Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, captured global attention with her emotional speech at the United Nations in September. Her relentless advocacy for an international focus on climate change has raised awareness as few prior activists have managed to. Critics see her youth as evidence Thunberg isn’t serious, or is being manipulated by the adults around her. Defenders say it makes her more credible, as a possible future resident of a catastrophically warmed planet. One thing, however, is clear: Thunberg is not the first of her kind. She stands on the shoulders of decades of teenage climate activists who were doing the work without funding, before social media, and certainly before heads of state were calling children “leaders” of any kind.
My first exposure to the international community of youth climate activists was at the 2013 Warsaw U.N. climate change Conference of the Parties (COP): A person in a Tyrannosaurus rex costume was accompanied by a group of students singing a song about the environmental rights group Climate Action Network’s “Fossil of the Day” award—a distinction given to the country with the most counterproductive actions, like supporting coal-powered plants or refusing to agree to larger greenhouse gas emissions cuts. There were hints of the emotional toll climate change, and countries’ inattention to it, was taking on these kids, who came both from developed countries and also from all over Africa, the Philippines, Fiji, and the Caribbean islands. It may have looked like a skit, but only because there was no space for the visceral anger and frustration that today’s youth activists have.
Tone Bjørndal, now 26 and working for a Norwegian climate advocacy group, was just 16 when she attended her first COP—one that would become a disastrous foreign policy failure. It was in 2009 in Copenhagen. There were 2,000 teenagers and college students in her group, called the Youth Constituency of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (YOUNGO), she told me. The U.N. recognized their presence in this titular way, but elsewhere made it clear the teens weren’t to be treated as true stakeholders.
The group, composed of kids who had traveled on what little private and public funding they could scrounge up, was expecting 120 passes to the conference—usually attended by more than 20,000 delegates, U.N. staff, and members of the media—but received only two passes on the opening day. “We gave up on the line,” she wrote in an email to her parents at the time. “We waited 4.5 hours, and they told us it would be three to seven more—we were freezing, angry, and frustrated.”
Nathan Thanki, 28, a former YOUNGO participant who now works for the Global Campaign to Demand Justice in London, told me that despite the efforts of a few of his professors and some NGOs, who sponsored young students from around the world to attend these meetings, most people at the time dismissed young activists. “We were not respected that much by the people in the UNFCCC secretariat or the COP presidencies or chairs of various bodies—many of whom can be quite patronizing, especially to young people, and especially to those they deem ‘radical,’” he said.
Today’s young activists appreciate the attention Thunberg has brought to their cause. But the focus on one child can sometimes feel myopic, particularly given the urgent messages offered by youth activists of color or youth activists from indigenous communities and areas of the Global South already endangered by climate change. It makes sense “indigenous communities and people of color are so involved in climate action because they’re impacted first and worst,” Julian Brave Noisecat, a member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen in British Columbia, who works at think tank Data for Progress, told me.
The 2016–2017 protests at the Standing Rock reservation—ground zero for the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline—were largely started by youth activists, Noisecat pointed out. But these voices are often ignored when it comes to reporting and debates about climate and the environment. “The media is trained to privilege and prioritize particular voices,” he said.
Thunberg has tried to do her part by visiting Standing Rock, bringing activists of color up on stages with her at climate marches, and noting in speeches that she is “one of the lucky ones,” Jamie Margolin, a 17-year-old Colombian American activist told me. But the message Thunberg brings—to follow the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report or deprive future generations—is still the message of an activist from a relatively privileged country. “Others are like, ‘My community is literally dying,’” Margolin said. She also thinks often about the fact that she and Thunberg, who recently turned down the Nordic Council Environmental Prize, are praised for what people from Margolin’s mother’s native Colombia are “shot and killed for saying.”
Kevin Patel said he became an activist and organizer after he experienced heart palpitations at the tender age of 11 due to Los Angeles’s pollution. A few months ago, he attended the U.N.’s Youth Climate Summit—a remarkable experience for a son of immigrants from a working-class background, he told me. But it was discouraging to see the event become “all about celebrities and the white activists,” he said. He felt used as a prop in photo opportunities for Disney Channel stars who, he said, were only there to meet Thunberg. And he criticized the international body for hosting panels on how to use social media effectively instead of “serious” sessions on changing policy.
As the twenty-fifth annual U.N. climate change agreement negotiations meeting (known as COP 25) starts on December 2, the youth who have been attending these confabs all over the world for more than a decade will hopefully have a new role—a better one—because of Thunberg’s efforts.
“Not involving youth in the decisions about their future is a lost opportunity,” Bjørndal said. It’s a conversation she and I have been having since we met at the Lima, Peru, COP in 2014. Once Thunberg began gaining so much popularity, she and I frequently wondered what the Paris COP in 2015 and resulting accords would have been like if people had paid as much attention to youth activists at the time. Would it still have garnered some of the same criticisms about ineffectiveness and short-term thinking? Would popular figures like Thunberg have given some measure of political cover for politicians to push for a more robust agreement?
The Friday afternoon in 2018 that Thunberg spent alone outside the Swedish Parliament, holding a sign announcing her strike from school, was one in a long line of protests by teenagers calling for adults to pay attention to the world they were leaving a new generation. Maybe now, because of Thunberg, world leaders will pay attention to indigenous kids from Brazil and Indonesia or college students from Fiji, India, and Kenya, treating them as future voting, taxpaying citizens rather than a cute distraction from legislative talks. The world needed to hear from Thunberg. But it has yet to listen to the many other voices with equally urgent messages about the warming world.