Today’s youth have already become disillusioned with our power structures. Loss and trauma will define their coming-of-age stories, and they are holding their leaders accountable for action on the climate crisis. They are the ones who stand to lose everything. In Part III of Treading Water we echo the urgency and stand by the most important crisis of our time.
On a recent Wednesday in August, in the middle of a school day, in a packed community center in Gainesville, Florida, Isaac Augspurg took the stage.
The 14-year-old gazed out at a crowd of well over 150 and leaned into a message that has reached a global crescendo: the youth are rising.
“I would rather be having a carefree childhood,” Augspurg said. “But the climate crisis is here, and it won’t wait for us to grow up.”
Augspurg is one of eight youth plaintiffs who, on April 18, 2018, filed a lawsuit against the state of Florida, then-governor Rick Scott, and other state agencies for violating the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Augspurg is a featured speaker at this intergenerational forum on climate change, organized by Alachua County’s NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Committee branch. He is a freshman at Trilogy School in Gainesville and has been active in environmental causes since the age of 10. Augspurg’s words sit heavily with the university professors and school children, veteran activists and worried initiates, poets, artists, scientists, families and everyone in between who have gathered to look for inspiration and solutions.
Continued inaction on the climate crisis, Augspurg said, is “discriminatory to the youth who will be left with an uninhabitable world.”
Augspurg’s lawsuit—Reynolds v. Florida—is supported by Our Children’s Trust, a legal nonprofit helping to elevate the voices and rights of youth encumbered by the challenges of the anthropocene.
The youth are rising.
You’ve heard these words, but it bears repeating: Florida, with its 8,436 miles of coastline, is ground zero for the climate crisis. The warming world will worsen the impacts from hurricanes, flooding, heat events, algal blooms, salt water inundation into fresh water, among other problems. NOAA’s conservative estimates project a 1.5 – 2 foot rise in sea levels by 2050—but sea levels are rising 15% faster here in the Sunshine State compared to the global average.
If you haven’t been following Reynolds v. Florida, now is the time to catch up.
The argument bypasses the hand-wringing, paralysis and denial that comes with much discussion around climate change: “The Defendants [state agencies] know that Plaintiffs [youth] are living under climatic conditions that create an unreasonable risk of harm but have not responded reasonably to this urgent crisis, and instead have affirmatively acted to exacerbate the climate crisis,” the complaint reads. Their claim is bold and righteous because it has to be—they are the ones who stand to lose everything if we wait any longer to address this global crisis.
The youth are rising.
Augspurg’s work is a local magnification of a global challenge to hold our policymakers and legal systems accountable while there is still time to curb the impacts of a dangerously warming world.
On Friday, September 20, an estimated 4 million people joined in carefully coordinated youth-led climate strikes in more than 150 countries. Astonishing images of peaceful protests in every continent (yes, even Antarctica) were at once sobering and reassuring. At the helm of this defining social movement is 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, whose #FridaysForFuture school strikes have unified action across the world.
“You all come to us young people for hope,” Thunberg told global leaders at the United Nations Climate Action Summit on September 23. “How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”
It is a deserved dressing-down.
Sixteen youth climate activists—including Thunberg—have filed suit against Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Turkey, demanding immediate and aggressive climate action. Their legal complaint insists that in falling short of the emissions goals agreed upon in the 2015 Paris Agreement, these five countries are infringing on children’s rights protected in a 1989 UN agreement.
The youth are rising.
For Augspurg and so many of his peers, advocacy does not come without risks. Backlash has been scathing, populated by online and in-person harassment. Even Thunberg, with her international network of support, is not immune to hostile and derisive treatment from adults.
For the youngest generations, this work is traumatic, breeding unprecedented mental health challenges. Loss, false promises and disillusionment are a formative part of their childhoods, and will define their coming-of-age stories.
It’s time for adults to start acting like adults, because we each have a hand in this global catastrophe. It’s time to stop exploiting the youth for solutions to the problems we’ve created. They’ve inherited this world from us, and they deserve the better future we’ve promised them.
We get it: the climate crisis feels overwhelming. It feels tragic, personal and beyond our control.
But maybe we can start here, at our local community centers, listening to the opportunities the youngest generations are giving us. They are reminding us of our responsibilities, of our power, our ingenuity and our collective human will. They are reminding us how and why to fight like hell.
We can’t afford to tread water anymore.
The youth are rising. Will you?
As young people learn about the impacts of climate change, they have the power to change the attitudes of their parents. Meanwhile, adults who are painfully aware of the existential realities of the climate crisis learn new ways to cope with their growing despair. In Part I of Treading Water, we explore the allure of young activists in the age of eco-grief.
Young people are suing their policymakers for violating their constitutional rights. Their complaints allege that governments have known about the dangers of climate change for 50 years, yet have continued to promote fossil fuel energy systems, which contribute heavily to climate change. In Part II of Treading Water, we examine how such lawsuits are contributing a new legal landscape for the rights to a stable…