NEW YORK – On the ninth Friday of her strike, 13-year-old Alexandria Villasenor wakes to a dozen emails, scores of Twitter notifications, and good news from the other side of the planet: Students in China want to join her movement.
Every week since December last year, the seventh-grader has made a pilgrimage to the United Nations (UN) Headquarters demanding action on climate change. She is one of a cadre of young, fierce and mostly female activists behind the “school strikes for climate” movement.
On March 15, with the support of some of the world’s biggest environmental groups, tens of thousands of kids in at least two dozen countries and nearly 30 states in the United States (US) plan to skip school to protest.
Their demands are uncompromising: Nations must commit to cutting fossil-fuel emissions in half in the next 10 years to avoid catastrophic global warming.
And their message is firm: Kids are done waiting for adults to save their world.
“Mom, this is so cool,” Alexandria said, as she reads the latest list of countries where kids have pledged to participate in a global strike: Australia, Thailand, Ghana, France. “Where is Gir–, Girona?”
“That’s in Spain,” replies her mother, Kristin Hogue.
They sit on the couch, still in their pajamas, and Alexandria pulls out the planner she purchased to keep track of all her commitments. Each task is colour-coded by geographic scale: Pink for global organising. Orange for national. Yellow for New York.
First on the agenda is an interview with a reporter from the United Kingdom (UK), who seems caught off guard by the young woman’s fervour.
“My generation is really upset.” The deal struck at COP24, the UN climate meeting in December, was insufficient, she says. “We’re not going to let them . . . hand us down a broken planet.”
“Huh. Right,” the reporter says. “Big ambitions.”
Alexandria raises her eyebrows.
“Yeah,” she replies, confident.
Afterward, she changes into her striking uniform: waterproof ski pants and a down jacket, all in white, just like the congresswomen at the State of the Union and the suffragists of old. She packs her bag – planner, thermos, gloves – and grabs her plastic-encased cardboard signs, which read “SCHOOL STRIKE 4 CLIMATE” and “COP 24 FAILED US”.
She holds the signs facing inward so other commuters on the subway can’t see them. She doesn’t like it when people stare.
“They’ll probably think it’s just a science project,” Alexandria tells her mother. Then she laughs. “Well, technically it is. It’s project conservation. Project save the Earth.”
It’s been four months since Alexandria decided the Earth needed saving. Last year, during a visit with family in northern California, she was caught in the cloud of smoke from the Camp Fire, which killed nearly 100 people and filled the air with unbreathable smoke. The girl suffers from asthma, and for days afterward she felt physically ill and emotionally distraught.
This isn’t normal, she thought. This isn’t right.
She began to look up articles about the West’s historic drought, read reports about recent global temperature rise, asked her mother, a graduate student in the Climate and Society programme at Columbia University, to explain the drivers behind global warming. She joined the New York chapter of Zero Hour, a network of young American climate activists.
In December she watched as international negotiators met in Poland to carve out a plan for curbing carbon emissions. A recent UN report found that humanity has until 2030 – the year Alexandria turns 24 – to achieve “rapid and far-reaching” transformation of society if we wish to avoid the dire environmental consequences of warming 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Yet the agreement that was ultimately reached fell far short of what scientists say is urgently needed.
In the midst of all this, Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old from Sweden, took the podium.
“You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes,” the girl proclaimed to a room full of stunned adults. “We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not.”
Recalling that speech, Alexandria’s eyes light up. “She just put them in their place,” Alexandria says. “That was extremely satisfying.”
Alexandria searched Greta’s name online and found stories about the Swedish girl’s climate strike in front of her country’s Parliament building, then in its fourth month. Greta said she had been inspired by student activists from Parkland, Florida, who said they would not go back to school until gun-control legislation was passed. “I am too young to vote and to lobby,” she told The Washington Post this week. “But I can sit down with a sign and make my voice heard.”
Alexandria knew what she needed to do.
She made her first pilgrimage to the UN Headquarters on December 14. The next week she was back – with an umbrella. She has endured relentless rain and brutal wind off the East River (weeks three and four). She has braved the polar vortex that sent temperatures plummeting to 10 degrees (week eight).
