Meet the teens leading a global movement to ditch school and fight climate change

By Jeff Berardelli, Haley Ott

/ CBS News

What could be the largest global strike ever organized will attempt to push world leaders to act aggressively on climate change when it unfolds in three weeks. And it is being orchestrated by unlikely advocates: teenagers.

When you meet Alexandria Villasenor, she seems like your typical 13-year-old. Until a few weeks ago, she was. Now theCalifornia native who is living in New York City finds herself as a primary catalyst in the youth climate strike movement and what some believe could be a global watershed moment on climate change.

As the lead organizer of the US Youth Climate Strike, set for Friday, March 15, Villasenor is in a 24/7 race to mobilize the nation's youth. She herself has been skipping school every Friday for the past 11 weeks and protestingin front of the United Nations headquarters in New York City.

"I am on strike every Friday because adults have failed my generation," she told CBS News. "I didn't make this mess with the planet, they did."

Her message to the world's adults is clear: Your time is up, and if you won't act, we will.

"This is the largest issue my generation will have to face," she said. "Humans are causing climate change, and humans are the ones who need to fix it."

At least half a century has passed since the U.S. government was first warned about the unintended consequences of fossil fuel emissions. In 1965, the White House Science Advisory Committee sent then-President Lyndon B. Johnson a report with a chilling line: "Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment."

Villasenor said that when she thinks about "how the world hasn't responded to climate change," she feels terrified.

"Especially because I know how fast we have to act to save our planet, and I also know how stubborn adults are when people tell them they have to change," she said.

Villasenor's inspiration to act comes from another teen who is overseas: Greta Thunberg.

In September last year, when Sweden was having its parliamentary elections, the then-15-year-old skipped school for three weeks and sat on the steps of the country's Parliament building with a sign demanding radical action from the government on climate change. Thunberg then continued her protests, missing school every Friday even after the elections were over.

Soon, she started getting attention. In December, she delivered a blistering speech to some of the world's most powerful politicians.

"You are not mature enough to tell it like is," Thunberg said at the UN's climate conference, COP 24. "Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don't care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet."

Thunberg's profile exploded, and other young people started joining her on the steps of Sweden's parliament. They, too, skipped school on Fridays in what grew into an increasingly larger weekly strike.

The movement soon spread to other countries across Europe and the world. Now, nearly 70,000 children skip school to protest every Friday in almost 400 cities around the world, according to reports. Last Friday's action saw approximately 10,000 children walk out of school in the U.K. alone as part of worldwide movement, called #FridaysForFuture. A global team is quickly adding multiple new strike locations.

"Before I used to be very lonely and also I was depressed," Thunberg told CBS News. "But that has all changed now. Through the climate strike, I have gained some friends and it has given me meaning and purpose."

Thunberg shows no signs of slowing her efforts. But she said the United States has an important role to play in any solution to the climate crisis.

"If you don't act and change in a huge and major way, then the rest of us don't stand a chance," Thunberg said. "The fate of humankind rests in your hands."

In New York, Villasenor is working to influence change with the help of two other teens — 15-year-old Isra Hirsi, who is the daughter of Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar from Minnesota, and 12-year-old activist Haven Coleman.

"I'm asking America's youth to get in the streets and show the adults that we care for our future. It's our right to speak up and demand a future worth living for!" said Coleman.

They have coordinated with various influential environmental groups and are even getting some assistance on the US Youth Climate Strike from activists like March For Our Lives organizer David Hogg. Hogg tweeted out the US Youth Climate Strike's Twitter handle and website. Within an hour, the account gained 1,000 followers.

David you are amazing!! Thank you! 💚💚🌎🌍🌏

— Alexandria Villasenor (@AlexandriaV2005) February 18, 2019

Alexandria's mom, Kristin Hogue, is amazed by the team's efficiency, cooperation and technological prowess. "Theirs is a remarkable, humbling, progressive, high-velocity operating structure," she said.

But the group knowsthe battle to spur meaningful action on global climate policy is going to be long and hard. Still, Alexandria insists they have the stamina to succeed.

"We're not stopping. My generation will do whatever it takes," she said.

In Brussels, where she had been speaking at the European Union, Thunberg echoed that commitment.

"All that matters is that we do whatever we can," Thunberg said.

First published on February 22, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Jeff Berardelli

Meteorologist Jeff Berardelli is a CBS News Climate & Weather Contributor. Follow him on Twitter @WeatherProf.

Meet the teens ditching school worldwide to fight climate change

What could be the largest global strike ever organized will attempt to push world leaders to act aggressively on climate change

4M ago

More and more people are reporting sexual abuse by nuns

"I could not believe that somebody was actually talking about it"

9M ago

McCabe's lawyer says criminal investigation into him continues

Former Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe was fired last year

17M ago

Time's Up's Lisa Borders quits after son accused of sex assault

Group she led fights workplace sexual harassment and discrimination and was founded in the early stages of the #MeToo movement

28M ago

HBO to air controversial Michael Jackson documentary despite lawsuit

"Leaving Neverland" focuses on two men who say Jackson molested them when they were boys

36M ago

McCabe's lawyer says criminal investigation into him continues

Former Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe was fired last year

17M ago

The Takeout: A CBS News original political podcast

“The Takeout” is a weekly podcast about politics, policy and pop culture hosted by CBS News Chief White House correspondent Major Garrett

