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US teen climate activist takes aim at textbooks - and presidential debates

by Sebastien Malo | @SebastienMalo | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 7 June 2019 16:17 GMT

Teen U.S. climate activist Alexandria Villasenor holds off the sub-zero cold with a sleeping bag while on a strike for climate action in front of the United Nations headquarters in New York City on February 1, 2019. Courtesy: Kristin Hogue

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Better climate change education is needed in schools - and it's time for the U.S. presidential election debates to take up the topic too, she says

By Sebastien Malo

NEW YORK, June 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Alexandria Villasenor, a 14-year-old activist who has become one of the U.S. faces of the global youth climate movement, is outraged at how little U.S. students learn about climate change.

Next Friday, she plans to launch a global non-profit called Earth Uprising, demanding schools and teachers around the globe dedicate more resources to teaching about climate change and threats it presents.

Today, only about 37 of 50 U.S. states, plus Washington D.C., have adopted science education guidelines that include teaching that climate change is largely a result of human activity, according to the National Center for Science Education.

Better education, Villasenor hopes, will fuel a growing global youth movement to demand rapid action on the threat.

"We have to get more people involved in climate activism," she said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation at her home.

Action on climate threats will "grow once there's more climate education, because you can't argue with science and facts", she said.

In particular, she hopes the Earth Uprising project, which will have ambassadors in more than 50 countries, will create and put into teachers' hands a combined curriculum on climate science - and how past civil movements have succeeded.

The project can be "the gateway to bringing people who've never been involved in activism into the movement", she said.


The New York City teenager gained national prominence after she began skipping school each Friday, starting last December, to sit on a bench in front of the United Nations headquarters and demand action on climate change.

She was among the teens who helped organize an international youth rally on climate change in March that saw hundreds skipping school in Washington D.C. and thousands more in about 45 other states.

The protest movement, launched by Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, has now spread around the world, to nations from Australia to Uganda.

Teens say climate action cannot come fast enough.

In 2015, nearly 200 nations meeting in Paris adopted a new international goal to limit global temperature rise to "well below" 2C (3.6F), and to "pursue efforts" for 1.5C.

But as global emissions continue to rise, that lower limit could be passed as early as 2030 - when Villasenor will be 25.

The teen, clad in pajamas and with her mother at her side, said she still finds it remarkable how a modest action - one person on strike holding a placard - has led to one of the most engaging movements to stop climate change.

With school now over for the year, Villasenor has spent just this week speaking at the United Nations, having breakfast with a state governor, and appearing before the influential Council on Foreign Relations think tank, amid a long list of commitments.

Teen U.S. climate activist Alexandria Villasenor poses at her New York home with a sign she brings to her Friday protests, June 6, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sebastien Malo


The notoriety wasn't what she had in mind when she first shared with her mother her plan to begin a solo climate strike. Initially they both exploded in laughter at the "crazy idea", she said.

Villasenor had just returned early from a trip to her native northeast California, shortened after a monster forest fire there sent air quality plummeting - a risk for a girl with asthma.

"I was really mad," she said on Thursday.

Then she saw a speech from last year's U.N. climate negotiations in Poland, in which Sweden's Thunberg berated world leaders for their inaction.

It "was the flip of the switch", she remembers.

Still, when the then 13-year-old set off for her first strike, her mother Kristin Hogue suspected it would all end quickly and "we'd go get ice cream," Hogue said.

Instead, Villasenor has spent 26 Fridays on strike, some in freezing "polar vortex" temperatures.

The teen says she will continue striking "until world leaders meet my climate strike demands and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030".

"As long as that takes, I will be striking," she said.

She hopes to bring the U.S. climate strike movement she's helped launch to the first Democratic Party presidential debates in Miami, planned for June 26 and 27.

Late last month, Washington state governor and presidential hopeful Jay Inslee, a Democrat, called for a presidential debate solely focused on climate change.

Debate organizers at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) turned down that suggestion, Inslee announced on Wednesday.

So "I will be bringing a climate strike there," Villasenor said.

"If the DNC will not hold a climate debate, then that means that the climate strike will come to them."

Brushing aside a key interest of many youth in the presidential debates is "making a whole generation of students angry, and that is not an enemy you want," she added.

(Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers climate change, humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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