You can’t blame Sabirah Mahmud, a 16-year-old living in Philadelphia’s University City, for getting more than a little annoyed when adults claim that teenagers like her don’t know enough to take meaningful action on climate change. And it’s not just because she’s learning the science of global warming as a sophomore at the city’s Academy at Palumbo magnet school.
She’s also seen the danger first hand.
Not long ago, Sabirah was visiting family in Bangladesh when the low-lying South Asian nation was hit by massive flooding. “I had to be carried across the water,” recalled Sabirah, who said that many Americans don’t know much, if anything, about the extreme risk to developing nations from worsening storms and rising sea levels.
On Friday, Sabirah will talk about the problems in Bangladesh — and here at home — in LOVE Park when she joins scores of other Philadelphia-area students who’ve pledged to protest rather than attend school as part of America’s first-ever Youth Climate Strike. Organizers are hoping that as many as 100,000 kids nationwide will strike on Friday, joining even larger throngs of students in 71 different nations, including in Europe where large turnouts for earlier actions have already jolted the environmental debate.
Sabirah and the other strike organizers — all teenagers — say the recent United Nations report warning of catastrophic climate change if the world doesn’t take dramatic steps to reduce greenhouse-gas pollution by 2030 has convinced them that neither they nor the planet can wait until today’s students are old enough to vote, let alone run for Congress.
She said she’s heard the grown-ups argue that radical plans like the Green New Deal would wreck the economy. She counters: “If you’re not planning for a future with climate change, what future are you even planning for?...Telling a child that something is not possible is like saying your dreams will never come true.”
Sabirah, as Philadelphia coordinator of the Youth Climate Strike (statewide, with rallies also planned for West Chester, State College, and Pittsburgh), said she knows that about 20-30 classmates at Academy at Palumbo are planning to strike Friday. She and the other teens who’ve been frenetically planning the Philadelphia activities since they learned of the climate strike just three weeks ago are hoping that as many as couple hundred might attend two events, a noon rally in LOVE Park and a later afternoon event nearby at City Hall.
“We’re very young, but our generation will have to face climate change,” said Enya Xiang, a 16-year-old sophomore at Lower Merion’s Harriton High School who’s friends with Sabirah from the Penn Museum, where they both intern, and is also helping organize the strike locally. Enya thinks another two dozen or so kids from Harriton will take part on Friday. She said she shares Sabirah’s annoyance when some adults say that kids who protest for climate action through groups like the Sunrise Movement are somehow “brainwashed” by parents or teachers.
“It’s really frustrating when adults say we don’t understand,” said Enya, whose science teacher has been on expeditions to Antarctica and the North Pole and shown students pictures of where critical ice sheets are melting. “It isn’t that hard to understand that climate change is real and caused by humans and that we need to do something.” Both teen Climate Strike leaders support the Green New Deal, the broad resolution before Congress that calls for America to wean itself off fossil fuels in just 10 years, a massive undertaking on the scale of 1960s’ moon missions or World War II — arguably, bigger.
The global Climate Strike movement is also something of a full circle for teens like Sabirah who got a taste of political activism this time last year with the March for Our Lives against gun violence, sparked by the 2018 massacre at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Halfway around the world, a 16-year-old Swede named Greta Thunberg said last August she was inspired by the Parkland survivors and other U.S. gun-safety activists to launch a protest outside the Swedish Parliament accusing her country of not living up to its promises in the Paris climate accords.
Thunberg was not only invited to speak to world leaders at the recent Davos economic forum, but the student strike movement that she inspired — sometimes called Fridays for Future — has spread to dozens of nations and already attracted tens of thousands of participants. Here in the United States, leaders of the youth climate movement include a 13-year-old New Yorker, Alexandria Villasenor, and a 16-year-old Minnesotan, Isra Hirsi, whose mom is already known for activism and generating controversy — Rep. Ilhan Omar.
“Instead of taking action on the imminent threat of climate change, our leaders play political games,” Villasenor, Hirsi, and two other U.S. youth activists wrote recently in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, blasting politicians like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for fallacious arguments against the Green New Deal. “Because adults won’t take our future seriously, we, the youth, are forced to. And that is why we strike.”
Even before Friday, youth climate activism has been generating controversy. Actions by campaigns like the Sunrise Movement have pegged both political parties for recent protests. That’s peeved some adult Democrats who say targeting the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein — pro-environment, but not moving as fast as young activists would like — is unfair, especially when a straight-up climate denier is in the Oval Office.
Sabirah had her own “Feinstein moment” when she recently wrote to Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Pat Toomey about the Green New Deal, and got back a lengthy rejoinder about jobs and how much that fossil fuels pump into the state’s economy. (She posted some of Toomey’s response on Twitter.) Sabirah said she found the senator’s short-sighted view to be infuriating.
“I’m seeing people suffer, and you care about money,” Sabirah said, her voiced laced with the frustration of knowing that her generation will be dealing with the climate mess deep into the 21st century, long after the Pat Toomeys of the world are gone from center stage.
Indeed, those who chafe at the idea that children can change the world are ignorant of history, including recent events. In Birmingham in 1963, the protest marches against segregation and job discrimination led by Dr. Martin Luther King were initially going nowhere, with many black adults reluctant to join in and so-called white moderate preachers telling King his timing wasn’t right, prompting his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In the end, it took a Children’s Crusade of several thousand kids who didn’t want a segregated future to fill the jails, prompt the white supremacists to call on dogs and fire houses, and ultimately win the day.
Some 56 years later, we need a new Children’s Crusade to convince both oil-soaked patriarchs and the cowardly moderates of the 21st century that incrementalism to save the world’s livable climate is no longer morally acceptable. This late-stage Baby Boomer is ready for the solar-powered torch of leadership to pass to a new generation.