By Kit Nga Chou and Sam Liptak
Yesterday, 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, who founded the global youth striking movement Fridays for Future, was named TIME’s 2019 Person of the Year. The latest honor from TIME is reflective of a large (and growing) youth climate movement, a movement that is pressuring world leaders to take climate action.
Here in Washington, D.C., for example, 17-year-old Jerome Foster II strikes outside the United States Capitol every Friday. Two-hundred miles up the coast, 14-year-old Alexandria Villaseñor strikes outside New York City’s United Nations headquarters.
But you don’t have to be in a metropolis to strike for change. Deep in the heart of the South, another 17-year-old activist, Isabel Hope, strikes for climate action in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Hope in Alabama
Every week, Hope’s mother drops her off at the Tuscaloosa Federal Building to strike as a part of the Fridays for the Future movement.
“I’m out here every Friday to make people think about not only climate change but also what role the South can play in climate change,” Hope told Earth Day Network last month.
Hope started striking after seeing the lack of action taken by her government officials. She called these leaders “climate deniers” and was angry that these politicians accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from the fossil fuel industry.
In the fiscal year of 2019, Alabama received $34 million from energy revenues produced in offshore oil and natural gas collection, making the state the ninth-highest recipient of energy funds in the country.
To ensure Alabama government officials heard youth voices, Hope organized the first Alabama Youth Climate Strike on March 15, 2019. Around 60 people from across the state joined Hope on the steps of the Alabama Capitol Building in Montgomery to demand for a change in climate policies in the state government.
Mobilizing youth in Alabama
In addition to striking, Hope wishes to create a platform for other youth voices in Alabama. That’s why in June of this year, Hope founded Yellowhammer Youth, a digital space where young people in Alabama can submit opinion pieces and discuss “varying topics from all political and socioeconomic backgrounds.”
“Our staff of students from across the state believe it is important, now more than ever, to showcase the youth perspective here,” reads the Yellowhammer Youth website. “A lot of Alabama lawmakers want to ignore our voices, but sadly those days are over.”
Yellowhammer Youth also acts as a media outlet to fill in the gaps in news coverage on climate issues in Alabama. Hope wishes that more Alabamians understand climate change and realize the importance of the South as a frontline community.
Threats to the American South
Compared to other states, Alabama isn’t active in the environmental movement. As the 15th- most carbon-intensive state economy, Alabama favors a heavy carbon emission industry instead of green alternatives.
Yet, Alabama is one of the states most impacted by climate change. Alabama is highly susceptible to extreme weather patterns: “Flash droughts” occurred this summer, as the American South experienced the driest and hottest September on record, as reported by The New York Times.
Hurricanes are also more likely to occur along the southern coast of the U.S. Climate scientists predict an increase in the intensity of hurricanes. And these extreme weather events won’t just hit tourists’ paradise (and climate change posterchild) Miami; Alabama will also be hit. But even with these pressing climate issues, Alabama’s state government remains reluctant to act.
“I can tell you now our state government has done nothing,” said Hope.
In 2010, a massive oil spill caused by BP happened on the Gulf Coast, near where Hope lives in Southern Alabama. The oil leak peaked at more than 60,000 barrels per day. Animals were killed and tourism economies crashed. Yet, Alabama lawmakers have continued collecting money from big oil companies.
In 2017, Alabama had one of the highest per capita energy consumption rates in the U.S. They also had the third-most expensive monthly electricity bills by state.
Fortunately, Alabamians are starting to realize the climate emergency we’re in. On September 20, nearly six months after Hope organized her own youth climate strike, several strikes occured simultaneously in the state (that Hope had nothing to do with) —including in Montgomery, Birmingham and Huntsville — as part of the Global Week for Future.
“I would rather be in school right now,” 14-year-old Stella Tarrant said in front of the Birmingham’s climate strikers on September 20. “I would rather be sitting at a desk doing math, because that would mean the adults were taking care of our planet and we wouldn’t have to.”
Young leaders are driving the fight to protect our planet, when they should be in class learning. So, how can we support them?
Hope had plenty of suggestions. Strikes for the climate happen weekly in the capital, so if that fits your schedule, try finding something local. If you’re not free every Friday, global mobilizations occur throughout the year.
Don’t fret if you can’t make it out to your government officials, though. Digital striking is another option. In this case, Hope recommends sharing youth activists’ projects, hashtags (including #digital strike, #fridaysforfuture) and tagging @fff.digital.
In this age of environmental inaction, we need to do whatever we can to get our leaders to listen, especially if it’s supporting our youth who are running the movements.
April 22, 2020 is Earth Day’s 50th anniversary. It will be the largest, most diverse global mobilization for the defense of our environment. Join the EARTHRISE movement today.
Kit Nga Chou and Sam Liptak are interns at Earth Day Network.