2H ago

North Korea sees nukes, not alliances, as key to survival

Former top CIA analyst Jung Pak says this view complicates the U.S.' goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula

2H ago

Judge says prosecutors violated victim rights in Epstein case

The wealthy financier is accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls

8H ago

About 200 U.S. peacekeepers to remain in Syria

The Trump administration is not yet announcing the defeat of the caliphate, and there is no timeline for withdrawing troops

10H ago

Meet the teens ditching school worldwide to fight climate change

What could be the largest global strike ever organized will attempt to push world leaders to act aggressively on climate change

4M ago

Powerful 7.5-magnitude earthquake hits Ecuador

The U.S. Geological Survey says a very powerful magnitude 7.5 earthquake has struck eastern Ecuador close to its border with Peru

1H ago

Accused U.S. spy Paul Whelan to be held by Russia 3 more months

Moscow court orders former Marine's detention extended; he denies the charges

2H ago

Father of ISIS bride sues to get U.S. to let her come back

Suit argues Hoda Muthana is an American citizen and should be allowed to return but U.S. says she's not

3H ago

About 200 U.S. peacekeepers to remain in Syria

The Trump administration is not yet announcing the defeat of the caliphate, and there is no timeline for withdrawing troops

10H ago

HBO to air controversial Michael Jackson documentary despite lawsuit

"Leaving Neverland" focuses on two men who say Jackson molested them when they were boys

36M ago

Peter Tork, Monkees bass player, has died

Tork was part of the legendary band that made its debut on TV

12H ago

Smollett gave detailed instructions for "attack," prosecutor says

The "Empire" actor pointed out a camera he thought would capture the hoax attack, prosecutor says

14H ago

Step into "The Twilight Zone" with first full trailer

"Twilight Zone" fans got one step closer to entering the fifth dimension with a clip of new footage from the Jordan Peele reboot

14H ago

Jussie Smollett: Key moments since "Empire" actor reported Chicago attack

Alleged homophobic and racially charged attack in Chicago has sprawled into nearly a month-long saga of confusing reports and contradictions

15H ago

Japanese space probe lands on far-off asteroid to get samples

Scientists say the samples could provide clues about the origin of the solar system and of life on Earth

4H ago

SpaceX launches rocket carrying privately funded Israeli moon lander

If successful, the $100M mission will put Israel in an exclusive club, joining the U.S., Soviet Union/Russia and China as only the fourth nation in space history to pull off a powered landing on the moon

10H ago

Advocates say Facebook tricked kids into in-game purchases

FTC urged to probe if the social-media company illegally enticed minors to spend money without parental consent

16H ago

YouTube axes 400+ channels over child exploitation controversy

YouTube has come under fire for allowing disturbing content, leading major companies to pull their ads

17H ago

5G explained: How it works and when we'll have it

The next generation of wireless technology will revolutionize how we use mobile devices, but it’s also fraught with technical challenges and won’t be ready for primetime anytime soon

18H ago

"Heartless": Hospital and doctor accused of giving lethal doses of fentanyl

CBS News spoke with five people who said their family members died while under Dr. William Husel's care at Mount Carmel Hospital

42M ago

Just 15 minutes of jogging a day could reduce your risk of depression

"Get outside and do something," says Dr. David Agus

18H ago

Poison control calls for kratom have soared

The herbal supplement kratom can cause side effects ranging from rapid heartbeat and agitation to seizures and even death

19H ago

Health care spending on track to eat 1 in 5 U.S. dollars

Aging baby boomers and higher prices will soon mean that 20 percent of GDP will be spent on medical care

20H ago

Cervical cancer could be eliminated in most countries by 2100

Following two recommendations could prevent millions of cases of cancer, researchers say

Feb 20

Reddit co-founder pushes for national paid family leave

The venture capitalist has been vocal about being an active dad to his daughter with tennis champion Serena Williams

49M ago

Pinterest IPO may come in late June

The online sharing company is said to have confidentially filed to go public, seeking a valuation of at least $12B

13H ago

Karl Lagerfeld's cat to inherit a fortune, but may not be richest pet

His beloved pet, Choupette, a money-making celebrity in her own right, is sure to be well taken care of

14H ago

Teachers' strike in California affects 36,000 students

Strike in Oakland part of a national wave of discontent by educators over classroom conditions, pay

15H ago

One family's adventure with $1,000 a month in universal basic income

No-strings-attached cash stipends being tested as way to help low-income families, including the Fassis in New Hampshire

15H ago

El Chapo's sons charged with drug trafficking

Joaquin Guzman Lopez, 34, and Ovidio Guzman Lopez, 28, allegedly conspired to send cocaine and other drugs into the U.S.

13H ago

Coast Guard officer with alleged hit list to remain jailed

Lt. Christopher Paul Hasson was ordered held on gun and drug charges; prosecutors describe him as "domestic terrorist"

13H ago

Smollett gave detailed instructions for "attack," prosecutor says

The "Empire" actor pointed out a camera he thought would capture the hoax attack, prosecutor says

14H ago

Jussie Smollett: Key moments since "Empire" actor reported Chicago attack

Alleged homophobic and racially charged attack in Chicago has sprawled into nearly a month-long saga of confusing reports and contradictions

15H ago

Chicago's top cop blasts Smollett; Bond set at $100,000

A judge ordered him to turn in his passport

18H ago