It’s the end of the world as we know it.
And to the young individuals inheriting an Earth facing an increase in global warming that past generations have caused, that isn’t just a song.
Climate change isn’t just a topic casually thrown around middle school science classrooms anymore – it’s a fast approaching reality for millennials, Gen Zers and all their children’s children.
And that means college students.
Despite factual evidence and numerical statistics chronicling the emergence of climate change, the current presidential administration of the United States chooses to vehemently deny the soon-to-be realities. So much so that a 16-year-old environmental activist from Sweden sustainably sailed to the U.S. to cause a much-needed ruckus about it in front of Congress. Greta Thunberg’s eight-sentence statement to Congress served as an opening act to one of the most important political events the world might ever see: globally organized climate strikes over the course of one week in September across an estimated 185 countries.
A youth in revolt is alive and well. And it will continue to live on as the U.S. inches closer toward its next presidential election.
Issues the current administration doesn’t want to talk about are the ones at the forefront of young individuals’ minds – and politicians have proved unreliable at providing them with a voice. A politically motivated youth, like that present at the climate strikes all over the country, will become a crucial factor in the upcoming political events that will shape the nation’s future – and the future of its campuses. And with many college students eligible to vote in a presidential election for the first time in 2020, they’ll be quite difficult to ignore.
2016 was a record year for global warmth – average surface temperatures were 1.78 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the mid-20th-century mean, as reported by NASA. Rising man-made carbon emissions are to blame for changing the future of our planet.
In conversation about the climate strikes, Sithara Menon, a third-year biology student and chair of the UCLA chapter of the California Public Interest Research Group, said it’s inspiring to see an outpouring of support for issues as pertinent as climate change.
“Historically, young people have always been on the forefront of social movements,” Menon said. “It’s really essential for young people to get involved and make any real changes on these issues.”
And Menon is right – thousands of middle school, high school and college students took to the streets of Downtown Los Angeles to call for something to be done about climate change. Organizers of this protest estimated about 5,000 to 8,000 participants, many of whom skipped class on a Friday to attend the protest. Perfect attendance be damned – the world is rapidly changing for the worse and the kids won’t be in school if the world around them is burning down anyway.
Organizations like the Environmentalists of Color Collective at UCLA have been working to oppose and solve environmental issues long before the strikes. Liz Koslov, an assistant professor of urban planning and environment and sustainability at UCLA, said the collective action and organizing of the recent climate strikes is necessary to achieve the societal transformation that climate change demands.
“What gives me hope is seeing this level of organizing and mobilization from these younger individuals,” Koslov said. “Simply being aware is not enough to create change.”
Especially within the University of California and other state schools, students are feeling the pressure of increasing tensions between federal and California law – with possibly major implications on environmental policy. Awareness alone won’t cut it anymore, and taking to the streets was their best bet to make their presence felt.
Edward Parson, a professor of environmental law at UCLA, said young individuals are always the drivers of new social movements due to their freedom from constraints and obligations.
“There is something powerful about their sincerity,” Parson said. “It reminds me of the ’60s and the momentum of civil rights, early feminism and the first glimmerings of serious widespread awareness of racism.”
Suffice it to say, this isn’t the first time a huge social movement made headlines. But the issue of climate change is on a ticking timer – and the involvement of young, dedicated individuals and their utilization of social media to give power to their actions will help make noise for as long as is needed to keep the issue pertinent.
In the middle of a world on fire, this type of involvement in sociopolitical issues may mark the end of a long era of apathy in youth and college engagement – the voting rate among young people has floated around 40% in presidential elections since the mid-1970s, and midterm voting rates are even lower. And the climate strikes might just be a smaller part of a larger pattern. At UCLA alone, the 2018 midterm election saw a 537% increase in voter participation from the 2014 election. Young adults are finally being afforded the chance to voice their minds with their votes, and the participation numbers from both the midterms and the climate strikes strongly signal a new era of increased political involvement.
Of course, the mobilization of young people alone in this movement regarding climate change won’t be sufficient to inspire actual change.
But there is potential for the noise and ruckus to sustain themselves long enough to inspire the necessary changes to just begin the decades-long process that tackling climate change will take. Social media’s viability in keeping stories and issues relevant can’t be understated. And it’s not like the youth hasn’t driven change without the vote before – from Vietnam to civil rights, those protesting and picketing were students just like us.
Forever is a mighty long time, and it’s something our youth doesn’t have on this planet if things stay the way they are.
And if it’s going to take a bunch of dedicated middle schoolers to inspire change and meaningful action within our country, and our world, then so be it.