Thirteen-year-old Denverite Haven Coleman inspires youth to fight for the world they want to live in. Her method? Hold adults accountable for the devastation they’ve done to the planet, push political leaders to take meaningful action, and highlight the immediate need for change through weekly school-strikes and sit-ins at the State Capitol.
The week before school started in Colorado, 13-year-old Haven Coleman had a stacked to-do list. The Denverite with two kid sisters told me she had to “figure out what my outfit is, write my speech, pack my bags, and go to L.A. to get an award.” Then, upon return, because she was going to miss several classes, she said she would have to “pick up my stuff, figure out my schedule, organize my school bags, and come up with my guest list for my podcast.” And on top of all that, she told me she had to “do this thing I can’t tell you about.”
That thing involves a multimedia project likely focused on the environment. But most things Coleman does revolve around the troubling future of our planet.
Her outfit and the speech, for instance, were for a prize the now eighth grader would receive from the Women in Green Forum, a consortium of women leaders from the White House to Fortune 500 companies that promote women’s leadership across the environmental movement and channel their efforts to build a world where gender bias is not involved in leadership and decision-making. In August, they gave Coleman their Youth Trailblazer Award, for her social justice work and climate activism.
Coleman’s activist career started when she was in elementary school in 2015. As a fifth grader, she learned that deforestation was laying waste to massive tracks of trees in South America and that it contributed to the much larger issue of climate change and global warming. Shortly thereafter, she started actively trying to make the adults around her—from her parents to political leaders—do something about it.
That mission led her to start skipping school every Friday in seventh grade to stand in places like the State Capitol building in Denver or the GEO Aurora ICE Processing Center, an immigrant detention facility. She holds a sign that says School Strikes for the Climate, and takes flack from “mainly older white males,” who get so mad at what she’s doing they’ll throw her shade in the form of, “Go back to school. You’re ruining your life. Why are you doing this?” she says.
When confronted with that critcism, Coleman, in her mustard-colored puffy jacket or slogan-emblazoned shirt, simply responds, “Because your generation failed mine.”
The Dangerous Future Is Here
The assertion that older generations have sold out the youth is a hard pill to swallow, but it’s true. For several decades during and after the Industrial Revolution, we didn’t know the impact we were having on the planet. But the Sierra Club—whose mission is to “explore, protect, and enjoy the planet”—started discussing the need to protect our natural resources during its inaugural meeting on May 28, 1892. Leaping forward nearly 100 years, Rachel Carson wrote her 1962 bestseller Silent Spring, about the dangers of Big Agriculture using DDT to grow food. Americans got riled up about the practices right as President Lyndon B. Johnson called the state of America’s rivers “disgraceful” after boating down the sewage-soured Potomac. Both events paved the way for the first Earth Day celebration on April 22, 1970. Twenty million Americans took to the streets to protest our treatment of the planet.
“Older people could have prevented irreversible warming, but there were so many opportunities to act and no one did.”
Despite those early postive actions, 49 years and some months later, we’re reaching a terrifying moment. On August 8, the United Nations reported that, “For everyone who lives on land, the planet’s dangerously warmed future is already here. Earth’s land has already warmed more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since the industrial revolution,” and “more than 70 percent of the planet’s ice-free land is already shaped by human activity.” As trees are felled and farms take their place, the land emits huge amounts of greenhouse-gas pollution. If we hope to slow this devastation, hundreds of millions of people like me (and you) will have to change their diet, eating many more plants and much less meat than they do now.
If we go on without making change, we can expect hotter summers, increased wildfires, crazier weather, poorer air quality, higher food prices (as a result of global warming-related shortages) and an influx of climate refugees. On August 13, The Washington Post published an interactive story showing that several states from the East Coast to the West have already reached the poinit of irreversible change. The world as a whole is heating up, too, with the countries most vulnerable to climate change in dire danger, according to the climate activism coalition 350.org.
