Shiva Rajbhandari began his climate activism three years ago, and now — at the ripe old age of 17 — he’s become something of a seasoned veteran.
Shiva, a high school freshman who organized for the climate-focused Sunrise Movement began organizing. Since then, he has been involved in several related initiatives. Working with Idaho’s Climate Justice League, Shiva successfully pressed the city of Boise two years ago to transition to 100 percent clean energy by 2035. Shiva and his associates leaned on the Boise Schools District to create and implement a roadmap for renewable energy adoption by the end this year.
Shiva wants to take the initiative to make it even better. He is aiming to run for school board and pushing for the creation an Idaho Public Utilities Commission student position. He’s also one of three students who will help draft his school district’s clean energy road map.
“Young people need to be in traditional places of power, and we’re going to get that whether the adults in power like it,” he said. “So many of my peers struggle with climate anxiety, and the way we’ve coped with that is to do something.”
Shiva is one of a growing number of high school students who are committed to doing something about climate change.. While it’s difficult to quantify the size of the high school climate movement, activists and academics said they’ve seen signs of rising interest and momentum.
Millions of high school students across the globe marched out of school in September 2019 in protest against climate change. It was one of the largest climate protests ever. Researchers such as University of California, Santa Cruz, professor Jessica Taft are reporting that youth activism is on the rise worldwide, partially inspired by the most famous climate activist of all — Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg, 19, who began her campaign when she was just 15 years old.
“Around the world, we are seeing children and youth engage as social, political, and economic actors, demonstrating their capacity to help make social change,” Taft said in an Interview with UC Santa Cruz’s Newscenter.
The climate movement is also more interconnected than previous environmental campaigns. Activists, organizers and academics say it’s much more diverse and that it often allies with other social justice movements, from Black Lives Matter to Indigenous rights groups.
“The platforms being pushed by climate groups center around intersectional approaches to equity that connect climate equity with racial equity and economic equity,” said Dana Fisher, director of the Program for Society and the Environment at the University of Maryland. “Climate activists are also paying attention to voting rights and who gets to participate meaningfully in our democracy.”
These teens are part of a larger student movement against climate inaction. According to a report by The New York Times, Harvard University, Boston University, and the University of Minnesota were able to pressure institutions like these to stop using fossil fuels last year. POLITICO reports. Students at law school have also taken up drafting Policy recommendationsTo help California legislators better prepare for wildfires, and to boycott firms representing fossil fuel clients.
The activists at high schools say they have more to lose than their older brothers. The effects of climate change have already been baked in by decades of carbon pollution. Further inaction is almost certain to make it worse.
A high school senior graduating this year, for example, will turn 46 in 2050 — the same year that climate scientists say global temperatures could hit between 1.6 and 2.4 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. If the world community fails to reduce emissions, then an estimated one-third the global population could live in areas as hot and humid as the Sahara by 2069.
“It’s hard not to feel such a connection to this issue, because I’m fighting for my future and my children’s future and everyone on this planet,” said Jacob Glass, a climate activist and high school junior from Portland, Ore.
The climate continues to change
Youth activists, who are limited in their political power, often rely upon climate strikes to make a point.
Adah Crandall and Jacob co-led Portland Youth Climate Strike. The organization attracted more than 2,000 students who left school Sept. 24, and marched to demand their city become carbon neutral and stop importing fossil fuels by 2030.
They stated that there was an increase in high school students wanting involvement with local movements last years, which were correlated with more extreme weather events.
“Last summer was a big turning point because we made this transition from fighting for our futures to fighting for our present as climate disasters are starting to happen now,” said Adah, a sophomore at Grant High School in Portland.
Another factor that fueled interest in climate activism was the pandemic. According to Adah, the Covid-19 outbreak exposed “a lot of the failures of our government” to many young people. It gave them the ability to fight for change. She said the pandemic gave fledgling groups time to strategize and mobilize online and emerge as “more powerful movements.”
Ind. teens inspire legislation
High school climate activists have used a variety of methods to raise awareness. Indiana’s state senate will examine two pieces climate legislation this session, which were co-authored by Confront the Climate Crisis, an alliance of students.
Last week, state Sen. Ron Alting (R) filed S.B. 255, which would establish a task force to develop a statewide climate plan and Concurrent Resolution 3. This would acknowledge human-caused climate change, and support scientific evidence.
The legislation originated from a climate resolution pitched to the senator in May by a group of West Lafayette Junior/Senior High School students — the leaders of Confront the Climate Crisis.
Among them was Annabel Prokopy, a senior and the executive director of the group, who said they worked closely with Alting to draft the legislation; they even traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Indiana’s congressional delegation and advocate for the changes.
These teens worked with both Republican and Democratic senators to pass the legislation in a state where partisan politics can often undermine climate policy.
“It’s really incredible that we’ve been able to unify both parties on what really should be a unified interest,” said Jonathan Siskind, a high school senior and legislative director at Confront the Climate Crisis. “Our campaign of 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds was able to bring both groups together, and that’s something to be proud of.”
Older activists lend a helping hand
Older members of the movement are also supporting the activists.
The CLEO Institute is a non-profit organization in Miami that offers lessons and training to teachers and students who want climate change education.
Yoca Arditi-Rocha, the executive director of the CLEO Institute, said she’s received more inquiries for workshops and classroom presentations from both teachers and students as the impacts of climate change hit the state.
The organization has so far trained 90 students to become climate speakers. These students have gone on to educate more than 950 students about the climate crisis.
“The climate impacts we’re seeing in Florida are in real time: rising seas, algae infested waters, increasing temperatures,” said Arditi-Rocha. “So students are seeing real impacts as we speak, and they’re concerned about their futures.”
While outrage and concern are driving the movement, advocacy is moving to a different emotion: hope.
Shiva, an activist, believes that climate change is a frightening reality but that they can control it by advocating for legislative change. This gives them control and optimism for the future. Shiva predicts that the movement will continue growing for these reasons.
“Climate action is contagious because it’s empowering, and one thing that all young people lack is power,” Shiva said. “We’re scared for our future, but we’re also motivated to take on this challenge and succeed where other generations have failed.”