My Herald column is reproduced here by permission of the editor. It struck me that none of the young climate activists mentioned has a Herald subscription and it would be a shame if they didn't know that some of the older generation really rate what they're doing and saying.
COP 26 has captured world headlines. It could also transform world politics if young activists embark on tactical voting or threaten the tired status quo with new Climate Youth parties.
That’s not the plan - yet. And it's quite a stretch, I’ll grant you. But not as big as it was a week ago, when the Glasgow summit was getting underway. Since then, every minute on social media - and every night on TV - youngsters have seen their own generation mount a vigorous and articulate challenge to the dangerous complacency of the world order. Teenagers and 20-somethings have spoken (usually beyond the formal proceedings) with urgency, scientific data, first-hand experience and clear-eyed defiance. And many of the most eloquent speakers have been girls - the demographic once least likely to vote.
Eighteen-year-old Greta Thunberg is a focus - but partly because the media ignore her equally remarkable compatriots. Young folk like 24 year-old Ugandan Rise Up Movement founder Vanessa Nakate (cropped out of a photograph with Greta Thunberg at last January’s World Economic Forum); 16 year-olds Alexandria Villaseñor (Californian founder of Earth Uprising) and Holly Gillibrand (Fridays for Future Scotland organiser and Glasgow Times Young Scotswoman of the Year), 17 year old Elijah Mckenzie-Jackson, who went on hunger strike to protest against the coal mine planned for Cumbria and Ullapool’s 15 year-old marine conservationist Finlay Pringle, whose 11 year old sister Ella paid tribute to a Humpback whale calf washed ashore at Lybster this summer by collecting its weight in beach litter - a whopping 1500kg.
All remarkable young people (along with many more) whose actions and words have gone largely unreported in a pattern that continued in Saturday’s Climate March. A widely shared tweet complained; ‘The Amazonian youth from Brazil and Ecuador led the entire march through Glasgow and were on the main stage for almost 30 minutes. Frontline people at the FRONT LINE. Yet no coverage.’
The speakers might be invisible to the mainstream media - and many Scots know what that feels like- but on social media and the occasional radio guest-spot, these teenagers are highly visible - especially to the large legions of school strikers.
Powerful change is brewing and whilst youthful energies are currently focused on direct action and street protest, what happens if these tech-savvy, fearless young leaders decide ‘blah, blah, blah’ by world leaders isn’t good enough and apply their outlook and hashtag #UprootTheSystem to the world of formal politics as well?
What would happen if youngsters strategised around their incredible collective social media presence - Greta T alone has 5 million followers - and created a world party, or a franchise capable of standing candidates in national elections across the globe?
To be fair, there's no talk of that happening. Besides, there’s no quicker way to see divisions start and energies sag than to watch young idealists wade into the formal political domain. History is littered with movements that withered the minute they tried to create party infrastructure and internal democracy. And many will already be Green Party members. But Labour parties around the world arose from spontaneous action by workers at the sharp end of industrialisation. Why shouldn’t that auld sang be adapted by the youngsters now standing at the climate front line?
Because there’s no doubt children and young people are worst impacted by extreme weather. If food is short and family incomes dwindle - children (usually girls) don’t reach school, don’t have food, medicine or shelter and don’t always survive.
Even for those ‘lucky’ kids whose basic needs are met, the future is deeply uncertain. A recent Bath University survey of ten thousand 16–25-year-olds, found that 84% were at least moderately worried about climate change and 60% were very worried. Only 5% were not worried at all. Think back to your late teens and early 20s. Were 95% of your pals anxious about any world issue?
It’s significant too that anxiety seems connected to ‘the perceived inadequacy of governmental responses to climate change and associated feelings of betrayal.’ In short, teenagers know they are talking to the hand and feel frustrated - to put it mildly. Isn’t that the way most democratic change begins? Of course, it’s true that the most common feelings cited by the young respondents are ‘sad’, ‘afraid’, ‘anxious’ and ‘powerless’ - states of despondency and disempowerment. Amongst those who’d talked to adults about climate change (81%), nearly half had been ignored or dismissed.
But another feeling mentioned by half the youngsters was anger. So, consider.
If their massive, global, peaceful climate movement is cold-shouldered by powerful adults, frustration could catalyse an unprecedented engagement by young people in the formal political process. They could decide to stand Climate Youth candidates at elections, back slates of ‘approved’ candidates in existing parties or crowdfund to win more legal cases against big emitters.
Indeed, Sarah Ray, who studies climate anxiety at Humboldt State University, says survey results might constitute evidence of moral injury under human-rights law and thereby help the most vulnerable children to tackle unresponsive government bodies.
She’s keen to redefine eco-anxiety - ‘less about ‘snowflakes’ in privileged settings worrying about polar bears’ and more about tangible physical and emotional damage.
So, might any of this happen?
British politics has never been at a lower ebb. John Major is being heralded as the voice of a decent generation for his attacks on Boris Johnson, despite losing an election over sleaze. Rory (the Tory) Stewart is being pushed as a candidate for the Shropshire by-election in the wake of Owen Paterson's resignation. He is an intelligent man whose recent documentaries on Afghanistan were excellent. But is this the pass Britain has reached - where a sort-of-reasonable chap standing for election (and thus becoming Tory cannon-fodder) is the biggest possible act of defiance? What does that say to young climate activists?
2050 is not beyond their lifespans - it’s should be the prime of their lives. So, if they enter the murky world of formal politics - I’m sure we would fear for them.
And applaud them.
“There is a general ‘othering’ of children in society, and children’s voices that threaten the predominant narrative of the most powerful group in society,” says study co-author Caroline Hickman.