‘Our Futures Are at Risk’: Meet the Kids Skipping School to Join the Global Climate Strike

One Friday last August, the then ninth-grader Greta Thunberg decided to skip school and stand outside the Swedish parliament to demand her government take action against climate change. In her one-girl protest, she held up a sign reading “Skolstrejk för klimatet,” or “school strike for the climate.”

Her gesture launched a global movement, leading to strikes in March and May, attended by hundreds of thousands of students in over 100 countries. The day before the May strike, Thunberg called for adults to join young people on Friday, September 20, to raise awareness of global warming, draw attention to local problems linked to climate change, and place pressure on politicians and policy makers.

Ahead of the strike, Newsweek spoke to a handful of pre-teens and teenagers from around the world who plan to take part the Global Climate Strike. Many of these kids are a long way from voting age – and see striking as a way to channel their fears of the existential threat facing our planet.

They are overwhelmed, upset, and scared by what climate change will bring, and argue missing school is inconsequential when it’s uncertain what their future will look like. At the same time, they are full of hope that, if they make enough noise, world leaders will listen and act on their concerns.

Levi Draheim, 12, Indian Harbour Beach, Florida, US

Levi Draheim lives on a barrier island in Florida, around 13ft above sea level. He is the youngest plaintiff in a constitutional climate lawsuit against the federal government. He loves skateboarding, hanging out at the beach, and swimming. If he’s not outside, he’s reading. The 12-year-old is shocked to admit that math is his favourite subject.

When I first heard about it [climate change] I thought about “oh, I might not be able to see the animals.” And I started to think in more detail about what that really meant. My mom told me that this barrier island that I live on and grew up on could be under water if climate change was to continue. So that was extremely upsetting for me.

My biggest fears and concerns about climate change are that I might not be able to show, if I have kids, the place where I grew up. This barrier island is extremely fragile, and during bigger hurricanes sometimes certain sections of it will flood. If climate change continues, then it’s possible the whole barrier island could go under water.

It is extremely annoying for me when people are like “why are you striking? Why are you wasting your valuable education?” We need to be fighting for our future. Why should we be getting an education when we might not have a future to use that education? I’ve decided to side with the scientists instead of random Joe Bobs saying “climate change is not a problem, you should not believe in climate change.” Eh? I’m going to side with scientists.

Anna Siegel, 13, Yarmouth, Maine, U.S.

Anna Siegel is the lead organiser for Maine’s Youth Climate Strike. Her favourite classes are science and art. She loves spending time outdoors: roaming the woods, looking for wild blueberries, and riding her bike. She strikes weekly since she worked out how to manage her school workload.

Climate change was something first exposed to me as a problem only affecting cute, cuddly polar bears. In first grade, you are taught is that if you recycled properly and hugged trees, the issue would be solved.

The realization that “global warming” and “climate change” were real concepts playing out upon our planet probably fully hit in sixth grade. It came from countless videos I watched in class and at home, showing me that this was more than polar bears losing ice. The vastness of the issue was overwhelming.

It was in sixth grade, when I was learning about the climate crisis, that I first became politically active. We had a climate club at our school, and we watched videos on young activists to guide our ideas. I was longing to be one of the kids in those clips, the ones talking to lawmakers and creating waves in their community.

I fear that biodiversity will be lost. Due to the climate crisis, animals are facing new dangers and shifts in their habitats. The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report in 2018 clearly stated that there has been a steep decline in wildlife populations- 60 percent from 1970 to 2014. A young child should be able to go outside and marvel at a world of animals, just as I have.

Yola Mgogwana, 12, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa

Yola Mgogwana, 12, loves dogs, watching movies and listening to music with her friends. At school, the sixth grader enjoys science and physical education lessons the most because she gets to learn outdoors. Mgogwana says she grew up in a township known for “nothing but for its high crime and violence.” She joined Earthchild Project Eco Warriors earlier this year.

[Earthchild Project Eco Warriors is] an after school club raising awareness about environmental issues affecting our community and the world. Ms Xoli [Fuyani, environmental education coordinator at Earth Child Project], told us Mother Earth is on fire and our future is in crisis. I was scared and shocked but mostly angry that in my 11 years of existence no one—not even my teachers—told me about this crisis. That made me determined to act.