Few of the New Yorkers bustling by ever stop to talk to her. And in her first eight weeks of striking, no one offered to join.
“But I stay motivated,” she says. “Of course. It’s my future on the line.”
Many of Alexandria’s friends are uninterested in her activism; their Instagram posts are more likely to show off a new outfit than a scene from a protest.
Alexandria doesn’t blame them – until a few months ago her life had also revolved around sleepovers and school plays. “I guess we’re still teenagers,” she says, shrugging.
But now she is switching to a private school that could accommodate her activism schedule and staying up all night talking to Thunberg and other kids from Australia, Uganda, the United Kingdom (UK). They are kindred spirits, internet-savvy teenage girls who can recite the results of the latest UN climate report and take pride in seeing through what Alexandria calls “the veil of money and lies” that seems to stall so many adults.
Together, they debate strategy and discuss going vegan. On their strike days, they trade tweets littered with heart emoji and cheer as the walkouts expand.
Adults who underestimate the movement do so at their own peril. Since late last year, strikes in European cities have regularly drawn tens of thousands of participants.
More than 15,000 people showed up for a strike in Australia – even after their prime minister urged them to be “less activist”.
When a Belgian environment minister suggested that the growing protests were a “setup” this month, she was forced to resign. The following day, 20,000 kids were back in the streets of Brussels.
That day, Alexandria shared an image of a Dutch protest on Twitter, alongside the declaration, “It’s coming to America. You haven’t seen anything yet.”
Alexandria has joined forces with Haven Coleman, a 12-year-old striker from Colorado, and Isra Hirsi, the 15-year-old daughter of Representative Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, to organise the US movement.
Offers of support began streaming in almost faster than the girls could respond.
The Executive Director of Greenpeace agreed to hand the group’s social media accounts over to students for the day of the strike.
The New York chapter of the Sunrise Movement, the grass-roots group advocating for the Green New Deal, offered to handle outreach for March 15. Prominent climate researchers including Michael Mann, Kathrine Hayhoe and Peter Kalmus followed the girls on Twitter and began to organise an open letter of support from scientists. Alexandria and her mother have been invited to attend a special briefing next week on the UN Climate Summit being held later this year.
“These kids go straight to the top, and the adults listen,” Hogue says.
“That’s because they see the opportunity of the strikes and what it will do as good as the next person,” Alexandria replies. “They see it.”
Still, even the 13-year-old is stunned by the momentum of the movement, which seems to have taken on a life of its own. Sometimes all she can do is watch the emails roll in and think, “Whoa. I did that.”
“That one down there is mine,” Alexandria says. She points to a bench about 100 feet from the UN visitor entrance, as close as she’s allowed to get to the protected building.
It’s raining – a persistent chilly drizzle – and the wind keeps blowing her posters down. But Alexandria is feeling good about the day. For the first time since she started her protest, she will have company later that day.
Hogue takes a photo to post to Twitter. Alexandria poses with her arms crossed and her hip tilted to the side, unsmiling. She is not here to look cute.
Then Hogue hugs her daughter and walks away. Since she began the strike nine weeks ago, Alexandria has been adamant about protesting on her own.
“This is about my generation,” the girl says.
After a few hours, the rain subsides and Alexandria’s first fellow protester appears. Stefanie Giglio, 31, is a freelance writer and activist who was trained as one of Al Gore’s ‘Climate Reality’ advocates.
Alexandria reaches out to shake the woman’s hand. “Thanks for coming,” she says.
They compare signs and commiserate about how much more radical Europeans are than Americans.
“I really believe in direct action,” Alexandria says.
“Yeah,” says Giglio. “It’s great that your parents are OK with this.”
The 13-year-old nods. She has friends elsewhere in the city whose parents won’t let them skip school to protest.
“They’re so dependent on school,” Alexandria says. “Like, I need to go to school to get the education for the job that’s definitely going to be there in 10 years.”
She raises her eyebrows again.
“If I don’t have a future, why go to school? Why go to school if we’re going to be too focussed on running from disasters? Striking has to be the way.”
