Youthful protesters are putting a face on climate change, helping to personalize an issue often seen as abstract. And some mainstream news outlets appear to be taking notice.

College students across the country have long been staging protests around environmental and global warming issues. Some actions have been spotlighted in various media reports, but most have gone little-noticed.

Among jaded political operatives and hard-edged reporters used to having seen it all, such activism often has been discounted as the product of youthful idealism and high spirits — a “phase” that college students since the 1960s have traversed before collecting their diplomas and moving on to the politically tame and tepid rhythms of mainstream American life.

But are new dynamics now at work?

Swarthmore senior sees protesters gaining ‘growing respect’ from mainstream media

Take the experiences of Sachie Hopkins Hayakawa, a 22-year-old senior at Swarthmore College in the Philadelphia suburbs. She helped start the college campus “divestment” campaign — focused on getting university endowments to withdraw from their investments in fossil fuel interests — that has now spread to hundreds of other schools. In years past, many of her campus predecessors have tried all sorts of activist tactics around environmental issues, usually without garnering media attention. The mainstream media have often been viewed as just another part of the status quo establishment, as quasi-enemy — part of the problem, not part of the solution.

But Hayakawa has had an altogether different experience.

“I think there is definitely a growing respect within mainstream media for youth climate activism,” she told The Yale Forum. “At Swarthmore, we have had The New York Times and CBS News come to campus to cover the work that we are doing, and I had nothing but a positive experience in working with them.”

News Analysis

News Norms and Making Coverage Easier

There’s a sense of a palpable change over the past 18 months or so in both climate activism and mainstream media coverage of it. Though it is difficult to pinpoint a historical shift precisely in real time, evidence to that effect appears to be getting stronger.

One possible explanation for those changes may lie in the increasing skill with which climate activists are deploying digital media and creating alternative media channels and their own narratives. Such shifts can incrementally move the larger news agenda.

But part of the explanation no doubt lies also in the fact that climate activism goes beyond just targeting United Nations or Washington policymakers with demands about emissions goals or regulatory structures. New tactics are being deployed even as youths continue to play an activist role at the international level. (For a sense of youth activism on the global stage, see Adam Greenberg’s opinion piece for the Boston Globe; or the activities of young people like Anjali Appadurai.)

Some climate activists are, in a sense, making climate easier for those in the media to cover, leading reporters and editors out of potential “false balance” territory — battles over nuances of science and policy — and giving them real action, with real visuals, to cover. Both the Keystone XL pipeline protests and the divestment campaign, for instance, have a concrete nature that fits into what communications scholars identify as traditional media “frames.” These protests also are being pursued in a more systematic way, building momentum, action by action, over time.

The XL pipeline protests, for instance, focus attention on stopping a particular development project. It’s a dynamic that has analogies throughout American history, running from innumerable local NIMBY zoning disputes to grander, consciousness-raising battles like that waged by Jane Jacobs in New York City to save historical communities. It is worth noting that in the first round of Keystone protests at the White House, in late 2011, there were huge holes in the mainstream media coverage, and many of the big environmental organizations did not even participate. That has all changed, as illustrated by the February 2013 “Forward on Climate” rally.

The campus divestment campaign, of course, directly echoes the Anti-Apartheid campus movement of the 1980s, which garnered substantial media attention and put intense pressure on policymakers. In other words, there’s an established news frame that it fits; and success for the effort seems plausible given the historical precedent.

Media, NGO Responses to Generation Y

Young activists also are using more nonviolent direct-action tactics, fitting better into what Boston College sociologist William Gamson has called “norms of newsworthiness.” As has been noted before, the civil rights movement — frequently invoked by climate activists as a model and analogous movement — succeeded in part by in effect “training” the news media to cover its causes, helping to create a specific newsroom beat.

But Gamson told The Yale Forum there are also important differences between the two movements. “Civil disobedience and non-violent actions of the sort carried out by the civil rights movement may contain useful examples [for climate activists] to build upon,” he said. “On the other hand, there are less obvious and publicly visible perpetrators as targets. The targets are much more elusive than in the civil rights movement, and the acts of injustice that created righteous [climate] indignation are less blatant. This is a big difference in terms of mobilization and broadening the scope of conflict.”

Young activists are well aware of what may command the public spotlight. “As individual campaigns begin to escalate and use direct action, I believe the news media will become even more interested,” Hayakawa notes. “The notion that young people are making a claim to their futures and taking a seat at the table is very compelling. My hope is that we can continue preventing climate silence from taking over by making noise in mainstream media.”

