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“WE DESERVE A FUTURE.”
That’s the sign draped over the bow of the boat where Jordan McAuliff, a 17-year-old in Silver Spring, Maryland, slept for four nights last week. Parked on a trailer just blocks away from her high school, it’s Jordan’s warning to her town that the streets could be underwater within decades.
“The water is rising in our communities, around our schools and our houses,” she said. “Soon we might not be able to drive there anymore.”
Jordan couldn’t skip school Friday like thousands of other kids and teens across the country did to demand leaders commit to addressing the climate crisis; she’d already maxed out her absences from Montgomery Blair High School. Instead Jordan spent several school nights in her boat, on land. Despite a few neighbors bristling at her parking in front of their house, Jordan said the boat received the response she’d hoped for: It sparked conversations in her hometown, a suburb north of Washington, D.C., with about 70,000 people.
For young people like Jordan, the prospect of a future decimated by the changing climate feels deeply personal. Low-lying Maryland has already started to see the effects of sea-level rise: Baltimore and Annapolis, just miles from Jordan’s hometown, have dealt with a record number of sunny-day floods, and scientists expect them to happen every other day by 2050. And despite widespread coal plant closures in 2019, emissions still hit a record high this year.
“Fossil fuels are the problem,” Jordan said. “We must stop burning them. It’s really quite simple.”
But Jordan also lives in a relatively protected, middle-class community, and she knows she has a certain level of privilege, which has, so far, kept the most pernicious effects of climate change at bay.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” she said.
Sleeping on the boat wasn’t easy though. It’s cold in Maryland in December, and a network or Jordan’s friends brought her warm clothes and blankets and kept her company through the night to make sure she stayed safe. Her mom also cut herself on a rusty part of the old boat and had to get a tetanus shot.
Jordan had originally parked the boat in her high school’s parking lot, but she said the school asked her to move it. So she camped out a few blocks away.
“A few people were mad that I parked in front of their house,” she said. “But once I talked to them, I say that this actually this sucks way more for me because I’m sleeping out here in the cold and I’m doing it because I’m scared of not having a livable future, you know, they come around.”
“I’m scared of not having a livable future.”
Young people across the country took drastic action — with hundreds risking arrest — as part of Friday’s round of climate strikes. They walked out of their high school (and even middle and elementary school) classrooms to demand commitments from lawmakers and politicians to sign onto the Green New Deal and produce climate solutions at the state level.
In Boston, 27 members of the youth-led Sunrise Movement were arrested at a sit-in at Gov. Charlie Baker’s office, where protesters chanted, “Seas are rising so are we. Baker, what’s your legacy?” Another 15 were arrested in Providence. Ten more were arrested in Iowa.
“Oh, Rep. Axne can’t you see what your state has done to me,” protesters sang at Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne’s offices in Des Moines. “You took away our clean water, and our planet’s getting hotter.”
Though Jordan couldn’t participate in Friday’s climate strikes, she’s stressed out about climate change and felt she needed to do something this week. Strangely enough, sleeping in a boat for a week helped alleviate some of her climate-related anxiety.
“I experienced, with a lot of kids my age, predominantly queer kids, the really terrible mental health problems that were coming about, partly as a result of the climate crisis,” she said. “And my friends would say to me, not only was humanity doomed, but humanity wasn’t worth saving, that they’d rather be an amoeba than a person.”
Since she got involved with climate activism, she said she’s found peers who’ve encouraged her that there’s hope — that she’s not responsible for climate change and that she can aim her anger at the people they believe to be responsible for it.
“I believe that humanity should not be defined by the actions of a greedy few,” she said. “If you want to encapsulate why I’m fighting for this and why I have such a strong moral conviction, that’s a big part of it.”
But Jordan and others like her, despite drawing attention to the climate crisis, have seen little real movement. World leaders have gathered in Madrid, Spain, this week as part of the UN’s climate change conference. And teen activists, who plan to push the adults to commit to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, joined them.
But the kids don’t expect the grownups to accomplish much there.
“Our voices are being heard more and more,” Greta Thunberg, who started the school strike movement in Sweden last year, said from the stage at the UN’s climate conference in Madrid on Friday. “But, of course, that does not translate into political action.”
“We have achieved nothing,” she said.
Correction 12/10: This story incorrectly reported that Jordan McAuliff spent seven nights on the boat. She spent four. The story has been updated.
Cover image: Jordan McAuliff, 17, stands on her family's boat, parked near her high school in Silver Spring, Maryland. (Photo courtesy of Jordan McAuliff)