When the first Global Climate Strike was planned in Cape Town earlier this year I nominated myself to be one of spokespersons speaking for the young black voices living in poverty. Who would have thought an 11-year-old from Khayeltsha would stand up in front of 1,000 people and say “enough, we demand change now”? I did it and I’m very proud of myself.

Our mindset needs to change. We need be grateful and honor where we come from. We need to learn from indigenous cultures and respect Mother Earth. Mostly, we need to unite and hold our government accountable.

When the floods and drought hit, they will hit all of us. Whether you are a white person or a black person, you will be affected. I am already living the future that adults keep saying is coming. I will not sit down and wait for things to get worse.

As for adults who do not believe in the protest, this is not new. Apartheid was turned around because people said “enough is enough” and took on the street to march against oppression. The more we come together in huge numbers, the more we will attract the media, our stories spread and the world talks. Then change will come.

Madeleine McDermott, 16, Appleton, Wisconsin, US

Madeleine McDermott spends her time reading, playing the bagpipes, and watching the original Star Trek series. The high school junior says she doesn’t have a lot of friends, but loves being with the ones she has. Her school won’t let her strike on September 20, so she expects to get four to six detentions as punishment. She has done all the organizing and outreach for FridaysForFutureUSA in her area.

A big part of my activism is my faith. I am a Catholic and protecting God’s creation is part of Catholic social teaching. I see God in nature and read Him through it.

I became aware of climate change and the ecological crisis when I was in third grade. I was a neurodivergent 7-year-old and I couldn’t let it go. I used to yell at my mom for wasting water or buying stuff she didn’t need. I freaked out whenever I walked into a store and saw everything shrink-wrapped in plastic. I couldn’t enjoy how beautiful nature was because I was worried it would be gone soon. I knew that our world was in danger and it was so frustrating that I was the only one who seemed to realize just how serious of an issue we were facing.

I started climate striking last May, when I was 15 years old. As soon as I knew it was happening, I wanted to strike as well. But I didn’t think that I could do it until I learned more about Greta Thunberg. She was also a 15-year-old girl and, more than that, she had Asperger’s and selective mutism. I am not diagnosed Asperger’s myself, but I have low empathy, have hyper fixations, and do not understand many social situations. Seeing a girl so much like myself leading this, I thought that I could start something too. It was my first time being politically active.

Also read: School Students are Becoming the Latest Generation of Climate Change Activists

I hope to have my city declare a climate emergency and make a coherent plan to go carbon-neutral by 2030.

My biggest concerns are the shortage of resources that will come with the climate crisis. Food, clean water, and habitable land will all become harder to obtain, especially for lower class people and communities of color. This shortage of resources will likely lead to war—and that terrifies me.

This is the fight for our lives. We will be disruptive because the system will not change otherwise.

Ian Price, 11, Seattle, Washington, US

11-year-old Ian Price strikes most Fridays. The sixth grader’s hobbies include playing soccer and video games. At his previous school he got fifth grade students to protest against climate change in Seattle, where they waved signs and chanted.

I was watching some climate change stuff with my mom. We clicked on this video of Greta Thunberg and she was like: “I’m calling on other kids on to start Fridays for Future.” It was around December. And I thought, “whoa those are cool.” We found some more videos of these kids in Europe striking, and I was like “are there any of those in the U.S.?” And my mom was like: “Not yet.”

I asked her: “Can I strike?” and she was like: “Yeah, how about this Friday?”

Some [kids are] really worried about it [climate change]. I heard that one of my sister’s friends was having nightmares and stuff about it.

CO2 is polluting the air, and that’s really bad. When I was younger, when I lived near freeway, I had asthma so I couldn’t really live around there. So that’s why we had to move.

[By marching on September 20] I’m hoping for all global leaders to do something about climate change [and to] realize that this is a problem. I want the next president of the US to do what we are asking you to do. Don’t think of it as a phoney thing that the scientists are lying about. And don’t brush it off, because it is the biggest problem of our generation. Maybe all generations.

