Like many young activists fighting to stall the worst effects of global warming, 17-year-old Gabriel Nagel doesn’t consider climate change a theoretical concept he learned in school or heard about on the news. What sparked his interest in activism was just that—a spark.
It was 2017. He was in middle school in Colorado, when, he said, a wildfire that started just west of Boulder came within a few blocks of his home.
“That’s when I realized that climate change isn’t just all these statistics we’re learning, it’s real, and it’s impacting us in all these different ways right now,” Gabriel said.
Last spring, Gabriel was part of a group of students that successfully advocated for Denver Public Schools to adopt a set of sustainability goals aimed at reducing the district’s greenhouse emissions. It was the culmination of two years of work that stretched over much of the pandemic.
With school buildings closed and no physical classes to walk out of in protest, the pandemic forced many young climate activists to change their tactics. From their homes during lockdowns, they’ve written resolutions, petitioned school boards, and agitated for action on social media. Among their demands to lawmakers and school officials: teach climate change in schools, invest in mental health resources to address climate anxiety, and reduce the carbon footprint of their school buildings.
Even though students aren’t currently walking out of class by the tens of thousands, educators should still take seriously—and even support—their activism, experts in civics education and social-emotional learning say. This type of policy-driven advocacy presents a sea of opportunities for teens to develop valuable skills for the real world.
“Networking, learning how to organize people around a certain subject, connecting with people, following up on emails”—those are among the skills that senior Mariah Rosensweig said she has honed while working with Gabriel to change the Denver district’s sustainability policies. “I have also learned about public speaking and the way I interact with people. How I like to carry myself; how I present myself.”
These skills, she pointed out, are in desperate need of exercise and practice coming out of pandemic isolation.
Gabriel and Mariah’s activism is more of a norm among teens than the exception, a recent EdWeek Research Center survey of 14- to 18-year-olds found. A strong majority of teens—63 percent—have done something to raise awareness or drive change about global warming in the past two years, whether it’s sign a petition, contact an elected official, or join an environmental club.
But while schools may support the idea of student advocacy and civic engagement, tensions arise when schools become, as they often are, the target of that student activism.
More than 1 in 10 students say they have tried to get their school or district leadership to take action around climate change. Yet strong commitments from school and district leaders to address climate change are relatively few and far between.
The pandemic was a turning point for many teen activists
The fortunes of young climate activists appeared to have changed abruptly in the winter of 2020.
Only a few months earlier, youth walkouts over government inaction on climate change had swelled from a lone teen in Sweden to millions of students around the world—including many middle and high schoolers here in the United States.
A 2019 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 1 in 7 U.S. teens had participated in a school walkout over climate change between 2016 and 2019.
These large-scale school walkouts commanded the attention of world leaders and major news outlets. School and district administrators scrambled to decide whether to bless or penalize students as they left class, in addition to strategizing over how to keep students safe during their protests.
And then the pandemic hit, bringing with it mass school closures and a danger that, for many people, felt far more immediate than climate change—seemingly sucking the air out a youth movement that only a few months prior felt like an unstoppable juggernaut.
Nancy Wadsworth, a political science professor who studies youth climate change activism at the University of Denver, said that through her research she noticed that many websites for U.S. youth climate change organizations appeared to go dormant over the pandemic.
The pandemic, she said, required a collective response, much like climate change, and young climate activists understood that. They took pandemic-related precautions such as social distancing seriously, instead of gathering in large groups to protest.
The pandemic, Wadsworth said, “was a collective action problem, but there is a much bigger problem that they were trying to deal with, and there is something unfair in asking them to muffle their activism.”
But the embers of that activism remained. For many teen activists, lockdown orders and remote learning gave them a new direction for their advocacy—one they feel will ignite more concrete change, and in some cases, already has.
At Sonoma Academy in Santa Rosa, Calif., now-seniors Talulah Juniper and Madigan Traversi threw themselves into advocacy on climate change in their sophomore year, which they attended completely remotely.
Both dug into policy-related projects during the pandemic: researching, writing potential legislation, and finding state and federal lawmakers to sponsor resolutions they had crafted. Talulah helped write a resolution declaring a climate crisis emergency in California, which passed the state legislature in 2022 and became law.
Meanwhile, Madigan worked on a congressional resolution—introduced in the U.S. House in March 2022—that in part calls for money for school districts to help support students’ mental health after climate change-related natural disasters. That bill has yet to progress in Congress.
“There is something addictive in getting involved in policy work. You see the effects of your actions so directly,” said Madigan.
Personal tragedies spur some young people’s activism
Nearly a quarter of high school students surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center said they want to learn more about policy debates and proposals to address the effects of climate change in school, like Madigan and Talulah do at Sonoma Academy.
While protests serve an important purpose in demanding attention, in a way that the sometimes unglamorous, behind-the-scenes work of getting a bill passed may not, Talulah said that all the walkouts, sit-ins, and rallies she attended leading up to the pandemic lockdowns took a toll.
“It’s a pretty exertive process to protest continuously and not be able to see tangible results,” she said.
This work is personal for both Madigan and Talulah. Their passion for climate change advocacy can be traced back to 7th grade and an October day in 2017 when the Tubbs wildfire—the most destructive in California history at that time—ripped with terrifying speed through their community, engulfing houses in minutes and ultimately killing 22 people.
Madigan lost her home in the fire. She recalled that she and her mom got a robocall saying there were three houses on fire seven miles away. They decided to leave.
“We didn’t take anything with us but our dog,” Madigan said. “We learned that our house had burned 20 minutes later because of how fast the winds were.”
