How Young Climate Activists Built a Mass Movement To Be Reckoned With
When I became a climate organizer in college in the early 2000s, the words “youth climate movement” referred more to something activists hoped to bring into existence than a real-world phenomenon.
Growing numbers of young people were concerned about the climate crisis and had begun organizing in small groups on college campuses and in communities throughout the U.S. But as much as we talked about building a mass movement, it was mainly just a dream at that point.
Almost 20 years later it’s impossible to deny a very real, vibrant youth climate movement has become an important force in national politics. With the rise of campaigns like the Fridays for Future school strikes a few years ago, it burst into the public spotlight in an unprecedented way. This year the United States passed its first major piece of national climate legislation. Much work remains to be done, but the rise of a youth-led mass movement for a livable future has to be considered one of the most important positive developments in 21st-century politics.
I have a unique perspective on how this movement came into being, because for the last two and a half years I’ve been researching and writing a book on the growth of youth climate activism in the U.S. I interviewed over 100 past and current movement leaders for this project, with a majority of interviews occurring in 2020 soon after the largest, most transformative climate protests in our country’s history. “Movement Makers: How Young Activists Upended the Politics of Climate Change” was released earlier this month.
Working on this book taught me valuable lessons about how social movements rise and create change, which are more relevant now than ever. This week, all eyes are on world leaders meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt for the latest round of international climate talks — but whatever agreements come out of that gathering will ultimately be less important than how activists respond. This makes now a particularly good time to share some lessons from the last two decades of climate organizing.
1. Well-designed actions can have huge ripple effects. I began writing “Movement Makers” after working on a series of stories at Waging Nonviolence on the climate strikes and related strands of modern youth climate activism. I was intrigued to discover that while Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg famously founded the strike movement, its origins were tied to developments in the United States — specifically a day of marches organized by the teen-led organization Zero Hour in July 2018.
The Zero Hour marches, which included a flagship action in Washington, D.C., represented one of the first national days of climate action coordinated almost entirely by Generation Z. Despite heavy rain on the day of the march, Zero Hour drew hundreds of teenagers to the National Mall to get involved in politics — no small feat. Yet, some of the organizers I interviewed mentioned they had hoped for even larger crowds.
“As 16 and 17-year-olds, we wanted thousands or millions of people to show up,” said Sohayla Eldeeb, who was Zero Hour’s global outreach director when I spoke with her in early 2020. “Maybe that wasn’t realistic—and then it literally rained on our parade. But it felt powerful to go through with our march anyway.”
Zero Hour’s day of action was certainly not a failure; in fact, it generated national media headlines. Still, compared to other mass protests like the 2017 Women’s March, it was relatively small. A reasonable assessment at the time might have been that the action would help temporarily increase public attention to the climate crisis and get some policymakers’ attention, but that the long-term effect on national politics would be minimal. This couldn’t have been more wrong.
Zero Hour’s leaders put forward a vision for a youth-led mass movement around climate change that resonated with Generation Z, and which they skillfully spread on social media. Their efforts got the attention of Greta Thunberg and — along with other movements like the March for Our Lives — helped inspire her to launch Fridays for Future later that year. In 2019, Zero Hour was a key player in organizing strike events for what became the largest global day of climate protests in history. The takeaway: Actions with a well-articulated, inspiring message can have ripple effects that are hard to predict and may extend far beyond the day of protest itself.
2. Ask for the whole thing. In another illuminating interview I conducted, Sunrise Movement co-founder Will Lawrence told me, “The only credible approach to climate policy is to actually ask for the whole thing.” We were discussing Sunrise’s 2018 sit-ins at the offices of Nancy Pelosi and other Congressional leaders, which catapulted the idea of a Green New Deal into the national spotlight.
For years prior to Sunrise’s sit-ins, conventional climate movement wisdom held that campaigning for national legislation was pretty much pointless, with failure all but assured. Yet, Sunrise took the position that addressing the climate crisis requires big, bold ideas equal to the scale of the challenge. It will take “dozens of pieces of legislation over the course of years,” Lawrence said. “We have to completely overhaul the electricity, agriculture and transportation systems. We’re talking about reinventing society.”
Even with climate change-denying Republicans controlling the Senate and presidency, Sunrise pushed climate forward on the political agenda to the point where talks about federal legislation began soon after President Biden and a Democrat-controlled Congress took office last year. This eventually led to the passage of far-reaching climate legislation in the Inflation Reduction Act. The IRA is far from perfect, but represents the first major climate law in U.S. history. This victory might never have happened had groups like Sunrise not changed the terms of political debate about climate.
