Tens of thousands of children, teenagers and young adults marched in the streets of Glasgow on Friday, the fifth day of COP26, the U.N. climate conference. Carrying banners and chanting slogans, they sent a message to delegates inside the city’s conference center about what’s at stake in these complex, technical and fraught negotiations between 196 countries: their lives.
Today’s young people are coming of age just as the stable climate that has allowed previous generations to thrive on our planet begins to visibly break down—and just before our last chance to stop it falls out of reach.
The situation has inspired millions of them to protest in recent years, and particularly since 2018, when the school strikes started by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, now 18, began to spread across the globe. Thousands of young activists began organizing their own strikes under the umbrella Fridays for Future, including Disha Ravi in India and Xiye Bastida in the U.S.
Activists have tried to make a difference at scales large and small. Some have set up local activist groups to push environmental action in their communities, and others have used social media to coordinate action against polluting businesses. They are united by a common goal: a rapid transformation of societies and economies to protect people and nature from the worst consequences of climate change.
“When you have young people who are confronted with not having a future at all, of course this is going to radicalize a whole generation,” says Nyke Slawik, a 27 year-old member of the Germany Green party, who was elected to serve in Germany’s parliament in September. “This is a question of survival.”
Generation Now, a TIME documentary that premiered today at the UN summit, tells the story of that youth climate movement and how it has revolutionized the way both politicians and the media speak about climate change. The question, activists say, is has their movement been enough to change how we act?
“Leaders keep praising young people for standing up and protesting,” says Vanessa Nakate, the 24-year-old Ugandan climate activist who appeared on the cover of TIME in October. “But saving the world needs decisions from the leaders. Decisions that prioritize the lives of the people and the planet. And that is not something that we are doing.”
The proof will come not only at COP26 but also in the weeks and months after, when governments take the pledges made at the summit—on cutting out coal financing, reducing methane emissions, ending deforestation and more—back to their home countries, and try to pass the policies and funding packages needed to meet them. Young people, you can rest assured, will be watching.
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