Greta Thunberg goes to Washington, an epicenter of climate inaction

Teen climate activist testifies Wednesday at joint House hearing

Greta Thunberg, center right, sits with fellow youth climate activists at a Tuesday press conference on Capitol Hill to discuss climate change. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Greta Thunberg, center right, sits with fellow youth climate activists at a Tuesday press conference on Capitol Hill to discuss climate change. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 18, 2019 at 5:00am

The Swedish teenager who has become a symbol for a young generation worried about climate change is in Washington this week to help change minds — a hard thing to do in a capital locked in partisan combat.

Greta Thunberg, who famously traveled to the U.S. last month in a sailboat so as to avert the carbon emissions of an airliner, is making the political rounds in Washington, appearing at a student protests outside the White House last week, and a news conference with Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, she’ll testify at a joint hearing by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment, and the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. Then she’s expected to join other activists on the steps of the Supreme Court.

On Friday, she’ll participate in a global climate strike she helped organize ahead of a U.N. climate conference.

She comes to the U.S. as the climate crisis is sparking a surge in youth activism, both liberal and conservative.

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Benji Backer, founder and president of the conservative youth group American Conservation Coalition, will also testify at the hearing and plans to emphasize why it’s important for conservatives to care about climate change and do something about it.

“It’s something that we’ve been really divided on for a really long time,” Backer said. “It’s really amazing that this type of platform is even given to someone in the Republican Party who believes in climate change.”

Although he was concerned that the attention to Thunberg could drown out other voices, Backer said her platform is energizing to the youth climate movement and is encouraging to young people who may have been shy to step up.

“I think Greta has a lot of power in her voice,” Backer said. “I think there’s a lot of power in all four of us.”

Jamie Margolin, co-founder and co-executive director of Zero Hour in Seattle, and Vic Barrett, a fellow with the Alliance for Climate Education and a plaintiff in Juliana v. United States, will also speak at Wednesday’s hearing.

A day before the climate hearing, Thunberg silently joined other youth climate advocates and Senate Democrats outside the Capitol. 

The collective groundswell of youth activism has caught the attention of lawmakers — at least those in the Democrats’ caucus..

Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen compared the young people’s climate movement today to his time as an anti-apartheid activist in college demanding that the U.S. stop doing business with the racist South African leadership of the time, and other “successful social movements” around the world.

“If you look at successful social movements around the world and in this country … young people were the vanguards,” Van Hollen said Tuesday. “We need to make sure Congress acts now.”

At the news conference Tuesday organized by Massachusetts Sen. Edward J. Markey, Nadia Nazar, a 17-year-old from Baltimore who co-founded the youth-led climate organization Zero Hour, said her resolve to demand climate action was strengthened last year when relatives in India and friends in Ellicott City, Maryland, grappled with catastrophic floods.

“My story lies next to the girl that drowned in the Bahamas from Hurricane Dorian; my story lies next to the indigenous people laying their lives down in front of bulldozers to protect their land; my story lies next to the elderly person who died in the California wildfire,” Nazar said.

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An increasing number of catastrophic events around the world exacerbated by the effects of a hotter Earth have prompted more young people to call for action by their leaders. The young activists say their generation will feel the impacts of climate change more than the current generation of lawmakers and government officials.

“We’re the younger generation. We’re the ones who’re going to be affected and therefore we demand justice,” Thunberg says in a video urging people to join the climate strike. “We’re all in the same boat, so everyone should be concerned about this.”

People from more than 150 countries are expected to walk away from school and work to participate in the global climate strike. In New York City, school students are excused on Friday to allow them to take part.  

At the Tuesday news conference, Democrats expressed frustration with the resistance to urgent climate action among Republican colleagues and the Trump administration.

“The reality is we don’t lack the technology, we don’t lack the solutions to make this right; what we lack is the political will among our colleagues to do something and it’s this generation of activists, from indigenous activists across the Americas to people like Greta Thunberg who have stood up and said, ‘You will do something’,” New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich said. “I hope they will continue to lead the way because I’m afraid we will not make the changes that we need unless they demand that action of us.”

Decades of party-line squabbling have made it nearly impossible for Congress to pass meaningful legislation to combat climate change, including by cutting carbon emissions, the biggest culprit in global warming.

While the U.S. leads the world in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it remains the world’s second largest emitter of carbon dioxide after China. 

“Much of the CO2 in the atmosphere is red, white and blue,” Markey said.