3. Movements succeed by building on one another. While writing about the climate strikes, Sunrise Movement, and other recent climate campaigns, I noticed a problem with how media narratives frequently talked about the movement. Too often, the surge in youth activism was portrayed as a new phenomenon that seemingly arose from nowhere. When older climate groups came up in news articles, the focus tended to be on how young organizers were abandoning them. For example, an otherwise insightful early New Republic story on Sunrise described its founders as “refugees from more mainstream climate organizations,” implying a process by which activists flee old, “unsuccessful” movements and join or start new “successful” ones.
In reality, I am convinced the wave of youth climate activism from the last few years would never have been as successful had it not been preceded by an older generation of climate organizations. These groups — including 350.org, Energy Action Coalition (now Power Shift Network) and the Sierra Student Coalition — sometimes made serious mistakes, and activists of Generation Z have rightly tried to learn from where they went wrong. But without them, the new generation of climate organizations could not have spread so fast and effectively.
Existing organizations like the Pacific Northwest-based Cascade Climate Network helped Sunrise Movement take root in places far from the East Coast population centers where it had its origins. And when Zero Hour needed a fiscal sponsor to help process tax-deductible donations for its day of marches, it found one in Power Shift Network.
Rather than a succession of groups that arise, succeed or fail, and replace one another, successful social movements are communities of intertwined organizations engaged in learning from each other, improving on old practices, and fostering the growth of new members. It’s a messy process, and occasionally groups compete for space or interact in other nonproductive ways. But Generation Z skillfully built on the work of activists who came before them. Similarly, the next wave of climate organizing will almost certainly learn from and be inspired by groups now at the movement’s vanguard.
4. Center justice. Probably the single biggest mistake made by mainstream organizations that dominated the national youth climate scene when I joined the movement was a failure to prioritize diversity and justice. “There was a sense from some groups that we needed to cut carbon emissions before anything else, and a reluctance to look at issues of justice or race,” said Arab American activist Shadia Fayne Wood, one of a relatively few organizers of color who participated in early Energy Action Coalition, or EAC, meetings.
This reluctance alienated the very people who are most impacted by fossil fuel extraction and disrupted weather patterns. It was an untenable situation, and in 2015 EAC hired Lydia Avila, its first executive director of color, who charted a new path forward. Avila shepherded EAC — which originally served as a steering committee for a large coalition of climate groups—through a transition to become the more decentralized, justice-focused Power Shift Network. According to PSN’s current executive director, Dany Sigwalt, 60 percent of participants at the organization’s 2020 annual meeting for member organizations were young people of color.
Despite real progress in some cases, the fight for an inclusive climate movement has not been a linear march forward. To the contrary: dynamics Wood observed in the movement’s early days continue to play out in many climate groups today, at both the national and local levels. History shows the solution is to actively center the needs of frontline communities of color and prioritize anti-oppression work within the movement itself. Today, groups like PSN are set up to help other organizations make this transition, and activists should take advantage of this resource.
5. There’s no substitute for direct action. Almost every major successful social movement has used a spectrum of tactics — from lobbying to nonviolent direct action. Yet, for years the youth climate movement and U.S. climate groups more broadly were reluctant to embrace disruptive protest on a large scale.
“The movement’s strategy was one of appeasement, appealing to people in power and trying to convince them we could have a world that’s cleaner and greener but leaves existing social structures in place,” said Tim DeChristopher, who was arrested for derailing an oil and gas auction as a University of Utah student in 2008. “It wasn’t working. Successful movements have always had a big, radical vision that threatens the top of the power structure.”
Nonviolently breaking the law to interfere with fossil fuel extraction or combustion brings home the moral urgency of the climate crisis while causing disruption to systems that make it possible to destroy the planet for profit. DeChristopher took this kind of action when he walked into a Bureau of Land Management auction and outbid every oil company in the room, “winning” rights to $1.7 million worth of land he couldn’t pay for. His actions violated the federal Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act, and he was sentenced to two years in prison after bringing his case to trial.
Today, direct action is much more widespread in the climate movement — from Sunrise’s Capitol Hill sit-ins, to divestment campaigns that disrupt university board of trustee meetings. But the road to a bolder movement willing to take such risks wasn’t easy. The failure of a key U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009 made the radical message of people like DeChristopher begin to resonate with more activists. And over a decade later, there’s still plenty of room for experimentation when it comes to strategically applying direct action to an intransigent political landscape.
6. Confront the fossil fuel industry. During the soul-searching period after the collapse of the Copenhagen talks, youth-led climate groups began realizing they had underestimated the fossil fuel industry’s political power. If national climate legislation were ever to cross the finish line in the U.S., the movement needed to weaken the control coal, oil and gas companies exerted over political institutions. Frontline communities had been challenging these industries for decades, but one of the first fossil fuel projects the national youth climate movement as a whole took on was the Canadian tar sands and its network of associated oil pipelines.
