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How youth-led protests are shifting the climate change conversation

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How youth-led protests are shifting the climate change conversation
How youth-led protests are shifting the climate change conversation

It’s a slightly chilly overcast day as roughly a dozen protesters huddle outside of the Royal Bank of Canada in downtown Calgary — the heart of our country's oil and gas headquarters — for the latest Global Climate Strike on March 25.

With prompts on their phones, the dedicated climate advocates cycle through clever chants they’ve obviously used in the past, picking up steam with each new round.

“It’s time to act on scientific fact.”

“Climate change is not a lie, please don’t let our planet die.”

“What do we want: divestment. When do we want it: now,” the youth shouted.

It’s the third year that these mostly youth-led protests inspired by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future initiative have been popping up on streets in front of government and corporate buildings around the world, calling on those behind the walls inside to put people before profits. Thunberg famously asked other youth to follow in her footsteps and skip school to make their voices heard.

Since that day there have been worldwide events — some held every few months, some held each Friday — that have attracted droves of people or sometimes just a handful of dedicated climate activists. One of the biggest events was held in September 2019 that brought out millions of people around the world.

It was one of those small events that inspired a then 14-year-old Mackenzie Cumming to raise her voice in support of climate action in 2019, and later participate as an organizer.

“I thought, hey, this is a way I can make change,” she told the Weather Network.

“It's really, really scary to not know what your future holds. Not even just about what I want to do, but if that future exists. And that’s something that’s hard to grapple with, particularly in a pandemic. I struggled with that a lot in 2020 — just that unknown.”

But since then, Cumming and other youth feel they are making a difference.

Part of this impact is legal action as noted by the Guardian who recently reported that 16 young people are suing the state of Montana for its lack of climate action in “what will be the first youth-led climate case to make it to trial.”

Here in Canada, seven young Ontarians launched a legal challenge with help from Ecojustice over the Ontario government’s decision to weaken the province’s 2030 climate targets claiming it “violated their charter rights to life, liberty, and security of the person.”

youth protest (Rachel Maclean)
youth protest (Rachel Maclean)

Mackenzie Cumming has taken on an organizing role for Fridays for Future Calgary after initially being drawn to the protest because she wanted to do something about what she calls climate grief, or how the weight of the climate crisis weighs heavily on some. (Rachel Maclean)

On the youthful protests Cumming says the reason they targeted RBC on March 25 was they wanted to deliver a letter asking the bank to divest its fossil fuel interests.

“We had a huge shift in the dial in 2019 with the big September protests. Climate has become a household conversation. Now it's up to us … to keep holding space. Truly make sure the climate remains a topic of conversations and to put pressure on companies, like RBC,” Cumming said.

Banks are part of a huge industry that invests billions each year, she said, and it’s now part of their strategy to lobby against the money behind the oil and gas.

“We've now expanded to being a little bit more specific in our demands,” she continued.

But transparency is an issue. Canada’s banks and energy companies aren’t lining up to share the financial risks that climate change puts on their businesses, reported The Narwhal after they combed through 130 “yawn-worthy” documents of financial disclosures. Their investigation found dozens of publicly traded companies are lobbying against proposed rules that would force them to become more accountable and transparent about their finances.

Beyond transparency, pressure is needed too, says the youthful Cumming.

“We simply cannot tackle climate change without tackling fossil fuels,” she said.


Ditching oil and gas is not an easy sell in Calgary. In just 20 minutes at the March 25 protest, two angry oil and gas supporters approached with their own take yet the youth chanting continued.

Resolutions around climate solutions are indeed polarized.

“We've always seen, whenever there is instability in society, people reach for these unhealthy forms of control and certainty — whether or not that's extremist ideologies, extremist theologies, conspiracy theories, rejectionism — that's all part and parcel of societies under stress,” Holman told The Weather Network.

And we are a society under stress right now, Holman says, adding there's a huge amount of resistance these protests have to overcome — and a rapidly disappearing timeline. Yet Holman believes the youth-led protests are keeping climate change on everyone’s radar, but questions whether it will happen fast enough to make a difference. He also says there’s been a lack of response from many in politics.

toronto climate protest (Shawn Goldberg/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
toronto climate protest (Shawn Goldberg/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Thousands marched in the city of Toronto during a Friday for Future demonstration in 2019 to raise awareness of the climate change issues. (Shawn Goldberg/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“The real value of these protests is the creation of those communities that didn't otherwise previously exist,” Holman said. “Being able to feel that they're not alone in these concerns, and being able to find commonality among one another.”

Holman expects to see more people come out to protest as reality sets in to demand solutions.

“We are in an era of climate change right now. That's in the present tense, not the future tense,” Holman continued. “And we do know that over the next 30 years, climate change is pretty locked in — in this country and around the world. And we're going to need better communities than we have right now to withstand the forces that we're going to be confronting as a result of climate change.”


Concern around climate change is at an all time high in Canada, says Climate Access executive director Cara Pike. The non-profit recently translated roughly 60 public and private surveys published between 2021 and early 2022 for key trends for an April 13 event about climate and energy in today’s geopolitical landscape.

“The global youth movement was really having an impact and elevating the issue at the community level, but also in the media. So we did a look at how climate change was being covered in the media in 2020. And one of the main messengers was Greta Thunberg, you know, in Canada — like that was who was in the media influencing the debate,” said Pike. “So I think it's very important. We know that younger Canadians have higher levels of climate concern, and want to see the solutions at a higher level as well. So that's really, really key. But there's also a role that youth play in terms of influencing their families.”

Mark Hertsgaard, the co-founder and executive director of Covering Climate Now based out of San Francisco and environmental correspondent for The Nation magazine, agrees the international Fridays For Future climate movement is not only helping garner public attention, but critical media attention as well; the Media and Climate Change Observatory (MeCCO) found “2021 was the year with the highest amount of coverage of climate change or global warming since our global-level monitoring began 18 years ago in 2004.”

Hertsgaard says that coverage does help when it comes to exerting pressure on governments to actually make changes when it comes to climate policy — even though many are still resistant to take immediate action.

Mark Hertsgaard, who has covered the climate story for more than 30 years now, was one of the first in America to write a cover story on Greta Thunberg in the early days before she became a household name.

Mark Hertsgaard with magazine of Greta Thunberg (Rachel Maclean)
Mark Hertsgaard with magazine of Greta Thunberg (Rachel Maclean)

Mark Hertsgaard, who has covered the climate story for more than 30 years now, was one of the first in America to write a cover story on Greta Thunberg in the early days before she became a household name. (The Weather Network)

“It’s partly because we live in a social media era, but I think it’s also because [the youth] are much more impatient to see real change happen,” said Hertsgaard, adding the protests in September 2019 were a real game changer.

Moreover, Hertsgaard says journalists should be covering the activists as newsmakers — just as they would a politician or CEO.

“When you put six million people in the streets, and you force governments to do things, that defines you as a newsmaker,” said Hertsgaard.

“Our role is to look at what's going on in society, reflect that back to society, hopefully, with some context and so forth and hold people to account,” he continued.

Thumbnail credit: Rachel Maclean