Too young to vote and often overlooked by their political representatives, millions of youths around the world are finding other ways to be heard—walking out, sitting in, striking and protesting to demand action on climate change.

In a commentary published yesterday in Nature Climate Change, UMD sociology Professor Dana R. Fisher discusses why the current global youth climate movement is not only important in today’s political arena, but likely to have broad repercussions for decades to come.Dana Fisher

“Research clearly shows that people who become civically engaged at a young age are more likely to stay engaged in volunteerism and politics throughout their lives,” said Fisher, who spent the last two decades studying activism, protest and climate politics. Her book on opposition to the Trump administration, “American Resistance,” is due out this fall.

Research has shown that young people can mobilize the previous generation, spurring their parents to become involved in activism as well, Fisher said. “So, this new cohort of young activists wields more power than politicians probably realize.”

In a recent example of youth activism, more than 1.6 million high school- and middle school-aged students participated in mid-March in a youth climate strike organized by the  #FridaysforFuture movement that spanned the entire globe. And last Friday, youth throughout the United States and Canada organized strikes from school, calling for political action to address the effects of climate change. Another worldwide youth climate strike is planned for May 24.

As a leading researcher on activism and protests, Fisher is eager to study youth climate action, but admits it comes with particular challenges. Chief among these is the necessity for parental consent to conduct surveys, which are the raw material of Fisher’s protest research; getting permission can prove extremely difficult in a field research setting, she said.

“Despite these obstacles, it is well worth the time and effort to figure out how to study youth movements like #FridaysforFuture so we can understand how our social world is changing and what we can hope for in the future,” Fisher said. “To appreciate the social and political effects of this movement, we need to know what is motivating these young people to mobilize, how it will affect their behavior as adults and the political outcome of their activism.”

Fisher plans to begin a research project this summer that’s based on surveys of youth climate activists and their parents. While her efforts will focus on the United States initially, she is also hoping to study the movement on a global scale, potentially using social media.