The anti-Keystone XL pipeline struggle — the most iconic tar sands campaign — involved thousands of people and included national groups like 350.org as well as Indigenous communities in the pipeline’s path. In 2013, a series of Indigenous-led trainings called Moccasins on the Ground taught direct action skills to pipeline fighters and allies. “It was great seeing Indigenous people empowering Indigenous people,” said Joseph White Eyes, a young organizer from Cheyenne River Sioux territory along Keystone XL’s proposed path. “There was no outside white influence telling us what to do. It was just us, creating our own plan to stop the pipeline.”
Had Keystone XL broken ground in a major way, it likely would have faced one of the largest direct action resistance campaigns in climate movement history, similar in scale to the 2016 protests against the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock. As it turned out, smaller-scale direct action combined with more conventional tactics were enough to stop Keystone XL — and the pipeline’s rejection by two Democratic presidents showed how the fossil fuel industry’s fortunes had fallen. Meanwhile, organizing against Keystone XL helped catalyze a national movement made up of people fighting fossil fuel infrastructure in their communities.
By the late 2010s, the national youth climate movement had grown to the point where a once seemingly invincible fossil fuel industry was losing its grip on control of events in Washington, D.C. The stage was set to make actual progress on proactive climate legislation that encouraged a mass shift to renewables — if the movement could mobilize supporters in large enough numbers.
7. Mass street mobilizations work. The huge climate strikes of a few years ago subsided in 2020, largely due to COVID restrictions on large gatherings. Still, the memory of these mobilizations remained fresh enough in the public consciousness to influence events as Congress debated climate policy in 2021 and 2022, and climate remained a priority for leaders in Congress in a way that had never happened before. If the very real concessions to polluters in the Inflation Reduction Act are a reminder that the fossil fuel industry is still powerful, the fact that far-reaching climate legislation passed at all is a testament to how youth activists have reshaped political discourse in the last few years.
Compare this and last year’s political events with 2009-2010, the last time federal lawmakers debated major climate legislation. Despite holding much larger majorities in Congress, Democratic leaders failed to get a climate bill over the finish line, largely because of opposition from senators in their own caucus who represented fossil fuel-dependent states. In contrast, this year every Senate Democrat eventually supported climate legislation, even if begrudgingly and in a watered-down form. This almost certainly would not have happened without years of organizing that left the fossil fuel industry weakened and climate activists in a stronger position than ever before.
It took nearly two decades to build a youth climate movement powerful enough to pass a federal climate bill. However, despite the ups and downs, young activists never stopped organizing. “Movements have arcs,” said Will Bates of 350.org. “They have highs and lows. They’re going to have perceived failures and need to build something new from there. At those moments you don’t stop, you double down.”
Today the movement faces new challenges, from the possibility of new COVID waves to a more hostile U.S. House of Representatives. However, the pieces are in place for it to go on building power and experience future resurgences. That’s essential — because there is still plenty of work for climate activists to do.
The movement of the future
Of course, passage of the IRA does not mean the youth climate movement’s work is over. Rather, now is the time to build on recent successes and continue pushing for the kind of transformative change Sunrise’s Lawrence spoke of. However, going forward, U.S. climate activists’ work will look more like that of their European colleagues, who are trying to convince leaders to follow through and build on existing climate commitments rather than commit to doing something in the first place. By taking to heart lessons from the past, we can ensure the climate movement has a vibrant, powerful future. That is why I decided to write “Movement Makers.”
The last few years of researching and writing about the youth climate movement have left me more inspired than ever by a phenomenon that really has upended politics as usual. The insights and quotes in this piece represent just a tiny sampling of the wisdom shared with me by activist leaders while I worked on the book, which is designed to serve as a valuable resource for today’s organizers. However, my hope is not that activists will simply try to replicate actions and campaigns from the past — but that lessons like those summarized above help inform new approaches to organizing that may be different from anything seen so far.
What’s clear is that, armed with wisdom from the past and a willingness to experiment that has long been a hallmark of youth climate activism, the movement of the future has potential to further re-shape politics in ways most of us can’t even imagine.
Nick Engelfried is an environmental writer, educator, and activist living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of Movement Makers: How Young Activists Upended the Politics of Climate Change.
Waging Nonviolence is a nonprofit media organization dedicated to providing original reporting and expert analysis of social movements around the world. With a commitment to accuracy, transparency and editorial independence, we examine today’s most crucial issues by shining a light on those who are organizing for just and peaceful solutions.