A photo of a girl in a hoodie, skipping school to sit in front of a government building in Sweden with a no-frills sign: “Skolstrejk för Klimatet” or “School Strike for Climate”; a video of dozens of young people clustered together in U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, some being escorted out by police; countless images, videos, chants, and posts flooding social media from activists in an estimated 125 countries, sharing frustration over an uncertain future that spans land and language barriers.
These viral moments, performed offline but heavily documented online, presented the world with a new way to consider the climate crisis. Coming from the perspective of a young generation that feared it was already running out of time, the protests brought a renewed urgency to the striking statistics about our warming earth and the cascade of complications that is causing.
But these actions weren’t just for the public at large – they were also a targeted call to a digital-first generation.
“I first learned about Sunrise after seeing the sit-ins at Nancy Pelosi's office while scrolling through Facebook,” Sophie Guthier says. “The actions were so powerful to me and the visuals of them were something that I had never seen before.”
Today, the 19-year-old is the social media manager for Sunrise Movement, a self-declared “army of young people” working to “stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process.” It’s a role Guthier sees as key in the organization’s success, both for keeping members in the loop and for finding new volunteers.
“Posting a meme may not seem that impactful, but if we have a tweet or a meme that gets retweeted or shared a lot, that means it's going to get on a lot of new people's feeds,” she explains. “When this happens, new people who haven't seen our page before might look more into us and see all of the organizing we're doing and want to get involved.”
Social media is also their basis of internal communication. Guthier says Sunrise Movement organizes volunteers by region (Northeast, South, West, Midwest) in Slack channels, but they also have direct message groups on Instagram and Twitter since, “people check their social media more often than they would Slack.”
Megan Mullin, an associate professor of environmental politics at Duke University studying public opinion about climate change, notes that utilizing social platforms to effect change requires more effort than it might appear.
“The youth climate activists have made great use of social media and other tools, but we can’t think of this movement — or any social movement — as something spontaneous or unplanned. It’s the product of enormous work,” Mullin says. “Over the last two years we have seen meaningful change in Americans’ concern about climate change and the priority they attach to addressing the problem. The youth climate movement is doubtlessly part of what’s caused this shift.”
Zanagee Artis, 20, is one of the founders of another U.S.-based organization, Zero Hour, which aims to provide “entry points, training, and resources” to get young people involved in climate and environmental justice activism. As the group’s deputy advocacy director, Artis says his work often involves collaborating with partners from various industries, such as transit and energy, as well as those working on political matters, like immigration and health rights.
“We see all of those different issues as related to climate change,” Artis says. “So that’s why we are making that our top priority.”
Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day Network, believes this multifaceted approach is a necessary part of the movement’s international appeal.
“The universe of youth strikers includes everything from plastics to education to climate change in general to social equity issues,” Rogers says, adding that the Earth Day Network provides mentorship and works with a number of young leaders in this space. “The diversity of their activism is what keeps us alive and is really exciting.”
The September 2019 Global Climate Strike put that diversity on display, attracting an estimated four million people to march the streets, with events on every continent. It was proof to skeptics that hashtag campaigns and youth-led organizing could lead to real-world action, and it demanded acknowledgement from political leaders, companies, and the media.
For Rogers, though, that powerful protest still hasn’t translated into tangible change at the level the climate crisis requires.
“The question is whether it will be anything beyond a great public awareness campaign, and will it lead to structural, systemic change? Or will it force politicians to do the job they were given, which is to take care of all of us?” Rogers asks. “For me, the jury's still out.”
Rogers sees the November presidential election in the U.S. as a flashpoint for this movement, when its potential for impact could become clear. Artis from Zero Hour understands that weight – he’s currently dedicated to turning around the well-documented trend of young voters eschewing elections through the #Vote4OurFuture campaign. While it’s a mission many before him have tried, Artis believes Zero Hour’s approach is unique.
“Adults are always saying, ‘Young people, why are you not voting?’” he says with a laugh. “Maybe this is a chance for something new where young people are telling their peers to go out there and vote.”
Coronavirus concerns have complicated his work, forcing the cancellation of a slate of in-person events Zero Hour had planned in favor of virtual gatherings. Even for an organization with social media-savvy, generating excitement and fostering activism online in the midst of a pandemic is a challenge. Mullin warns it’s likely one of many the movement is set to face.
“There are myriad ways that the political system is biased in a way that obstructs meaningful climate action,” she says. “The challenge is to maintain energy in the face of continued obstacles.”
So far, a search through social media suggests these activists have no shortage of energy.
Students are still skipping school to protest outside government buildings. They’re still making their demands known to politicians. And on September 25, they’re calling for another global show of action – a mix of physical and virtual actions to show that they’re still here.