Climate activists are young... and female
A new generation of ‘Gretas’
The now household name, Greta Thunberg, has become synonymous with the climate change movement. But she by no means battles alone. There are now plenty of girls from all corners of the globe making a name for themselves as climate change activists.
The daughter of United States congresswoman, Rep. Ilhan Omar, 16-year-old Isra Hirsi, has almost 50,000 Instagram followers (@israhirsi), while Australian school student, Jean Hinchcliffe (@jean_hinchliffe), is the Lead Organiser for School Strike 4 Climate.
The facts are starting to speak for themselves
Statistics about protesting and activism are notoriously difficult to confirm (general estimates for the School Strike 4 Climate protest in Australia on September 20 sit at 300,000, but more conservative estimates recorded only 180,000).
One thing is becoming evident -- climate change activism is young, diverse and disproportionately female. A recent poll conducted in the U.S. found that 46% of girls said that climate change was ‘extremely important to them,’ compared to 23% of boys.
The U.N. currently estimates that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women, due to the gender-traditional roles they hold as primary caregivers -- they are therefore more adversely affected when drought and flooding occur.
One suspects that this is not the sole reason so many young girls are taking to the streets, although, at this stage, no significant research exists as to why climate activism is so gender-disproportionate.
We’d love to hear your hypothesis, though! Tweet us @shemapsau and let us know what you think.
Mental effect on children
Reality bites - the hate is real
For female frontliners, scrutiny was bound to happen, but it is particularly disconcerting when the frontliners are young girls.
On February 2, 2019, 16-year-old climate activist, Greta Thunberg posted this message on Facebook, responding to all of the hate she receives regularly:
“There is one other argument that I can’t do anything about. And that is the fact that I’m just a child and we shouldn’t be listening to children.” But that is easily fixed - just start to listen to the rock solid science instead. Because if everyone listened to the scientists and the facts that I constantly refer to - then no one would have to listen to me or any of the other hundreds of thousands of school children on strike for the climate across the world. Then we could all go back to school.
I am just a messenger, and yet I get all this hate. I am not saying anything new, I am just saying what scientists have repeatedly said for decades. And I agree with you, I’m too young to do this. We children shouldn’t have to do this. But since almost no one is doing anything, and our very future is at risk, we feel like we have to continue.”
Her comments touch on a lot of issues that come with elevating young people to positions of fame. But the reality is - that train has left the station.
Activism stems from a need to be heard, something that is so important for young people to feel. As Greta herself says, “since almost no one is doing anything… we feel like we have to continue.”
The disturbing reality when young people speak out is that our most vulnerable members of society become targets for online abuse. According to an analysis provided to Buzzfeed News, up to 5000 tweets mentioning Greta were tweeted by suspected bots. Meanwhile, 11-year-old activist, Lily Platt has had her feed spammed with pornographic images after posting a video clip of a Brazilian tribe speaking out against deforestation.
And, of course, it isn’t online backlash without the obligatory Trump tweet. Following her heartfelt speech expressing her disappointment to the United Nations, President Donald Trump tweeted:
Mastering the art of the peaceful protest
Allowing children to protest can be a contentious issue. Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, even weighed in on the debate, saying, “I think we have to caution against raising the anxieties of children.” Politics aside, the issue with this statement is that children are protesting because of their anxieties. Taking action serves as an outlet for their anxieties. According to renowned parent educator, Steve Biddulph, “The research says that when young people get involved in the things that worry them, then their mental health improves.”
In her early teenage years, Greta Thunberg developed depression, something she believes happened because of her concern about the lack of action on the climate emergency.
We find ourselves in quite a unique position as a planet. The rise and democratization of information for all, regardless of age, has coincided with one of the most significant global challenges we have ever faced. In some ways, these girls are being robbed of that undeniably youthful pastime -- the carefree joy of thinking in the short-term.".
These days, young people are armed with information about global warming and carry a strong distaste for how world leaders are dealing with what will ultimately be their reality. Hence, the desire to protest.
As adults, one of the easiest ways to shape what will undoubtedly be a formative experience for many of these students is to ensure that this outlet is a healthy one. The word ‘protest’ has connotations of resistance through confrontation or even violence. One thing the climate protests are teaching the world is the ability to protest peacefully.
We need to ensure that joining a protest feels like a positive way to contribute to change. We can do this through engaging and answering questions honestly (quite easy, given that a lot of the time the answer will be, “no one really knows!”), and through teaching them about the democratic process.
But also through bringing lighthearted and fun elements into protesting -- painting a sign, for instance, and encouraging young people to explore what they feel comfortable participating in. And reminding them that whatever that is -- it is more than enough.
Schools Strike 4 Climate
In Australia, as in many other nations, schools are faced with the challenge that students are taking time off for their activism. The most widespread example of this is the student-led School Strike 4 Climate, which occurred on September 20. With a website that includes template letters for students and parents to send their schools, among many other resources, this is no passing fad.
Their request of the Federal Government is as follows:
- No new coal, oil or gas projects
- 100 percent renewable energy generation and exports by 2030
- Funding for “a just transition and job creation for all fossil-fuel industry workers and communities”
At the moment, it appears that most Australian students are able to take time off to protest with permission from their caregivers. The challenge comes when an assessment falls on the same day as a major protest.
Currently, some students are choosing to forfeit their mark for assessments where rescheduling isn’t possible. It’s likely that, in the future, some schools will start arranging their assessments around protests when they do their planning. But then the question of fairness comes in when, undoubtedly, not all schools will agree with this approach.
We would love to hear from you
Do you have thoughts on how parents and schools should be dealing with this? Perhaps this is already something you’re dealing with. Or maybe you totally disagree with the idea of children protesting completely. Let us know what you think by tweeting us @shemapsau or emailing [email protected]
In the meantime, we’ll leave you with the words of Greta Thunberg’s school principal back in Sweden:
“Greta, having you as a student, being your Principal at school I do not doubt you are writing your own speeches.
All the things you wrote about here I also get questions about. So many rumors and so many people who do not know you or your family who think they know how things are and what is best for you.
You are a very special person and I am sure you make a difference, a positive one. Every person who get a lot of positive attention, being famous or succesful unfortunately have to deal with people who are jealous, ignorant, stingy and will get negative attention. Never let them put you down!
Focus on the good, the ones who appreciate you.”