Evan Meneses, 17, Adelaide, Australia

When Evan Meneses isn’t helping to organize marches with School Strike 4 Climate he loves debating, acting, doing stand-up comedy, playing video games, and reading. The 11th grader is also working on a novel. His favourite lessons are physics and English. When he’s not broke, he likes to go ice-skating and to the cinema with his friends.

Adelaide was struck with one of the hottest summers on record early in January this year. I was 16 at the time, and I remember standing outside—it was 46.6 degrees [115.88 Fahrenheit]—and just trying to cook an egg on a frying pan. A couple days after, I just reflected on it, and got to thinking, “damn. This isn’t normal.” After that I went to the March 15 strike, got in touch with the lead organizer, and things just went on from there.

Before I had just observed and disapproved in silence, mainly because I was apathetic and didn’t realize I could make a change. These strikes prove we can make a change.

Personally, I’m hoping that this massive show of protest will finally pressure our government into taking climate action seriously. I’m appalled by their ignorance. Our demands for action are no new coal, oil and gas projects, including the Adani mine, 100 percent renewable energy generation and exports by 2030, and fund a just transition and job creation for all fossil-fuel workers and communities.​

I, personally, don’t think that first-world countries will suffer too much. But thousands, maybe millions, of people will suffer as a direct result of our refusal to deal with the problem. We can’t let this happen. This is what I’m scared of.

Joe Brindle, 17, Devizes, Wiltshire, UK

17-year-old Joe Brindle has been fascinated with nature for a long time, and has several huge ant colonies in his room. He says that as a Christian, he believes members of his faith have a duty to protect the environment. The UK Student Climate Network activist hopes his interest in biology and insects will shape his career.

[Earlier this year] I found out about the first UK. climate strike on February 15. I stepped out of my comfort zone and alongside my brother I attended my first ever protest. Pretty soon after that, I realized I didn’t want my activism to be limited to once a month, so I decided to join the national UK Student Climate Network team.

I would like the climate crisis to become the key political focus rather than Brexit because the effects of the climate crisis far outweigh those of the other ‘major’ issues that dominate political debate.

The president of the most powerful nation in the world should, at a bare minimum, recognize that climate change exists. The fact that Trump has continually denied basic science is horrendous, yet unsurprising when such a large part of his party’s donations come from the fossil fuel industry.

I haven’t asked permission to strike because I don’t think that’s the point of civil disobedience. While my school isn’t the government that I am protesting against, by striking from school, I am showing the government that I am willing to sacrifice my education—which is mandatory by law—because I recognize that climate action is so essential and lacking.

Our futures are at risk and we will stand up for them even if it means we lose some school time because overall the importance of our actions is monumentally higher than a few math lessons.

Mohammed Ali, 19, Karbala, Iraq

12th grader Mohammed Ali Hassan is interested in history, books and also likes using design programs like Photoshop. He loves learning English, chemistry, and about holy shrines for Muslim imams. He joined the Fridays for Future movement about a month ago.

I’m not hopeful that we’ll achieve all of our goals because of the strike on September 20—but I think the demonstration will be the first steps towards achieving our goals on climate change. My biggest aim is to raise awareness in Iraqi society about climate change.

I am afraid we will get to a day when there are no living organisms on Earth: all as a result of the wrong actions of mankind.

[President Donald Trump] should return to the Paris Agreement. [He should] be serious in his actions to preserve Earth from climate change and war, and to reduce the consumption of oil. I think if the U.S. government decides to contribute effectively to reducing climate change, for example like Europe, we can easily preserve our planet.

I hope everyone on Earth will understand the dangers of climate change, and to stop habits that can harm the planet. I want people to be a friend to Mother Earth, not her enemy. I want governments around the world to make decisions that are in the interest of the environment. I want to draw attention to our oceans and for waste left by humans to be cleaned. People should stop harming the environment, like by replacing fossil fuel-powered cars which produce harmful gases with electric cars, and reducing the use of plastic. We shouldn’t explore the seas, Arctic and forests for oil. All governments of the world should respect each other.

