As I walked toward United Nations Plaza, I noted the quiet surrounding the bench Alexandria Villaseñor was sitting on. Every Friday for the last 16 weeks, wrapped up in her sleeping bag on particularly icy days, the 13-year-old has planted herself here to protest government inaction about climate change.
Like many activitsts, Alexandria has a personal reason for demanding change. She is originally from California, and while she was visiting family there last summer, wildefires in the state killed at least 48 people, and caused air pollution to reach hazardous levels. According to a 2018 government report, global warming is making blazes like these more frequent and more destructive.
“I have asthma, so we had to cut our trip short. I actually couldn’t go outside for a couple of days,” Alexandria says.
After that, she started following other teen climate activists on social media. One of them in Nigeria, reported experiencing mass heat waves. “Floods are sweeping away their crops,” Alexandria says. “Hearing stories like this from all around the world and learning that it’s not just California made me realize the scale of climate change and how it affects everyone.”
The Time to Act Is Now
She joined a few activist groups in New York that were “meeting but not acting,” she says. Around that time, she began following Greta Thunberg, the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated Swedish student who started the school strike movement last year. At the time of this interview, Thunberg had been protesting in front of the Swedish Parliament for 32 weeks, refusing to attend school to protest adults’ lack of concern for her future.
“She was so cool,” Alexandria says. “I saw her speak at the climate change summit of almost 200 nations in Katowice, Poland when she told all the world leaders that they were acting like children and that change is coming whether they like it or not. Then she had her call to action and that’s why I decided to strike too.”
She began skipping school and coming to the U.N. Plaza every Friday with a sign that says “School Strike 4 CLIMATE.”
Then Thunberg called for a global school strike on March 15. In response, 1.6 million young people in 125 countries left their classes to protest for action on climate change. Alexandria was at the center of the demonstration in New York, speaking outside both the United Nations and City Hall. She helped organize a “die-in,” a kind of protest where demonstrators pretend to be dead, in front of the United Nations. Fifty students lay down in front of the steps of the building.
“The security guards didn’t know what to do because they didn’t want to arrest children,” Alexandria says.
Afterwards, the group joined thousands of New York City high schoolers protesting at Columbus Circle.
Alexandria’s parents support her decision to skip school to protest, but she acknowledges not all parents will say OK to this. She suggests teen activists try to get teachers on their side. “If you get your teachers to support you, your parents may agree,” she says. “I know kids who have written to their principals explaining why they want to strike and then gotten permission.”
Never Too Young to Make a Difference
Although teen protesters have gained the attention of journalists and politicians, Alexandria says the U.S. lags behind other countries when it comes to actually acting on climate change. The movement has achieved more in Europe; in Germany, a strike by schoolchildren helped get their government to agree to end coal energy usage by 2038.
“Here a lot of students are unaware of climate change because it’s not taught in school,” Alexandria says. When it comes to conserving energy and caring for the environment, “all we’re taught is to recycle and turn off the lights.”
She says individual efforts like this are helpful, but they’re not enough. A 2017 study found that 71% of carbon emissions come from just 100 companies around the world. Alexandria believes “governments need to step in to stop them.”
A few days before I met with Alexandria, Cyclone Idai hit the African nation of Mozambique, displacing hundreds of thousands of people. Yet the Western press barely covered it. “There has to be more empathy here and in other developed nations,” she says. “Climate change is affecting the poorer countries that haven’t even caused it.”
Planet Before Profit
As we talked, I found that Alexandria and I had similar views. I’m also angry that the politicians in power do not seem to care about climate change. They accept thousands of dollars in campaign donations from companies that contribute to climate change, like ExxonMobil, while hoping someone else will step in and save the planet.
Data from NASA has shown the past five years to be the warmest on record. And a report last year by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that without aggressive action, the world will face worsening wildfires, food shortages, and other catastrophic effects as early as 2040.
But Alexandria’s U.N. action is helping to spark change. The day I met her, she was getting ready to speak to the U.N. Roundtable Climate Summit, and a few days earlier she had been invited by the Emerging Markets Investors Alliance to speak on Wall Street about environmentally sound investment opportunities.
We started talking about politicians again. As our generation reaches voting age, more environmentally aware leaders are being elected, such as New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But until she can cast a ballot, Alexandria Villaseñor is going to continue her protest. “Striking is a way for us to send a message and have a voice,” she says.