As I was working on our annual Green Issue last month I became aware of a recent Pew Research Center survey about the US’s future. One particular question caught my attention. It asked respondents how worried they are about climate change when thinking about the country’s future. The results, at least to this Earth-dwelling citizen, were disheartening.
Despite a 2018 United Nations report saying humans have only 12 years to limit the most devastating effects of climate change catastrophe through drastic, massive, and unprecedented action and changes to infrastructure, only 41 percent of adults said they are “very” worried about climate change. Almost a third, 31 percent, said they are “not too” or “not at all” worried.
Scientists – particularly the 15,000-plus scientists from countries worldwide who signed the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice” in 2017 – would find this apathy troubling. Their message, a follow-up to a 1992 warning, was dire.
“By failing to adequately limit population growth, reassess the role of an economy rooted in growth, reduce greenhouse gases, incentivize renewable energy, protect habitat, restore ecosystems, curb pollution, halt defaunation, and constrain invasive alien species, humanity is not taking the urgent steps needed to safeguard our imperiled biosphere,” the authors of the warning wrote in the journal BioScience. “[S]cientists, media influencers, and lay citizens must take immediate action as a moral imperative to current and future generations of human and other life.”
So while news of the latest warning of environmental disaster seems inexhaustible (on Monday I woke up to this wonderful headline: “Humanity Is About to Kill 1 Million Species in a Globe-Spanning Murder-Suicide”), the Pew survey, published last March, made clear that large portions of our country’s population still don’t share this “moral imperative” to immediate action.
I took my frustration with this contradiction to the receptacle of pessimism: social media. At the time, former South Maui Rep. Kaniela Ing was making the rounds on Twitter with a video for Means TV, the self-proclaimed “world’s first post-capitalist streaming platform.”
“We need a bold, new, people-first approach to tackle climate change, and we need it now. We need democratic socialism,” Ing says in the video, citing information from the Carbon Majors Report that found 71 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from just 100 companies. “Billionaires like Elon Musk won’t save us. They created the problem. It‘ll be working people like you or me who will mobilize to solve this climate crisis.”
That’s cool, I replied to him, sharing the Pew data, but how do you mobilize working people for an issue they are not “very” concerned or worried about?
“This shows that young people are ready to organize their parents, which is essentially how every successful movement has ever worked,” Ing answered.
He had a point. On Monday, Scientific American reported on a study that found children can increase their parents’ level of concern about climate change. And the Pew data I cited shows that, when compared to all adults, a greater proportion of respondents ages 18 to 29 (52 percent) are “very worried” about climate change when thinking about the future of the country. Only 20 percent are “not too” or “not very” worried about the issue.
Indeed, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the wavemaking freshman congresswoman from the Bronx and introducer of the “Green New Deal” resolution (an ambitious federal plan to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, create jobs, provide for a just transition to a greener economy, and secure clean air and water) is only 29. And, for all the talk of her being “radical,” it’s been argued in The Atlantic and elsewhere that for her generation (Millennials and Generation Z), her politics are actually moderate.
Plus, evidence is growing that the younger generations are ready to organize and mobilize. Last year, following the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Florida, youth around the nation, including Maui, organized a student-led “March for Our Lives” against gun violence and supporting more comprehensive gun control laws. New election data shows that in 2018, voter turnout among those aged 18 to 29 increased 15.7 percent from 2014, to 35.6 percent. And recently, a School Strike for the Climate movement has erupted at locations around the globe.
On Friday, the movement appeared at the Kalana O Maui (County) Building. At the front entrance, 7th-graders Siena Schwartz, Sage Campbell, and Georgia Eyerman posted up at a table with hand-made signs, essays, and hand-outs, educating passersby about the effects of climate change and demanding action from adults and lawmakers.
“It’s a worldwide issue and we really care about it, we’re really passionate about it. Our school didn’t send us, we’re skipping school,” Campbell told me.
“We’re striking school for climate change and climate action. Basically we want to raise awareness and want to hear what the councilmembers and the mayor are gonna do about it,” Schwartz added.
I asked the trio what inspired them to go on strike from school.
“Greta Thunberg,” they answered in unison, referring to the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden who initiated the School Strike for Climate last year. “She started it. She’s been skipping school every Friday to protest,” Schwartz said.
The group told me they watched Thunberg’s speeches, read her essays, and admired her actions. But the three were effective activists in their own right, fervently sharing the news about climate change in a polished pitch, with each student chiming in after the other’s sentences to complete their message.
“Climate change is just getting so bad. In 10 to 12 years it will be irreversible,” Campbell said. “And we can’t just start fixing it in 10 years. It has to be fixed, it has to be solved – right now. So we’re just trying to bring awareness so that people know what’s happening.”
“We want them to declare this a crisis because if we don’t start doing something now then we don’t really have a chance to go back.” Eyerman added.
“And humans may not actually be able to survive,” Schwartz said, after talking about changing climate patterns including precipitation and increased hurricane frequency and intensity. “There are so many endangered species that are very close to going extinct already, and the coral reef is dying, which is very sad.”
But the message didn’t win everyone over.
One person, the girls said, told them the “climate doesn’t need action. It’s fine how it is.” A vice principal at Kihei Charter School, where they attend, told them to “take a picture and move on.” Even fellow students have heckled them and accused them of “just doing this to skip school.”
As far as their teachers, “we haven’t exactly told them what we’re doing. We got our work for today, but they don’t know what we’re actually doing,” Campbell told me.
Their parents, however, were supportive of the student-led action.
One mother, Tamara Farnsworth, a Maui County employee at the Department of Environmental Management, even drove the students and supervised from afar on her day off.
“I fully support them,” Farnsworth said. “They have been educating themselves a great deal on this issue and they’re really concerned about it. They’re very inspired by the global and national event that’s taking place and they wanted to participate.
“There was nothing organized [on Maui], so they decided to organize something on their own… All of their parents are proud of them and really inspired by their passion. They’re grounded, intelligent, and informed.”
Mayor Michael Victorino and Maui County Council Chair Kelly King agreed.
“I was very impressed with these young students and their commitment to the welfare of our community,” said Victorino, who scheduled a meeting with the girls later this month. “It’s our responsibility to be good stewards of the environment today to ensure they will have a bright future tomorrow.”
“It was nice to see young people starting to come forward and demanding that we take care of their environment,” King told me. “I hope their numbers grow. We are going to – at the Hawai‘i State Association of Counties Conference this year, which is on Maui next month – be focusing on the theme ‘hot topics in sustainability.’ One of the big themes is climate change… So we’re going to try to incorporate some of the younger generation into the conference this year and really put a big focus on the reasons why we have to do this for the next generation.”
I asked if she had any words for them and other young people passionate about the issue.
“My message is to stay strong,” she said. “It’s going to take all the younger generations rising up for the older generations to finally get it.”
Hawai‘i State Teachers Association spokesperson Keoki Kerr said the union leadership had no comment about the School Strike for the Climate. The Hawai‘i Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment by press time. Kihei Charter School director of elementary and middle schools Leslie Baldridge said she was not aware of the students’ actions and had no comment at this time.
“Adults say that we’re their most prized possessions… If we’re their most prized possessions, why are they ripping our futures from under us?” Schwartz asked. “Why go to school if we don’t have a future at all?”
Dr. Chip Fletcher, a scientist at UH Manoa studying the effects of climate change, gave comments to youth climate strikers in March at the State Capitol. Read his comments here.
Photo courtesy Siena Schwartz