Alexandria Villasenor may not look like the sort of person to stage a long protest over global warming, but the 13-year-old has spent every Friday since December seated on a cold bench outside the United Nations headquarters in the US state of New York, with signs warning of climate change’s terrible consequences.
“I stayed out there for four hours and I lost [blood flow] in my toes,” she said. Cold winter weather has been used by US President Donald Trump many times to play down climate science – in January he tweeted: “Wouldn’t be bad to have a little of that good old fashioned Global Warming right now!” – but Alexandria has experienced enough in her time on Earth to understand the scale of the threat.
Her concern pushed her to help organise the first nationwide strikes by US students over climate change, on March 15. More than 100,000 people are expected to skip school and attend rallies around the country demanding big cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
Alexandria was born and raised in Davis in the state of California, during the state’s worst drought in at least 1,200 years. In November, Davis saw record wildfires that burned down the area, 170 kilometres to the north. “I have asthma so it was a very scary experience for me, I couldn’t leave my house at all,” she said. “Just walking to the car would make my eyes sting.”
Concerned for their health, Alexandria’s family moved to New York and the student soon after became an activist after reading how warming temperatures are making wildfires, like the ones that ruined her hometown, more likely in the western US.
After bouncing around a few youth-led climate groups, she connected with students in other states, Isra Hirsi and Haven Coleman. The trio set about creating Youth Climate Strike US, the first major American response to the recent mass school walkouts by European students frustrated by adults’ slow response to climate change.
“My generation knows that climate change will be the biggest problem we’ll have to face,” said Alexandria. “It’s upsetting that my generation has to push these leaders to take action. We aren’t going to stop striking until some more laws are passed.”
The American students preparing to join a global wave of school strikes today have been spurred, like Hong Kong’s Elisa Hirn, Zara Campion, and Emily Tarr, by the actions of Greta Thunberg.
For someone getting their first taste of politics it can be hard to believe how little has been done to prevent a future of droughts, floods, and storms since James Hansen, who used to work for Nasa, delivered his warning on climate change to the US Congress 30 years ago
“It was confusing at first because I expected politicians to be on to this, given what the scientists were saying,” said Chelsea Li, a 17-year-old at Nathan Hale high school in the Washington state city of Seattle and local strike organiser. “But I didn’t see any action. We are going to have to do the things the adults are too afraid to do because it’s our futures we are fighting for.”
Youth-led groups like the Sunrise Movement and Zero Hour have taken their cue from traditional green groups but have been met with the same inaction from those in power in politics.
In a videoed exchange that since been made fun of on Saturday Night Live, US Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, told a group of students that they weren’t yet able to vote for her and their demands on climate were unrealistic.
“I think she was trying to dismiss me,” said Isha Clarke, a 16-year-old from California who had confronted Feinstein. “I think she was making excuses for why she didn’t have to listen to us. For older people there’s no urgency … ”
Isha said that was disappointing but the backlash was “amazing”, with the California senator releasing and then dropping her own climate plan after it was criticised for being too weak. Feinstein also offered Isha an internship, which she has yet to accept.
“It’s sort of tricky because you have to play the game to change it,” Isha said. “Most young people are very aware of climate change, a lot of them are super passionate about it but they don’t have the resources to make their voices heard. They don’t realise they have the power to create change.”
That voice will be heard today when students around the world skip their classes to make a say that they hope won’t be ignored. Parents and teachers may have to brace themselves for future walkouts. “My parents are very supportive, they understand my beliefs,” said Alexandria. “If we’re not going to have a future, then school won’t matter any more.”