Today, 19-year-old Greta Thunberg is known around the world for her environmental activism, but when she held her first climate strike outside the Swedish parliament in August 2018, she was the only person there. Thunberg and other youth activists launched a global movement of young people taking action against climate change.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, young activists in Los Angeles regularly organized climate strikes and protests that drew large crowds. And Thunberg visited L.A. in November 2019 for the L.A. Youth Climate Strike, after crossing the ocean on a two-week boat voyage to avoid the climate emissions associated with air travel. Thousands of high school and college students joined her in the streets of Downtown L.A.
Chandini Agarwal, a senior at a West L.A. high school, helped organize that strike and met Thunberg in person. “That was amazing,” Agarwal recalls, “because she’s one of the people that has inspired so many of us.”
But just as they were using that inspiration to broaden their activism, the pandemic hit and public protests were halted. “A lot of what’s exciting and motivating for youth activists, and for everyone in the climate movement, is being at a protest and surrounded by hundreds or thousands of people,” Agarwal says. “It gives people a sense of connection and community, and it’s so hard to replicate anything like that online.”
Zoom calls and Facebook livestreams don’t feel as meaningful as marches and strikes, and they don’t get as much attention. As a result, Agarwal says, “All over the world, climate organizations lost a lot of momentum.”
She leads the outreach and communications teams for Youth Climate Strike L.A., a group of teens working to enact progressive climate policy and ensure climate justice. During the pandemic, she says, “We struggled with burnout and not having the energy and motivation to keep trying to do things online. It has definitely not been easy.”
Using the setback to go deeper
Agarwal has been passionate about environmental issues since she was young. In first grade, she started a club to save the bees and gave a speech to her class about the importance of recycling. When she attended her first climate strike, in March 2019, it opened her eyes to how much kids could accomplish.
“They had speakers who were so powerful, and the stories they told were so eye-opening about how real and how current the crisis is,” she says. “It’s not something that’s like 20 years in the future — it’s right now. It’s affecting people’s lives.” The realization was panic-inducing, but it inspired her to reach out to one of the organizers about getting more involved. “Since then, activism has become my whole life,” Agarwal says.
Miriam Awan, a senior at Crescenta Valley High School, first became aware of climate change in fourth grade. “Growing up in L.A., climate change is a daily reality because we live in an area that is affected by drought with increasing yearly temperatures,” she says. Even though she was alarmed, “I became super invested in learning more about climate change in elementary school and as a middle schooler.”
During her sophomore year, Awan heard about the Sunrise Movement and climate strikes, and wanted to take part. “I was helping to organize a strike for Earth Day in 2020,” she says.
That March, COVID-19 forced the Sunrise Movement and other organizations to move all of their Earth Day festivities online. Awan was disappointed about not being able to participate in a strike but, during quarantine, she became involved in a Sunrise Movement hub called Sunrise Los Angeles Youth. There, she discovered that the climate movement is about more than just striking.
“It’s about changing minds, too,” she says. “I learned about how people in Sunrise were working on political campaigns for city council members and helping them get elected, and a whole different political side to trying to mitigate climate change.”
Teen activists are sometimes stereotyped as being angry or out of touch with reality, but for Awan it has been encouraging to see her group’s political activism get results. She says, “We’re able to connect with lawmakers and actually get them to make pledges and change minds. There’s something really powerful about that.”
Both Youth Climate Strike L.A. and Sunrise Los Angeles Youth intentionally chose nonhierarchical leadership structures, and behind the scenes the groups are highly organized. Members of Sunrise Los Angeles Youth connect on Slack, hold frequent meetings and work as part of different teams. Some of the young activists approach climate change from a scientific or political perspective, while others use their artistic talents to design banners and social media posts. “We all find a place within the hub meetings to contribute,” says Awan, who is now one of the hub coordinators.
Reemerging in a new climate
In 2021, as soon as L.A.’s teen climate activists became eligible for the vaccine, they started working together to plan their first big protest in almost two years. For Agarwal and the Youth Climate Strike L.A. team, it was an opportunity to let the world know, We haven’t gone anywhere. We’re still here. We’re in community with a bunch of other organizations, we’re coming together, we’re stronger than ever and we’re still fighting for the same things that we’ve been fighting for.
Youth Climate Strike L.A. partnered with other groups, including Sunrise L.A. Youth and One Up Action L.A., to organize a 24-hour Youth Climate Strike in Downtown L.A. last September. The strike targeted Big Oil, and the packed schedule included a march, rally, teach-ins, art projects and more. The organizers designed the 24-hour event to be as inclusive as possible. They encouraged people to come and go throughout the day and arranged family-friendly activities such as seed-planting and storytelling. Agarwal says, “We’re trying to make the work that we do more accessible to younger children.”
Strike participants of all ages called on politicians to divest from fossil fuels and invest in clean energy. Agarwal says, “It’s very rare for a protest to be followed by an immediate legislative change, but an immediate effect of a protest is the motivation and energy that it gives everyone to keep going, which is as important, I would say, as the actual legislation.”
The teen climate activists understand that climate change is a serious threat, but they’d rather work toward solutions than live in despair or apathy. “Don’t believe people when they tell you that there’s nothing you can do or that climate change is inevitable,” Awan says. “Despair is not healthy to you, and it’s just damaging. The best thing that you can do is recognize that you’re part of a community of so many people who also care about climate change.”
To anyone feeling worried or overwhelmed about the impacts of climate change, she recommends connecting with other people who care about climate change. “Take part in whatever you have the capacity for, because there’s something that you can do, no matter what kind of interests or background you have,” she says.
Ways You and Your Family Can Get Involved
- Celebrate Earth Day on April 22. To find out what local organizations have planned, connect with them online.
- Get involved with a climate organization. “For people who have climate anxiety, it’s a good way to channel that into action,” teen activist Chandini Agarwal says.
- Connect with Youth Climate Strike Los Angeles. Follow @climatestrike.la on Instagram.
- Connect with Sunrise L.A. Youth. Visit sunriseyouth.la or follow @sunriselayouth on Instagram.
- Vote. “If you can vote, then you should vote, because there’s a lot of people who can’t, especially youth,” Agarwal says.
- Support candidates who are taking action on climate. “Even young kids can help out with postcards for local candidates,” teen activist Miriam Awan says.
Lisa Beebe is a freelance writer who lives in Studio City. She’s happiest when she’s writing about people and projects that make the world a better place.