On a personal note, Coleman tells me she has asthma, so when wildfires burn here or in states near us, it’s harder for her to breathe. And on a global note, she says, “We’ll have even worse drought, even more ice melt, even more sea level rise, and bigger, more chaotic storms. Because of this, and also food shortages, people are going to have to migrate, or they’ll die. Also, more bugs will start coming —ones that carry diseases—and they’ll be able to live longer because of the heat. It’ll get super hot. People will starve. It’ll be chaos. It’s the apocalypse.”
Don’t worry: Coleman thinks about “normal” things, too (like where she wants to live when she grows up—New York or San Francisco). But like a growing number of kids, including my own, she’s burdened with a heaviness I didn’t endure. When I was 13, in the 1980s, I rarely thought about the “environment.” Instead, I was just a kid out playing in the sanctuary of nature. And no one in my family talked about recycling, but then no program had started yet in our small town in Idaho. I certainly never thought about the world like Coleman does—as a place on the brink of global disaster. But my oldest son, Scout, worries over how to slow climate change daily (and hopes to help combat it by working in sustainability after college). My middle son, Hatcher, responds differently—with the dark humor and nihilism of someone much older than his 16 years. The kid I worry about most, though, is my 8-year-old daughter, Hollis, who has only the smallest grasp of what’s happening but will experience the worst of our past behaviors and current administration’s climate-threatening policies, as the world continues to warm, and the problems Coleman highlights come to fruition during Hollis’s 70 or 80 years on the planet.
“It scares me because [the apocalypse] is my future,” says Coleman. The 16-year-old Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greta Thunberg said the same at the 2019 UN Climate Change COP24 Conference, when she told the audience, “Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money. Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.” And before she laid out all of this, Thunberg stated, “You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children.”
“Older people could have prevented irreversible warming,” Coleman adds, “but there were so many opportunities to act and no one did.” As a result, she now spends her free time canvassing, talking to local, state, and national politicians, and dreaming up new ways to try and get people involved, instead of enjoying her teen years worry-free, she tells me. It’s uplifting, yes, but it’s also sad. How are we so addicted to consumerism and greed that we’ll heap the burden of the future onto our kids?
The Strike Goes On
Last month, Coleman staged her 36th consecutive school-day strike, on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol. She did it alone, as she often does, though at times a friend or her little sisters will join. She will take the flack from the older white males, standing her ground, because she sees no other choice. It’s what gives her strength to stand up, over and over, to civic leaders like Republican Senator Cory Gardner, who has received over $1.2 million dollars in campaign funding from oil and gas industries, and Republican State Representative Doug Lamborn, a known climate change denier.
In some ways, Coleman has been handsomely rewarded for her work: Elle, Teen Vogue, CBS and other media outlets have given her praise, and Al Gore invited her to be a part of his “24 Hours of Reality” project, a day of television programming centered on climate change. More importantly, she joined two other young American climate activists, Alexandria Villasenor and Isra Hirsi, in leading the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, founded by Thunberg, in August of 2018.
Coleman tells me that she pours so much effort into this work because, “We have been really dormant and quiet about acting out.” She wants (and we need) immediate action—like transitioning to a 100% renewable future for everyone, a ban on all fossil fuel projects, and the cessation of funding dirty energy—and she’s leading the charge by facing down climate denying adults and politicians. “Kids can influence adults and politicians,” she says, and I want to believe her. But I also know that I can’t let myself get too buoyed by the work of Coleman, Thunberg or the tens of thousands of kids across the world who have joined the weekly School Strike for Climate protests. They’re shifting the needle, yes, but we can’t leave them with all the burden. As Thunberg told the UN, “We have run out of excuses and we are running out of time.” And as Coleman reminded me, on May 24, 2019, 1.4 million people participated in global climate strikes around the world to show their governments that they must act now to protect the planet.
“We did that in one day,” she says. “We did so much. But we need to bring that momentum into everyday fighting, because we need to actually solve the problem.”