Climate divestment action at Swarthmore College, February 2013 (Source:

Of course, national and regional organizations such as and Better Future Project have now developed the training infrastructure and networks to build higher numbers of disciplined, skilled activists beyond just traditional environmental groups. On campus, there’s also Students for a Just and Sustainable Future and Divest for Our Future as parts of an interlocking divestment campaign.

New Dynamics of Youth Activism

“Old-line” nongovernmental organizations such as the Sierra Club are modifying their policies and tactics in part to accommodate these new directions, expectations, and energies. At the February 2013 rally in Washington, D.C., Sierra Club officials took what they characterize as unprecedented action in participating in civil disobedience, and the club’s president and executive director were among those arrested … and proud of it. That kind of institutional muscle can put crucial support behind these previously “rag-tag” protesters, creating a virtuous cycle that benefits grassroots activists. In addition, mainstream NGO support can help attract the attention of mainstream journalists, as Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin suggested in a recent talk. That boost from mainstream interests also serves to validate further coverage for skeptical news editors and managers otherwise inclined to see just another pie-in-the-sky protest.

University of Washington political scientist Lance Bennett, an expert in social movement theory, notes efforts to adapt to new generational norms around activism. “Many young citizens,” he told The Yale Forum, “increasingly feel that there are so many problems that having one demand or joining one organization does not address the array of interrelated problems they face.” Research on new youth activism consistently supports the idea that there are new dynamics, Bennett says:

Many old line NGOs are getting this message and joining in large loosely linked networks with other organizations to link different issues and appeal to young citizens in highly personalized ways. Large networks of environmental and economic justice NGOs have joined in efforts to deploy attractive digital media environments that invite people to define comfortable ways to get involved. Recruitment to action in this more personalized style typically does not entail invitations from veteran members of organizations, as often happened in the civil rights movement.

Bennett contends that activism among Millennials differs from that of previous generations and should be distinguished from the “new social movements” of the 1960s, with their emphasis on “identity politics.”

“Increasing numbers of young people prefer direct action that does not require the levels of collective identification or formal membership that movement organizers often deem important for committed action,” he notes. “Many protests on the contemporary scene mix different causes, tactics and commitment levels, enabling young people to move in and out of actions with relative ease.”

At any rate, academic researchers, as in a 2009 study “Mobilizing Friends and Strangers,” have found that Internet use and engagement affects how people subsequently mobilize and participate in offline, real-world protests. That study, which examined “Step It Up” climate protesters, found that people tended to show up alone, as opposed to with friends, when they originally heard about the action on the Internet versus through people or organizations. Researchers Dana R. Fisher and Marije Boekkooi conclude that “as social movements and political campaigns increasingly mobilize participants through computer-mediated forms of communication, effort will be needed to integrate disconnected sympathizers into the movement to maintain a local presence.”

As Immigration is to Latinos, Climate is to Millennials?

Given the widely acknowledged power of the youth vote — Millennials, or Generation Y — in the past two presidential election cycles, it comes as no surprise that the powers-that-be are already calculating the meaning of this coming tide over the next decade.

Writing for Atlantic Media’s new digital outlet “Quartz,” veteran political journalist Ron Brownstein offers insights into how some political activists are beginning to see a long-term advantage in the climate issue:

One senior Obama adviser said the White House now believes that forcing the GOP to debate the issue will benefit Democrats politically by creating hurdles for the GOP with younger voters. “Republicans will eventually realize their position on climate for young people is the equivalent of their position on immigration for Latinos,” said the adviser.

Better Future Project Executive Director Craig Altemose told The Yale Forum that he sees the generational issue this way:

They talk about an entire generation of young people who became Republicans under the Reagan years. I regularly run into Apartheid-era activists for whom that was a defining point in their life. When you are fighting for your life, for the lives and well being of your friends, family, and future children, that is absolutely a defining experience. People of my generation are already living more simply, driving less, consuming less, etc, and are more likely to vote for candidates who care about our climate and our long-term survival. This will only increase in intensity and quantity as the climate continues to change for the worse.

Some older climate activists, many with extensive media experience, have relied on this youthful energy and harnessed it — and have framed the climate movement around the idea that these young people are being handed “our” crisis, to which they have no choice but to respond.