Unfortunately, some young people are interested in other things and they forget this real danger. Whenever I ask them to join the movement they evade my question for unconvincing reasons.

Caroline Heege, 13, Seattle, Washington, US

8th grader Caroline Heege enjoys rocking climbing, political science, and civics, which she points out aren’t interests “commonly attributed to teenagers.” The 13-year-old also loves history, and looking how the past has shaped the present.

The first time I can remember hearing about climate change at all (it may not have been the very first but it was the most significant), was when two people [from Plant for the Planet] came into my fourth grade class and did a presentation.

I first decided to get involved in climate activism right after the presentation. At that moment I felt empowered, and I felt like I at least had to try. This was in 2016, so even as a fourth grader, I knew a little bit about what was going on in the political world.

I think the act of leaving our schools has drawn negative attention in the past because world leaders see school as very important. I think striking is a really great tactic because it shows how desperate we are.

Also read: How Can Educators Contribute to Climate Change Protest

In thinking about raising awareness and inspiring action, my biggest concern is mis-education. I’ve heard many of my classmates say that they thought we were all going to die in 12 years. This is incorrect—and this kind of misinformation is a danger to the climate movement. When people hear stuff like this, they feel helpless, as if there is nothing we can do. They lose hope.

I want to see the world leaders setting aside their differences and working together. It will take everyone to stop this. We have always trusted that [Earth] would be with us forever, so it can be hard for people to let go of that and accept that we need to change.

Zane Kalmus-Kunde, 11, Altadena, California, US

Sixth grader Zane Kalmus-Kunde likes to read, spend time in the library and play soccer. The 11-year-old’s favourite school subjects are math and science.

I was told about climate change when I was probably four, because my father is a climate scientist. Climate change makes me feel trapped. I became involved in climate activism in December 2018.

My biggest fear when it comes to climate change is simply life dying on this planet. I do not think most young people are worried about climate change. Some of my friends strike, but not many. They have to take a step up because this is an emergency.

As many people as possible should get involved in striking. People can also fly less and try to reduce their carbon emissions. To people who disagree with our movement I would say at least we’re doing something. Everybody who can should try to do something. This is a very big problem.

Bailey Carr, 15, Atlanta, Georgia, US

Carr, 15, has a passion for performing arts and musical theatre. English is definitely her favourite subject, and her creative writing and poetry have won awards. On the weekend, the sophomore likes going for walks around the city or volunteer at a local museum. She helped to organize the Atlanta For the Planet and Zero Hour Georgia rallies.

People at my high school have come to know me as “the environmentalist girl” over the past year. I post climate-related news headlines on my Instagram story almost daily, and I advertise climate strike information with the persistence of a mall kiosk salesman.

As much as I support the idea that social media has negative aspects, I actually don’t think I would’ve ever started striking if it hadn’t been for Instagram. In late February of 2019, I stumbled across a post with a screenshot of a news headline that read: “Thousands of students across Europe skip school to protest Climate Change inaction,” followed by several photos of people holding up snarky, witty posters. This was the first time I had ever heard about the Global Climate Strike movement, and I thought it was brilliant.

We get it. School is important, it prepares us for our future! But unless we act now, sooner or later we won’t have the future we’ve been studying for. Learning about global current events regarding climate isn’t something we learn about in school—and the careful planning process that goes into organizing a march teaches equally valuable life skills than any class ever would.

I have gained more knowledge about how my government works through my experience planning protests and writing to legislators about climate-sensitive bills than I ever learned in my whole year of taking civics in school.

I see countries all over the world making great strides to protect the planet. Several countries in Africa are joining forces to create a giant wall of trees to suppress the expansion of the Sahara desert, Australia has banned plastic bags, and Norway is run on almost 100 percent renewable energy.

So many places are trying, yet the second-largest polluter on this planet has done nothing under the Trump Administration.

I want to change the world, and I think everyone else in this movement does too.

The views of the interviewees in this article are their own.

This story originally appeared in Newsweek. It is republished here as part of The Wire’s partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story. 

Featured image credit: Reuters