Two blocks away, in the coffee shop where she usually waits out the protest, Hogue monitors Alexandria’s Twitter feed and tries not to feel guilty for leaving her daughter out there alone.
The comments online don’t help. For all the strangers on the internet who call Alexandria an inspiration, there are still people who tweet “YOU’RE A MORON” and “Go back to school!” and threaten to “come down there and teach you a real lesson about climate change.”
Hogue blocks the worst offenders before the 7th-grader can see their messages. But there’s not much else she can do. When she went to the New York Police Department’s 17th precinct to file a report, officials told her they could only respond to concrete threats.
And every week, Alexandria insists on returning to her post.
“I have to let her make her own choices,” Hogue says. “This is what she wants.”
She recalls their first honest conversation about climate change, when Alexandria was nine or 10, and Hogue was reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring for a college literature class.
The girl asked what the book was about. So Hogue told her of Carson’s crusade against pesticides that killed birds and poisoned streams, how one woman speaking out led to the rise of environmentalism and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. That led to conversations about pollution and sea-level rise, about Alexandria’s asthma and California drought – all the ways humans are still suffering today from the changes we’ve made to our planet.
“She seemed mad,” Hogue said. “’Don’t they know?’ she kept asking. And I said yes. And she was like, ‘Well, then why do they do it?’”
Hogue realised this was a truth from which she could no longer protect her daughter, just as she couldn’t protect her from the pollutants that irritated her lungs.
It doesn’t matter to them, she explained. Too many people will do what benefits them in the moment, even if it hurts others in the long run.
“She just couldn’t understand how people could knowingly do that to the planet,” Hogue said. “I think, sitting out there right now, she still doesn’t understand.”
But maybe, Hogue thinks, that’s exactly what makes Alexandria and her friends so formidable.
The next day, a Saturday, Alexandria’s chapter of Zero Hour huddles in a meeting room on the Columbia University campus to discuss plans for the global strike. The other kids are all in high school, but Alexandria is the clear leader of this gathering.
“Here’s today’s schedule,” she says. “First Peter de Menocal is going to be giving a presentation on the latest climate science. Peter -” she looks toward the lone adult in the room, “are you ready?”
Dean of Science for Columbia De Menocal stands and calls up the slide show he usually gives to graduate students. “Alexandria asked me to give you my worst,” he says.
He displays a graph of future emissions scenarios. A blue curve depicts the path recommended by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which would limit warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. “Business as usual” is shown in red – a line that just keeps going up.
“This is all that stuff you guys are fighting for,” de Menocal says. “If you don’t fight for it, we own those red pathways.”
Alexandria knows this story. It’s the one that climate researchers have been telling for nearly 40 years, to little effect.
Humans keep emitting greenhouse gases, temperatures keep rising, and the outlook for the future keeps growing more and more bleak.
When Alexandria tries to envision her own adulthood, she sees only “what ifs” – What if a wildfire destroys her family’s home in California? What if there are food shortages, or illnesses, or floods?
But all those hours of organising, all those days sitting in front of the UN, “It helps,” she says. “It makes me feel like I have power. Like I can make some kind of change.”
His presentation done, de Menocal hands the clicker over and Alexandria straightens in her chair. “OK,” she says. “Here’s the update.”
The professor leans forward as the 13-year-old launches into a description of the global strike – all the support it has, all the attention it has received.
In 30 years of studying climate, in all his uncountable hours of attempting to convey the scope of the crisis, he has rarely felt so humbled, he says – or so filled with hope.
“Do you have a statement I can read somewhere?” he asks.
“Sure,” Alexandria says. “We have a mission statement and a media advisory on our website.”
De Menocal mouths “wow” and turns around to give the girl’s mother an amazed grin. Afterward, he pulls Alexandria aside.
“Thank you for what you’re doing,” he says, shaking her hand. “Thank you so much. What can I do to help?”
She tells him about the scientists who are writing a letter of support and suggests that he get involved.
“He can organise the adults,” she says later.
“We’re ready for them now.” – Text & Photos by The Washington Post