As Kaliko Teruya was coming home from her hula lesson on August 8, her father called. The apartment in Lahaina was gone, he said, and he was running for his life.
He was trying to escape the deadliest American wildfire in more than a century, an inferno in Hawaii fueled by powerful winds from a faraway hurricane and barely hindered by the state’s weak defences against natural disasters.
Her father survived. But for Kaliko, 13, the destruction of the past week has reinforced her commitment to a cause that is coming to define her generation.
“The fire was made so much worse due to climate change,” she said. “How many more natural disasters have to happen before grown-ups realise the urgency?”
Like a growing number of young people, Kaliko is engaged in efforts to raise awareness about global warming and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, last year she and 13 other young people, aged 9 to 18, sued their home state, Hawaii, over its use of fossil fuels.
With active lawsuits in five states, TikTok videos that mix humour and outrage, and marches in the streets, it’s a movement that is seeking to shape policy, sway elections and shift a narrative that its proponents say too often emphasises climate catastrophes instead of the need to make the planet healthier and cleaner.
Young climate activists in the US have not yet had the same impact as their counterparts in Europe, where Greta Thunberg has galvanised a generation. But during a summer of record heat, choking wildfire smoke and now a hurricane bearing down on Los Angeles, American teenagers and twenty-somethings concerned about the planet are increasingly being taken seriously.
“We see what’s happening with climate change, and how it affects everything else,” said Elise Joshi, 21, the executive director of Gen-Z for Change, an organisation she joined while she was in college. “We’re experiencing a mix of anger and fear, and we’re finally channelling it into hope in the form of collective action.”
The youth vote’s mounting frustration with the Biden administration’s climate agenda is a wild card factor in next year’s presidential race. They are particularly livid that President Biden, who pledged “no more drilling on federal lands, period”, during his campaign, has failed to make good on that promise.
Young people are helping organise a climate march in New York next month, during the United Nations General Assembly. And their force is being felt even in deep-red states like Montana, where a judge on Monday handed the movement its biggest victory to date, ruling in favour of 16 young people who had sued the state over its support for the fossil fuel industry.
In that case, a lengthy fight resulted in a surprise victory that means, at least for now, that the state must consider potential climate damage when approving energy projects.
“The fact that kids are taking this action is incredible,” said Badge Busse, 15, one of the plaintiffs in the Montana case. “But it’s sad that it had to come to us. We’re the last resort.”
That mix of pride and exasperation is not uncommon among young climate activists. Many are energised by what they see as the fight of their lives, but also resentful that adults haven’t seriously confronted a problem that has been well-understood for decades now.
“Do you think I really want to be on a stand saying, like, ‘I don’t have a future’,” said Mesina DiGrazia-Roberts, 16, another of the plaintiffs in the Hawaii case, who lives on Oahu. “As a 16-year-old who just wants to live my life and hang out with my friends and eat good food, I don’t want to be doing that. And yet I am, because I care about this world. I care about the Earth and care about my family. I care about my future children.”
In the Hawaii case, the youths have sued the state’s department of transportation over its use of fossil fuels, arguing that it violates their “right to a clean and healthful environment”, which is enshrined in the state Constitution. A judge has set a trial date for next year.
A nonprofit legal organisation called Our Children’s Trust is behind the Montana and Hawaii cases, as well as active litigation in three other states. A similar case it brought in federal court, Juliana v. US, was thrown out by an appeals court in 2020, days before it was set to go to trial. But in June, a different judge ruled the case could once again proceed toward trial.
New York Times News Service