers

“We feel that there hasn’t been a lot of public urgency around climate and we really need a declaration to ring the alarm bells around the climate emergency,” Patel said. “Progress can’t be made unless we recognize this is a threat.”

The strike’s other two demands called for Gov. Gavin Newsom to stop authorizing new fossil fuel infrastructure and to create a framework for divestment that doesn’t leave fossil fuel workers behind. California has a reputation for being environmentally conscious, but it is also one of the largest oil drillers in the nation.

The statements from California lawmakers are important steps forward, but that the issue of divestment from fossil fuels still remains.

Patel believes that ending new fossil fuel infrastructure is essential to addressing the climate crisis. “Because the easiest way to get yourself out of a hole is to stop digging,” Patel said.

On Friday, Gov. Newsom signed an executive order meant to leverage California’s $700 billion pension investment portfolio in the fight against climate change. The executive order asked public pension funds to work with Newsom on a framework that would shift investments towards greener companies and industries. The executive order, however, did not call for the funds to divest from fossil fuels.

Dreher says the statements from California lawmakers are important steps forward, but that the issue of divestment from fossil fuels still remains.

“I think sometimes they’re symbolic statements and symbolic statements are important but we really need to return to that orienting question: Is this reducing the amount of fossil fuels we are extracting?” Dreher said.

Growing Youth Activism in Sacramento
While several organizations helped plan the September protests, Ilonka Zlatar said organizers tried to focus on youth leadership.

Zlatar, a board member of 350 Sacramento, is one of the adult allies who helped organize the climate week of action. She played an essential role in bringing the different climate activism events under one umbrella.

“I think that people really underestimate today’s youth. They are absolutely compassionate. They really get it.” — Ilonka Zlatar

“My goal was to show that we do have a really vibrant climate movement in Sacramento and to really highlight those youth voices,” Zlatar said. “We really were trying to be supportive in anyway that we could without taking leadership away from the youth.”

Zlatar also helps lead 350 Sacramento’s youth activities.

This past July the organization held a free camp for high school and college-aged youths interested in climate activism. The camp taught around 35 youths about grassroots organizing, climate justice and environmental racism. 350 Sacramento has also helped organize trainings on important skills like: how to make a public comment or how to plan an office visit.

Dreher, Patel and Zlatar all see the youth component of this new climate movement as both powerful and essential. It is the younger generation, after all, that will be most impacted by climate change. In Zlatar’s eyes, it is also the younger generation that will instill environmental movements with energy and diversity.

“I think that people really underestimate today’s youth,” Zlatar said. “They are absolutely compassionate. They really get it. The intersectionality is a no brainer for them. Putting people of color at the center is a no brainer for them. They just get it.”

Still, being a young activist comes with its challenges. Youth activists under the age of 18 cannot vote. They often have to rely on their parents or other adults for transportation.

But Patel sees her age as an asset rather than a challenge.

“I think that my age is actually an asset because I am standing up to these things at such a young age,” Patel said. “Some people think that that should be inspiring but it should also be concerning because i really want to fight for change because this is one of the largest issues that my generation will face, but I also shouldn’t have to do this.”


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