How teen climate activists get—and make—climate news

High-school students in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, gather on the city hall steps as part of the March 15 climate action strikes. Photo by Abby Rabinowitz.

From 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg to the 21 young people suing the US federal government over climate, teenagers have become the stars of an optimistic new climate-change media narrative. On March 15, students rallied on the steps of Pittsburgh’s City Hall as part of a more-than-120-country strike for climate action and chanted, “We are unstoppable, another world is possible.” They voiced their support for the Green New Deal and against, as one young speaker put it, “those disastrous fossil fuel companies.”

At the rally, students from Pittsburgh’s Creative and Performing Arts School wondered why they should pay for college or have children if there was no future to plan for. “It’s eleven years away,” sophomore Benjamin Godley-Fisher said, referencing the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2030 deadline for staving off a 1.5C temperature rise. “The whole world could end.”

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The 2030 deadline appeared in numerous headlines, and also spread far and wide on social media, where some of the Pittsburgh students encountered it. Between rehearsals for a school Sister Act production, Godley-Fisher and Lila English told me they often arrive at climate stories on BuzzFeed, CNN, and The New York Times via “activism profiles and accounts,” which they will sometimes screenshot and then re-share. For many of the striking teens active on Instagram and Twitter, there is no longer any meaningful barrier between gathering, posting, and responding to climate news.

Until recently, such a complex climate news dynamic did not exist. A 2011 Yale Project on Climate Communication study showed marked differences in the sources American teens and adults use to build climate knowledge. Surveyed teenagers identified school, TV, and family members as three top sources of climate information, from which they learned from “a little” to “a lot.” More than half of the teenagers said they learned nothing from newspapers, which were frequently cited by adults as a source of climate information. Asked to pick a single source for climate information, 73 percent of teenagers selected the internet, compared to 61 percent of surveyed adults. The study does not specifically address social media as a unique source of information. Eric Fine, Project Manager at the Yale Project on Climate Communication, says this is the group’s most recent teen-specific survey.

Today, thanks to social media, striking teens are writing climate news, and, in some cases, calling the strikes that make headlines and framing their message. “Social media has altered the landscape of authority,”  Teen Vogue politics writer and editor Lucy Diavolo says.

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Teen Vogue, a progressive online magazine whose readers are “3x more likely to be activist,” has embraced this new authorial dynamic. A recent article about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “roasting” Mitch McConnell over the Green New Deal played big on social media, as did a feature on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, both written by staff editors. To cover the climate strike, Senior Features Editor Alli Maloney ran a first-person account by Isha Tobis Clarke, a young woman of color in Oakland, and an op-ed by Haven Coleman and Maddy Fernands, organizers with US Youth Climate Strike, which called the March 15 walkouts. “My favorite thing is to edit the young people themselves,” Maloney says.

For 16-year-old Fernands, US Youth Climate Strike’s National Communications Director, such op-eds are just one way to “take ownership” of the message and reach teens, who she said are also drawn to video content on YouTube, Vox, and Vice. Fernands’s organization, which is coordinating another climate strike slated for May 3, frames the strikes as intersectional, by and for “marginalized communities” most affected by climate violence, a message heard in speeches by Pittsburgh teens. They also tell and retell the story of 2030 deadline, dramatized by US Youth Climate Strike co-founder Alexandria Villaseñor. The 2030 deadline, now fewer than 11 years away, is a “unifying” force in the youth movement, Fernands says.

As told by teens, the ever-nearing deadline conveys not just urgency, but also injustice: it’s both a science story and a morality tale about generational violence, even homicide. This story is also powerfully deployed by the millennial-led Sunrise Movement, which has helped push climate to the center of the Democratic Party agenda through sit-ins that go viral on social media. For instance, protestors who “occupied” Nancy Pelosi’s office last November wore T-shirts that read “12 years,” then the deadline for action, Sunrise Movement’s Matthew Miles Goodrich says. These sit-ins make more news, and the cycle continues.

When asked to describe climate change, the Pittsburgh teens knew the main headlines: it’s human-caused, via greenhouse gas emissions, and a crime. Still, they craved context, and raised specific questions that reporters might take to heart—particularly in the interest of their peers who have never even heard of the climate strikes or the deadline. Why do some people think climate change is a hoax? What are climate change’s precise effects? How can they help solve the problem? What, if anything, does banning plastic straws have to do with it? One teen linked the ozone to climate change, echoing a finding by the 2011 Yale report that 35 percent of teens believed the ozone hole to be a “large contributor” to climate change—a misconception.

Climate change was not on these teens’ formal academic curricula, though some expressed appreciation for the time a substitute chemistry teacher showed Leonardo DiCaprio’s climate change documentary. English later emailed me a story claiming more than 80 percent of US parents want climate change taught in schools; these teens concurred.

At Bronx Science, physics teachers Rachel Wax and Matt Sarker have developed a pilot climate-change elective for senior students. In a lab with high-topped tables and a busy 3D printer, 34 students pursue independent research projects, like energy audits and analyzing water footprints.  “My main prerogative is to get them interested,” Sarker, who teaches the class, says.

Two Bronx Science students, Johanna Neggie and Eytan Stanton, helped rally 100 students for a walk-out that was widely covered. Stanton attributes the widespread coverage to Azalea Danes, who emailed more than 200 journalists. Neggie says she came into the class an activist; Stanton, now leaning toward environmental studies or GeoDesign at the University of Southern California, says, “This class was a major stepping stone.” Still, just a quarter of these students say they seek out climate news actively.

Social media, with its self-selective bubbles, struggles for the broad reach of public education. In 2011, when Yale applied an academic grading scale to their climate science knowledge, 54 percent of participants age 13-17 received failing grades, compared to 30 percent of adults. Fine, at Yale, also shared troubling up-to-date survey results: while Millennials (the closest age segment to teens) worry about climate change more than their elders, they talk about and encounter climate change in the news media much less. Some schools are working with nonprofit Alliance for Climate Education to educate teens on the subject of climate change using “engaging edutainment” such as movies and celebrity songs.

Meanwhile, at Bronx Science, teens can still read about climate change in the school paper. A March/April copy of The Science Survey, on old-fashioned newsprint, prominently featured several climate-related stories. Stanton’s assessment of Bronx Science’s sustainability occupied the front-left corner, and centered on a call for a new, more efficient boiler. Inside were pieces on quitting coal, the perils of foam, geoengineering, and Trump’s refusal to affirm a federal climate report’s findings. On page 7, there was a civic engagement guide for students who can’t yet vote called “Making Your Voice Heard.” The best curriculum and news stories in the world can’t alter time; as English reminded me, for most of the next eleven years, today’s sophomores will still be in school.

“So, there should be an idea of broadcasting to older generations,” she said. “To help them help us.”

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Abby Rabinowitz has written on climate change for Wired and The New Republic, and her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, the Virginia Quarterly Review, BuzzFeed, Vice, and Nautilus. A professor, she directs the first-year writing program at NYU Tandon School of Engineering.