This 16-Year-Old Is Taking the School Climate Strike to the U.S. Capitol

May 24 is the second global “Fridays for Future” strike modeled after climate activist Greta Thunberg’s weekly demonstrations outside the Swedish parliament building.
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Congressional intern Jerome Foster II is participating in his second global strike at the White House.

Photo courtesy of Rene Foster 

On the eve of the second worldwide climate strike, 16-year-old student climate activist Jerome Foster II got a buzz on his cell phone. It was a local tornado warning, the first he had ever received.

Foster, who is from Washington, D.C., had been explaining one of the challenges of organizing for climate action in the nation’s capital: it can be hard to take seriously the risk of extreme weather events in a place that doesn’t experience many. “We’re slightly above the hurricane level, but we’re below where huge winter storms occur,” Foster says. There aren’t many fires or floods, either. “That’s the most common thing that I see ... [the mindset that] we’re not ever going to be hit by climate change.”

Foster is leading a climate strike outside of the White House in solidarity with the second global “Fridays For Future” strike planned across all seven continents. Students are expected to strike in 1,623 places in 119 countries.

This is the second global strike modeled after climate activist Greta Thunberg’s weekly demonstrations outside the Swedish parliament building. Over one and a half million young people in 125 countries skipped school to call for climate action on March 15. Though dozens of events are planned across North America, this strike is expected to be smaller here.

“The numbers are up globally, but down in the U.S.,” estimated climate activist and Fridays For Future organizer Alexandria Villaseñor in an email this week.

On Thursday, student strike leaders issued an appeal to adults to join the strikes, and an all-ages strike was recently announced for September 20.

In spite of a smaller U.S. strike, youth activists are channeling the global climate strike to make their own climate-related demands from coast-to-coast. In northern California, students will protest the Bank of Montreal’s funding of a proposed coal terminal in West Oakland. In Wisconsin, students will partner with a local artist to build a sculpture out of plastic bags, calling attention to the state’s dependence on single-use plastics.

And in Washington, D.C., one of the things Foster and others are advocating for is the Climate Change Education Act—a bill that would mandate climate topics be incorporated into science curriculum for students in kindergarten through twelfth grade, to cultivate a more climate literate population. According to the bill, “The evidence for human-induced climate change is overwhelming and undeniable.” Since the 1970s, ExxonMobil has fueled a culture of climate change denial through deliberately misinformed ad campaigns, according to researchers at Harvard University and Inside Climate News.

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Climate issues have been on Foster’s mind since he heard about ozone depletion when he was 6 years old. But that wasn’t in science class. It was in the sci-fi movie Avatar. “That’s really how I learned about climate change,” he says. “The American education system [is over]due to start teaching the facts.”

Foster got involved in climate activism last summer when he was accepted for a position with youth-led climate justice organization Zero Hour. That’s when he first heard from Greta Thunberg, who at the time was reaching out to student activists across the world to pitch her climate strike idea. At first, he didn’t think a weekly strike was something he could participate in. “My mindset was like, I have four AP classes, I can’t take a day off school every week,” he says. Plus he has an internship every Friday after lunch with Rep. John Lewis, the Democrat from Georgia.

“If I skip that, I’m skipping out on advocacy work where I get to talk to lawmakers directly about climate stuff.”

But in early May, Foster decided to join the strike. He worried he might get some pushback hustling between his morning strike at the White House to his afternoon internship at the Capitol Building. “I thought they wouldn’t support it because I’m literally striking against the U.S. government,” he says.

Instead, after he arrived at his internship last week, Foster got a call from the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. They had seen him in front of the White House and asked him to speak at an upcoming event. “I’ve gotten so much support,” he says.

Foster has also been working to educate people on climate issues in his own way, by coding virtual reality experiences that let viewers move through the plastic-filled ocean or visit an oil refinery pumping carbon dioxide into the air around it. Last summer he recorded 360-degree footage of Iceland’s melting glaciers to show people what climate change looks like on the other side of the world, he says. Foster doesn't think he has transformed any climate deniers into climate activists but he hopes his work hopes his work “provides a sense of empathy” for people who acknowledge the Earth is heating but view it as a remote problem.

So far, Foster has 88 RSVPs for the May 24 strike outside of the White House. He hopes the action may bring more attention to the Climate Change Education Act. “Rather than debating whether this crisis is real, we need to be finding solutions to solve it,” Foster says. “We’ve got to be united in how we act as a generation, and how we act as a human species as a whole.”