Old Enough to Save the Planet: Young Activists Lead the Fight for Climate Change

By: Frances M. Rivera Reyes, Associate Editor

In this era of social media, distinguished by information overflow, young people have surprised the established system by taking leadership roles traditionally held by nation leaders. Children like Greta Thunberg have made headlines for initiating worldwide movements and expressing blunt frustration with the lack of urgency world leaders have shown in matters that will mainly affect newer generations.  Adolescents like Thunberg are paving the way for the growth of movements such as the fight against climate change.

Last week, a group of sixteen children ages 8 to 17, including Thunberg, filed a complaint with the United Nations against five of the largest carbon polluters in the world: Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey.  The announcement came just as the United Nations hosted the Climate Action Summit in New York City.  The children argue the countries have failed to comply with their obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The 30-year-old human rights treaty that establishes civil, political, health and other rights of children.  Currently, the treaty has been ratified by 196 nations, excluding the United States and China, the largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.  Because these two countries have not ratified the portion of the treaty that allows children to seek justice for potential violation, they cannot be included in the claim and be held in violation of the Convention.

The claim made against these countries’ governments states they have been knowingly violating children’s human rights by failing to adequately take action to prevent the deadly and foreseeable consequences of the current climate crisis.  Specifically, each country is accused of making inadequate pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Their actions, or lack thereof, have allegedly endangered the well-being of both present and future generations. The complaint asserts that current issues like extreme weather, floods, wildfires, sea-level rise, spread of mosquito-borne disease, water shortages, and poor air quality severely hinder the population’s right to life, health, and peace.  It also highlights the negative effects climate change has on the mental health of children. The claimants went as far as inviting world leaders to visit their homes and witness firsthand the effects of climate change.

The goal of the young activists is not to receive monetary compensation.  They want action. If successful, the suit would force countries to immediately adjust their climate policies and work together to fight the current crisis.

This is not the first time youth have taken a stand against governmental powers in an effort to defend their rights and their futures. In Juliana v United States, a group of 21 people, ages 12 to 23, from ten different states sued the United States government for violating their constitutional rights by knowingly contributing to climate change.  The young people argued they were already suffering health problems, extreme weather, and water shortages, and would continue to suffer consequences unless the government took action.  Their goal was also to achieve policy changes and cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

Legal actions led by young activists have also taken place in Belgium, Uganda, India and Norway.  In Pakistan, a 7-year-old alleged in front of the Supreme Court that his constitutional rights were violated through the country’s use of fossil fuels.  Meanwhile, 25 young people in Colombia won a ruling from the Supreme Court ordering the government to restrict Amazon deforestation.

These suits would seem to suggest a shift in societal norms, away from the days of traditional families and absolute obedience to the status quo. Younger generations are informed, fearless, and passionate.  They are not afraid to stand in front of the leaders of the most powerful nations in the world, nor to criticize them. What some may call “immature or rebellious,” others consider a signal of hope for change.


Gabriella Borter, Young Climate Activists Accuse World Leaders of Violating Child Rights Through Inaction, Reuters (Sept. 23, 2019), available athttps://www.reuters.com/article/us-climate-change-un-complaint/young-climate-activists-accuse-world-leaders-of-violating-child-rights-through-inaction-idUSKBN1W82AS

Drew Kann, Greta Thunberg and 15 Other Children Filed a Complaint Against Five Countries Over the Climate Crisis, CNN Digital (Sept. 23, 2019), available athttps://www.cnn.com/2019/09/23/world/united-nations-greta-thunberg-children-climate-change-human-rights-complaint/index.html

Aylin Woodward and Morgan McFall-Johnsen, Greta Thunberg and 15 Other Kids Have Filed a Legal Complaint Against 5 Countries, Joining a Growing Group of Young People Bringing the Climate Fight to Court,  (Sept. 25, 2019), available athttps://www.businessinsider.com/greta-thunberg-youth-file-legal-climate-complaint-unicef-2019-9

Convention on the Rights of the Child, Nov. 20, 1989, 1577 U.N.T.S. 3, available athttps://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx

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