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The young Climate Strikers marching this week are all fired up and ready to vote.

And if voting doesn’t bring change, expect more confrontational tactics.

- September 27, 2019

Since 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg arrived by solar-powered sailboat on Aug. 28, she has taken the U.S. by storm. She and others in her “Fridays for Future” movement protested climate inaction in front of the United Nations; marched by the White House; testified in a joint congressional hearing on the climate crisis; and shamed U.N. leaders in a moving speech at its Climate Action Summit. Perhaps most notably, she and many other young people led the Sept. 20 Global Climate Strike, which mobilized millions of people worldwide in street protests about the failure to reduce carbon emissions.

Who is involved in this youth climate movement? Are they simply marching, or are they politically engaged more generally? Here’s what I found.

Here’s how I did my research

I collected data from participants at the Climate Strike in D.C. on Sept. 20. A 13-person research team (including me) snaked through the crowd as they lined up at John Marshall Park before they began marching, sampling every fifth person at designated increments to gather a field approximation of a random sample. In total, we collected data from 193 participants at the event, with a response rate of 79 percent.

What we found is consistent with my findings from earlier research on the youth climate movement and on those with experience in what many have called the “resistance”: the broader movement that has been challenging President Trump’s administration and its polices since January 2017. Participants in the Climate Strike were predominantly female. The median age of the crowd was 22 years old. Three-quarters, or 76 percent, of the participants will be eligible to vote in the U.S. 2020 election. And their current levels of civic engagement strongly suggests they will vote.

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As part of this survey, we asked participants the following question: “If the 2020 election were held today (no matter whether you are eligible to vote), who would you vote for?” Forty-one percent supported Elizabeth Warren, with by far the largest share. Bernie Sanders came in second with 20 percent of the support. Joe Biden was a distant third with 12 percent.

Most participants in the Climate Strike identified as being on the political left, while 9 percent identified as politically moderate. Interestingly, those who identified themselves as “Very Left” on the political spectrum (24 percent of the crowd) also favored Warren (46 percent) over Sanders (33 percent).

These activists are significantly more engaged in a range of political activities than the general American population: 46 percent reported contacting an elected official in the past year; 46 percent attended a public, town, or school meeting; and 44 percent engaged in consumer activism by boycotting or deliberately buying a certain product for political, ethical, or environmental reasons (“buycotting”).

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Many report having been involved with more confrontational forms of political engagement as well. About a third of Climate Strikers, or 32 percent, reported participating in confrontational direct action in the past year.

Given these levels of civic engagement and political experience, expect these new voices to make themselves heard in the upcoming elections. If the election’s outcome is not what they hoped for, don’t be surprised if there’s more climate action in the streets. Based on the direct action we saw during ShutDownDC on Monday and Friday, as well as the other civil disobedience that took place around the U.S. this past week, these climate activists are willing to act.

And if peaceful protest and political participation do not work, they still have other options.

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Dana R. Fisher @Fisher_DanaR is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland who has been studying the youth climate movement since spring 2019. Her new book American Resistance will be out from Columbia University Press in November.