This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
Young people from around the world are leading a massive coordinated strike from school on Friday, September 20, to protest government and business inaction on climate change. It is likely to be one of the largest environmental protests in history.
The Global Climate Strike comes just before countries will gather at the United Nations for the Climate Action Summit on September 23, where countries are supposed to ramp up their ambitions to curb greenhouse gases under the 2015 Paris climate agreement. A second worldwide strike is planned for September 27.
“If you can’t be in the strike, then, of course, you don’t have to,” 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, the original school striker who last year began demanding more action from her government on climate change with weekly protests, told Teen Vogue. “But I think if there is one day you should join, this is the day.”
Thunberg has become an increasingly influential figurehead and voice for youth climate angst and activism. Since she no longer flies because of the aviation industry’s high carbon emissions, she was offered the opportunity to travel to the US on a zero-emissions sailboat. This week, she was in Washington, DC, speaking before Congress and meeting with US lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), before she headed to New York City for the strikes and the summit.
It’s a big moment for Thunberg and the legions of youth and adult activists and leaders she’s inspired since August 2018, when she began skipping school on Fridays to protest outside the Swedish Parliament. Thousands of young people in the movement, called Fridays for Future, now strike every Friday to demand more aggressive action from their governments and the international community. The last large-scale coordinated climate strike on May 24 drew participants from 130 countries.
The New York strike is expected to attract thousands of people, and parallel strikes in DC, Boston, Seattle, Minneapolis, Miami, Los Angeles, and Denver may, too.
But this is truly a global strike and it will be the movement’s largest yet, with 2,500 events scheduled in over 150 countries. (The Global Climate Strike website has a searchable map showing all the events.) Activists will also use the strike to pressure governments on local issues; in Cote d’Ivoire and Bangladesh they’ll be pushing back against proposed coal plants.
Communities from the Pacific Islands facing rising sea level will be the first to strike on Friday, and millions in all may join the two strikes on the 20th and 27th.
“We are not drowning, we are fighting.” The ideals behind this mantra allows us to retell the world stories about our people living on the frontlines of climate change. September 20-27 get ready to see our #PacificClimateWarriors #MatagiMālohi#ClimateStrike#PacificPawa pic.twitter.com/UwFjpBAV1M— 350 Pacific (@350Pacific) September 19, 2019
Thunberg will lead a demonstration at Foley Square starting at noon Friday in New York City, followed by a rally and march to Battery Park. The 1.1 million students in the city’s public schools have even been excused to join the strike.
And it’s not just young people joining in. In Sweden, a group of senior citizens called Gretas Gamilingar (Greta’s oldies) is participating. Indigenous activists, labor groups, faith leaders, humanitarian groups, and environmental organizations like Greenpeace and 350.org will be joining youth around the world, too.
Outdoor equipment company Patagonia said it will close its stores on Friday in solidarity with the strike. So is snowboard brand Burton. Employees at Amazon, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft have pledged to join the strike.
The timing of the strike — just before the UN Summit — is important: The summit is about pushing countries to commit to tougher climate targets and faster transitions to renewable energy. Under the 2015 Paris agreement, countries agreed to work toward limiting global warming this century to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, but they set their own targets. At the time, the targets were not in line with the goal, but the expectation was that countries would gradually ramp up their ambitions in curbing greenhouse gas emissions over time. The upcoming UN summit is where countries are expected to present their new, more aggressive targets.
“I look forward to welcoming young leaders like Greta Thunberg, and many others,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres in a press conference last month. “I am telling leaders, don’t come to the summit with beautiful speeches. Come with concrete plans, clear steps to enhance nationally determined contributions by 2020, and strategies for carbon neutrality by 2050.”
However, greenhouse gas emissions are rising around the world, and the largest historical emitter of carbon dioxide, the US, is trying to leave the Paris accord.
Young people are inheriting a world racing toward climate catastrophe. They aren’t happy about it.
One of the most powerful themes of the strike movement is that the youngest people have the largest stakes in a world reshaped by climate change. And they feel aggrieved by the lackadaisical approach governments and institutions have taken to the problem.
Lately, more and more young activists have been radically reshaping the conversation around climate change.
In the US, youth campaigners at the Sunrise Movement have forced a national discussion about climate change and comprehensive frameworks to address it like the Green New Deal. Almost every leading Democratic contender for the White House has now issued their own plan to combat climate change.
Television networks including CNN and MSNBC have responded by devoting an unprecedented amount of airtime to discuss the policy implications of climate change with presidential contenders.
And in the courts, a major climate change lawsuit is underway with more than a dozen young plaintiffs who are suing the US government for profiting off of industries that emit greenhouse gases. In so doing, the government has deprived young people of their right to a safe climate. The suit, Juliana v. US, has already drawn the attention of the US Supreme Court. Thunberg is planning to join the Juliana plaintiffs and Democratic lawmakers for an address on the steps of the Supreme Court this week.
The school strikers and the Juliana plaintiffs have also reframed the discussion around climate change. It’s just as much an issue of justice as it is an issue of protecting the climate.
The people who contributed least to the problem stand to suffer the most, like people in small island countries with very low carbon emissions who are now threatened by sea level rise and extreme weather. And the worst consequences of unchecked warming will fall to future generations. Strikers are demanding that the policy response to climate change center on the issue of justice.
“We need to act right now to stop burning fossil fuels and ensure a rapid energy revolution with equity, reparations and climate justice at its heart,” according to the demands on the climate strike website.
The strikes, then, serve as a show of force from some of the people who have the most to lose from climate change. Whether countries will respond and speed up their efforts to limit warming remains to be seen.
Clarification: An earlier version of the story left out the September 27 strike, the second major protest planned as part of the Global Climate Strike.
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