If you don’t know who Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg is, you can think of her as an international climate-change counterpart to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Like the rock-star congresswoman from New York, Thunberg is a charismatic young woman whose social-media savvy, moral clarity, and fearless speaking truth to power have inspired throngs of admirers to take to the streets for a better world and call out the politicians and CEOs who are standing in the way.
Ocasio-Cortez, 29, is known for championing the #GreenNewDeal and schooling right-wing haters on Twitter. Thunberg, 16, is known for launching the #SchoolStrike4Climate movement—tens of thousands of high-school students worldwide are skipping school on Fridays until their governments treat the climate crisis as an emergency—and for torching billionaires and heads of state at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week.
Demolishing the convenient notion that we are all to blame for climate change, Thunberg told a Davos panel that included president Trump’s former chief economics adviser Gary Cohn, “Some people, some companies, some decision makers in particular have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money.” She paused before a final thrust of the knife: “I think many of you here today belong to that group of people.”
Call them the Climate Kids. Like Ocasio-Cortez and Thunberg themselves, the grassroots activist movements they have roused are comprised almost exclusively of teenagers and twentysomethings. These are not your father’s environmentalists: supplicant, “realistic,” and accepting of failure. These young people are angry about the increasingly dire climate future awaiting them and clear-eyed about who’s to blame and how to fix it. And they seem to have the bad guys worried.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” said Frederick Douglass during the fight against slavery. “It never has and it never will.” It’s their understanding of this fundamental theory of social change that makes Thunberg, Ocasio-Cortez and all the Climate Kids so effective and exciting. They grasp what many of their elders apparently never learned: that the climate struggle is about power—not having the best science, or the smartest arguments, or the most bipartisan talking points, but power. Specifically, it’s about the power Exxon and the rest of the fossil-fuel industry have over governments and economies the world over, and the industry’s willingness to use that power to enforce a business model that is guaranteed to fry the planet. With the moral absolutism of youth and the self-preservation instinct of all living things, the Climate Kids recognize that either the industry goes or they do. And they are not going down without a fight.
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