Can’t blame the youth

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My day begins and ends with Twitter. 

I cannot wake up in the morning without a good scroll through stan accounts, poorly drawn cats and whatever Elon Musk is up to. This unique, chaotically good, online landscape is more than just a platform for quirky humor and daily thoughts. Twitter is one of the most politicized centers of our culture, making it easier than ever for the public to be involved in what’s trending in the United States and beyond. 

Most social media users are on the younger side, and it’s amazing that young people today keep up with current events. We want to participate in our democracy, to support global movements. It’s cool to be woke. 

But being actively involved and inciting change takes more than a like and a share. While angrily tweeting can be therapeutic, all social media trends eventually come to an end. Every meme dies, after all. So, how can we extend the influence of a trending hashtag? Some members of our generation have learned to utilize online platforms not only to spread information but also to encourage involvement in institutions that are reshaping our world. 

Greta Thunberg is the ultimate example. The climate change queen used the virality of her first solo school strike for the climate over a year ago to launch an international campaign. Today, her picture is everywhere, online as well as offline, whether she’s speaking with the Pope, giving a speech at the U.N.’s Climate Action Summit or shooting looks at President Trump. 

Her platform has become a movement. Greta inspired young people everywhere to join her on the streets on Sept. 20th; her school strike for the climate had gone from one girl in one country to hundreds of thousands of youths worldwide. 

Greta’s prominence is a result of our viral culture. As much as we adore Greta (three cheers for a brilliant, neurodivergent teen changing the freaking world!), there are many other young people engaged in the environmental conversation.

Seventeen-year-old Xiye Bastida grew up in a small town outside of Mexico City that was ravaged by seasonal droughts and floods before moving to New York City to promote indigenous and minority voices in the fight against climate change.

Fifteen-year-old Autumn Peltier recently spoke in front of the U.N. (for the second time) on behalf of the Wiikwemkoong First Nation. She’s a strong advocate for clean water and fighting climate change and has been named the Chief Water Commissioner of the Anishinabek Nation. 

Eleven-year-old Mari Copeny wrote a letter to President Obama when she was eight about the water crisis in her town of Flint, Michigan. Today, “Little Miss Flint” is still working to bring clean water to her community.

Teens today also understand that no widespread change can happen unless the letter of law is altered. Juliana v. United States is a case currently being contested in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have tried hard to stymie the case since it was filed in 2015. Twenty-one minors originally brought this case to court, claiming that the U.S. government was jeopardizing their and future generations’ opportunities to live on this planet. And in the four years since Juliana has been filed, what have the adults done?


Today, two-thirds of the claimants are old enough to vote. While our government and society as a whole do not currently take the youth seriously, as we grow older our ideas about climate change will not disappear. As we reach 18 years of age, we will vote on the ideas we like and retweet them online. With social media and the passion of thousands of young activists across the planet, we can make sure that the trend of environmental activism never dies.

Plans like the Green New Deal, 350 ppm Pathways, and a carbon tax are popular among young American adults (sometimes even on both sides of the aisle). In fact, science-based political action grounds environmental groups in the United States. All of these involved Generation Z’ers believe in the power and validity of science. In Greta’s minute-long address to Congress, she called for leaders to examine the recent U.N. climate change report. Right now, 13 percent of adult Americans are unconvinced that climate change is occurring, although 97 percent of peer-reviewed scientists agree that it is. In the face of this division, our generation turns toward science. 

This focus is particularly relevant because science at its core is nonpartisan and politically unaffiliated. Advocating to focus on science will be more effective than trying to beat lobbyists at their own game; science should be the strongest convincer there is. 

International youth action that is grounded in science is particularly inspiring because these activists will be basing their votes on hard facts. There are massive amounts of hope in this. Although it’s weird to think about, our generation will soon be running the world, and we know that climate change will be a central issue. I turned 18 this year, and when I head to the polls, you know very well that I’ll be voting for proactive climate legislation.

When I look towards the future I think about who Greta, Xiye, Autumn, Mari, and the 21 Juliana claimants (and you and me) will become. I don’t see our voices fading away or falling into the hole on the internet where dead memes go. No, these activists will not just be digital blips in our history — their virality will translate into action. 

Katherine Shok writes the Wednesday column on environmental politics and justice. Contact her at [email protected].