Youth Narrating the Future: Climate Change Activism as a Civil Rights Movement

28 Pages Posted: 16 May 2022 Last revised: 23 Jun 2022

Date Written: June 22, 2022


COP26 was the twenty-sixth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which took place in Glasgow, Scotland, from October 31 through November 12, 2021. If this conference had a theme, it was “blah, blah, blah.” Greta Thunberg’s rallying phrase encapsulated youth’s frustration with the seemingly endless climate change negotiations that had yet to generate sufficient action to mitigate the global existential threat that has emerged from adherence to a fossil-fuel-based economy. More impressively, however, these three words became the measure of the conference’s success (or lack thereof). As the negotiators headed home, the entire world asked: Was COP26 anything more than more “blah, blah, blah”?

Greta Tintin Eleonora Ernman Thunberg was still only 18 years old when she set the terms for evaluating COP26’s efficacy in combatting climate change.

Children occupy a different narrative position vis-à-vis climate change than adults and hence can potentially create worldview-changing new cultural narratives about it. Moreover, they are becoming central to the climate change discussion, narrating in both political and legal arenas their own stories of what climate change means and the drastic action necessary now to achieve the futures they prefer. The increasingly active participation by young people in shaping climate change cultural narratives offers an important counterbalance to the still-pervasive adults’ figuring of youth as passive and particularly vulnerable climate change victims. Specifically, young people are bringing lawsuits against governments in courts around the world, petitioning legislatures and agencies, and chiding national leaders to force and cajole governments into actively addressing climate change. These political and legal efforts have evolved into something more than just psychological coping mechanisms for the youths involved; they have become serious mechanisms for political and legal change, particularly regarding climate change mitigation.

Given those real-world impacts, it is time to examine more closely the phenomenon of youths telling their own stories about climate change. This chapter looks first at children who have motivated political change, focusing on Greta Thunberg. It then looks at the young plaintiffs who have brought their stories to courts around the world, increasingly catalyzing court orders that force nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This chapter reveals that youth have exploited their differential positionality vis-à-vis climate change to offer stories to the world, permeated with a deep respect for climate science, of how climate change is already affecting them and their futures, requiring action now.

Keywords: climate change, children, youth, human rights, civil rights, Convention on the Rights of the Child

Suggested Citation

Craig, Robin Kundis, Youth Narrating the Future: Climate Change Activism as a Civil Rights Movement (June 22, 2022). USC CLASS Research Paper No. CLASS22-13, USC Law Legal Studies Paper No. 22-13, Available at SSRN: or

Robin Kundis Craig (Contact Author)

USC Gould School of Law ( email )

699 Exposition Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90089
United States

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