Sadie Chawkins (left) and Ella Mirman

Image: Gene Pollux

Ella Mirman says she has long been conscious of the threat of climate change, but over the past couple years, a new, worrying feeling has taken hold. “There’s been a pent-up anxiety of me feeling like this is really an emergency,” says Mirman, a 17-year-old Booker High junior. “And it’s only getting worse.”

Partly because of what she calls her “eco-anxiety,” Mirman in 2018 created Sarasota Students 4 Climate, a movement that organizes “climate strike” protests in downtown Sarasota. The organization is part of a global network known as Fridays for Future, which was sparked by then-15-year-old Greta Thunberg’s weeks-long climate change protest outside the Swedish parliament.

The first Sarasota strike, held in the fall of 2018, drew just 12 people. By the end of that school year, attendance had hit 70, and a protest tied to a global day of activism last September brought out 700. The strikes on their own may not accomplish much in the fight to cut carbon emissions, but Mirman says they’re a valuable way to rally new people to the cause and keep activists fired up. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the cancellation of upcoming protests; the organization is encouraging online activism instead.

Teen strikers on the bayfront receive plenty of enthusiastic honks and thumbs up from passing drivers, but other adults will shout at the kids or flash them a middle finger. While Mirman says the Sarasota strikes have drawn a wide cross section of generations, polls show that young Americans view the climate crisis as a more pressing issue than their parents. A 2019 Kaiser Family Foundation and Washington Post poll found that 57 percent of teenagers feel “afraid” of climate change.

Sadie Chawkins started worrying about climate change at age 11. Thats when she joined a Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium education program aimed at home-schooled kids like her. What began as a service project to reduce plastic pollution in the ocean quickly grew into a broader commitment to environmental activism, and she soon joined Sarasota Students 4 Climate.

Now 14, Chawkins says that while young people might be more likely to support action to combat climate change, it can still be difficult to motivate kids. Both Mirman and Chawkins say that when they speak to older Sarasotans, they emphasize the personal stakes. Chawkins talks to them about their grandkids. “This is going to be their world and their problem to deal with,” she says.

While young activists like Thunberg have drawn enormous attention to climate change, Mirman emphasizes that grown-ups can’t sit on the sidelines and wait for kids to solve the problem. Many Sarasota climate strikers won’t be old enough to vote this fall. “It’s not up to the youth to change the world,” she says. “It’s up to the people in power, and they’re not taking action. By the time we’re in power it will be too late.”

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