It’s a powerful frame, striking deep chords about care for our children and making political change seem a kind of natural force, an inevitable generational shift.

“No question that climate is the issue for this generation of young people,” founder Bill McKibben told The Yale Forum in an e-mail. “As well it should be. Look, I’m going to be dead right about the time it hits in full force. But those lines on the charts of rising temperatures and sea levels will run right over the lives of people now in college. That’s why we’ve seen this mushrooming divestment movement in the last ten weeks, now at 256 campuses and counting!”

Wen Stephenson, another media member turned activist writer, has written at both the Boston Phoenix and at about what he sees as this younger generation’s bravery and admirable willingness to participate in civil disobedience — even labeling them the “New Abolitionists.”

The Hard Numbers Behind Millennials and Climate

Existing survey data and research on Millennials suggest that there are larger shifts at work for this generation, though they are not always decisive.

It should first be acknowledged that earlier snapshots of opinion come with a caveat. U.S. public sentiment of late has been shifting in the direction of increased concern over global warming and increased support for addressing climate change, as both Duke’s Nicholas Institute 2013 survey and Yale/George Mason’s latest “Six Americas” report indicate.

That said, a Pew Research Center report, “The Generation Gap and the 2012 Election,” found that, among all American generations, Millennials had the highest rate of belief in global warming (64 percent, compared to 55 percent among Baby Boomers). Compared to the “Silent” generation — those who reached adulthood between the late 1940s and early 1960s — Millennials were nearly twice as likely to believe that warming is mostly caused by human activity.

But these numbers have been fluid over the years: In 2006, 80 percent of Millennials told Pew that Earth was warming; that figure then dropped 16 points over the succeeding five years.

A March 2010 survey conducted by American University, Yale, and George Mason found that “contrary to conventional wisdom,” young citizens generally are “split on the issue of global warming and, on some indicators, relatively disengaged when compared to older generations.”

Another survey, the Harvard Institute of Politics poll conducted in March-April 2012, sampled about 3,100 people ages 18 to 29 and had an error margin of 1.7 percent and found that younger citizens are not always willing to make perceived tradeoffs to address climate change. Asked whether or not they agreed with the statement “Government should do more to curb climate change, even at the expense of economic growth,” only 28 percent agreed — a figure virtually unchanged from 2010. At any rate, the Harvard polling confirms that Millennials often do not affiliate with traditional political organizations or see their values reflected in them, with only 16 percent considering themselves strong Democrats and 10 percent strong Republicans.

Further, a 2010 University of Chicago NORC survey looked at the generation gap on climate at a global level, assessing the difference between those younger than 30 and those older than 70 and how they perceive dangers of climate change. Twenty- and 30-point gaps were found in places such as Taiwan, South Korea and Sweden, with young people much more concerned than their elders. The United States had a 9.6 percent gap showing higher concern among young people, roughly the same gap as that of Switzerland and marginally higher than that of Japan.

For those counting on this generation to carry the torch on climate, there is the perpetual danger of “issue fatigue,” or that unforeseen events like economic problems could continue to postpone the window for action and dampen enthusiasm for change. The University of Michigan’s Longitudinal Study of American Youth found in July 2012 that Generation X — those born between 1961 and 1981, ages 32 to 52 — had slipped in terms of attention to climate change issues. Twenty-two percent had followed climate change issues very or moderately closely in 2009, but that figure had dropped to only 16 percent by 2011.

There is no doubt that some young people — as with the civil rights generation — will be in it for the long haul. But just how many remains to be seen.

“Slowing climate change and working for climate justice is going to be a life-long project,” Hayakawa, of Swarthmore, says. “My hope is that with so many young people engaging in this work, it will carry over into later life.”

Boston College’s Gamson predicts the current movement “will have staying power because the issue won’t go away, and the manifestations of climate change will present periodic crises that arouse the more general public.”

But he warns that the focus may ultimately need to shift: “I’m not sure that the campus divestment strategy will work: on the one hand, it makes sense to focus on the campuses that the youth inhabit — think globally, act locally, and all that. On the other hand, it is difficult to implement because the targets are diffuse and not easily identified.”

For media, and in particular for those always looking to “personalize” the climate issue or looking for dramatic visuals, the protesters themselves may become more of the climate change story in coming years. How well diverse media organizations will carry that responsibility is, at this point, anyone’s guess.

Topics: Policy & Politics