Climate change is leading to hotter and drier summers, which produce more frequent and more devastating wildfires. In the case of Tubbs, an unusually wet winter the year prior fueled the growth of extra grass and brush that, when dried by the heat and combined with usually high winds, might have exacerbated the already ripe conditions for a massive, swift-moving wildfire.
In South Florida, 3,000 miles away from Sonoma, Calif., the climate-related problems galvanizing high schoolers to take action look very different. Instead of wildfires, teens in that community are dealing with more intense hurricanes and sea level rise.
“I’m very privileged to live on the 3rd floor,” said Murilo Matos, a senior at Cutler Bay Senior High outside of Miami, when asked how sea level rise affects his day-to-day life. “I remember with one of the tropical storms we had earlier this year, my friend told me that to get home, he couldn’t park his car and had to literally swim to his house, because the water was chest level.”
Murilo and his classmate, Melody Martinez, also a senior, are part of a group of students at Cutler Bay involved in activism through Action for Climate Emergency, or ACE, a national support organization for young activists. Recently, they have been holding signs at meetings for the county commission and Florida Power and Light, the largest power utility company in the state, to pressure adults to keep their commitments to sustainability plans.
Global warming is causing ice sheets and glaciers to melt and the ocean water to expand, which causes sea levels to rise—an idea that’s not an abstraction for students who live at elevation zero on the coast.
“Ever since I was little, I’ve heard that all of Florida is going to be under water,” said Melody. “When it rains a lot, the streets get absolutely flooded, … and I feel like it is much more apparent now than when I was younger.”
The argument for encouraging student advocacy in schools
Melody and Murilo also participated in a global climate strike last September. They are among the 9 percent of teens in EdWeek’s survey who said they had participated in a demonstration or protest over climate change in the past two years—some of which were held online. Eleven percent said they had attended a school walkout over that same time period.
Even if students are not walking out of school buildings, that doesn’t mean that schools should ignore students’ interest in activism around climate change, whether it’s taking place on social media, in conversations with family and friends, or in the community.
Activism—in all its forms—helps students develop in-demand skills for college and the workplace, said Wesley Hedgepeth, who teaches 9th grade world history, politics, and government at Collegiate School in Richmond, Va. He is also the president-elect for the National Council for the Social Studies.
“As long as we live, there will be a need for advocacy at some point,” he said. “The nature of humankind is unequal distribution of resources, so advocacy will need to be a part of students’ lives. And I do think that the K-12 social studies classroom is the safest place for kids to practice it.”
Student activists hone skills such as research, communication, public speaking, and listening skills, Hedgepeth said. Through activism, students learn how to be comfortable with different environments and people. It gives students the opportunity to build important relationships and find mentors. Activism is also a vehicle for educators to teach about discerning good information and sources from the bad, he said.
Activism also gives students opportunities to build social-emotional skills, such as perspective taking, goal setting, emotional management, and persistence.
For instance, conceiving, writing, advocating, and ultimately getting the Denver district to adopt the sustainability policies Gabriel and his group, DPS Students for Climate Action, were pushing for was a two-year exercise in patience, Gabriel said.
“Recognizing if you want to get something done, you can’t just talk about it,” he said. “You actually have to be willing to go through all the steps that it takes and be OK with getting upset and kind of angered when things don’t necessarily happen immediately and just having the persistence to keep going.”
His district has since hired two firms to develop a sustainability plan guided by the goals it adopted—a sign that the teens’ effort is leading toward real change.
Even so, student activism can put school and district leaders in an awkward position. Schools often find that teaching civic engagement and modeling it is a difficult needle to thread, especially when students are demanding action on issues unpopular with administrators, the community, or even other students.
But student advocacy is not something schools can easily sidestep.
Activism, Hedgepeth said, is the natural outgrowth of inquiry. So, if educators are encouraging curiosity, exploration, and problem solving in their classrooms, many students will likely take the next logical step and want to advocate for a cause they care about—whether it’s climate change or something else.
“If students practice informed civic action in school, they are going to be more likely to do it as an adult,” whether it’s voting or running for office, said Hedgepeth, advocacy can come in all shapes and sizes.
“Advocacy could look like a capital ‘A’ advocacy,” said Hedgepeth, “or lowercase ‘a’ advocacy where you are promoting something on social media and talking to a friend or family member about something you’re passionate about.”
It’s that kind of lowercase “a” advocacy that larger shares of teens told EdWeek they participate in: Forty percent surveyed said that they had tried to make family or friends more aware of climate change, and 21 percent said they had promoted awareness of the issue on social media.
Teens are also eager to learn more about what they can personally do to lesson the effects of climate change—a little more than half said in EdWeek’s survey that they want to learn about that in school.
Already, the vast majority of teens take at least some steps to live more sustainably. Only 11 percent said they had not changed their behavior to reduce their carbon footprint.
While there is power in individual action and global protests, for Gabriel and Mariah, the sweet spot is advocating for change in their school community. That’s where they feel they can have the most impact.
Mariah said she attended one of the global youth walkouts before the pandemic.
“Numbers are powerful, there is definitely something to be said for that,” she said. “But I’m also a beekeeper. I take care of 20 hives throughout our neighborhood, and just the connections I’ve been able to build with our clients, and just how much information can be shared with something so simple as bees, I’ve realized how important just educating the people right around us is.”
Coverage of how climate change is affecting students’ learning and well-being is supported in part by a grant from the Education Writers’ Association Reporting Fellowship program, at www.ewa.org/fellowship. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2023 edition of Education Week as A Pandemic Pause, Then an Advocacy Renaissance for Teen Climate Change Activists