Listen up, grown-ups around the world: You’ve failed us.
That is the message millions of young people from Sydney to Warsaw to London and beyond carried to the streets on Friday, as they skipped school to stage strikes demanding urgent action on climate change.
The global strike is the third this year and involved more than 3,000 protests, according to Fridays for Future, the group that organized them. The strike in New York, where 1.1 million students were excused from school, comes ahead of a pair of climate meetings at the United Nations–the first-ever Youth Summit on Saturday and a one-day Climate Action Summit of the General Assembly on Monday.
Striking for change
The New York protest was led by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish high school student who has become the face of the fast-growing youth movement that has taken hold in more than 200 nations. Her message to world leaders is blunt and to the point: Listen to the science.
"We are united behind the science and will stop at nothing to keep this crisis from getting worse," Thunberg said from the stage in Battery Park at the south end of Manhattan as the crowd chanted, "Greta, Greta, Greta."
She not only condemned political leaders for their "empty promises, lies and inaction," she chastised supportive adults for taking selfies with her and her fellow activists and telling them "how much they admire what we do."
That is not why the crowds turned out in the streets, she added. "We are doing this to wake up the leaders," she said. "We deserve a safe future. Is that too much to ask?"
Thunberg delivered a similar message to the U.S. Congress when she testified earlier this week. Instead of prepared remarks, she submitted last October’s report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that warned the rise of global temperatures was hastening to an alarming degree. To prevent 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit of warming—which would result in catastrophic food shortages, coral reef die-offs, worsening flooding, wildfires and extreme weather—the scientists advised that global greenhouse gases must be reduced by 45 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050.
Aside from her appearance before Congress, Thunberg met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former President Barack Obama, and appeared at a protest in front of the Supreme Court with 21 youth plaintiffs suing the government to force court-ordered action on climate change. She also joined a strike outside the gates of the White House, which included a silent 11-minute “lie-down” in recognition that there just 11 years remaining before that first 2030 deadline.
Thunberg arrived in New York late last month after a two-week trip across the Atlantic by yacht. She refuses to fly because of airplanes’ carbon footprint.
The tiny but fearless teenager seems the least likely leader of a global movement. When she staged her first Friday school strike outside the Swedish Parliament in August last year, she sat alone. A handful of other students joined her, then more. She spoke to the UN meeting in Poland–traveling by train–last December, and by spring, a global movement had been launched.
“The weight of the climate crisis has been put on our shoulders by the inaction of our leaders,” says Alexandria Villasenor, who is 14 and the founder of Earth Uprising, one of the numerous activist groups that has been organized.
Villasenor lives an hour’s drive from Paradise, California, which burned to the ground last fall in one of the worst wildfires in the worst fire season ever recorded in California’s history. In recalling the fire and the toxic smoke that spread to her hometown, Villasenor said her greatest fear is that by the time she turns 18 and is eligible to vote, “it will be too late to solve the climate crisis.”
The movement has been compared to earlier social movements, including women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay and lesbian rights, and anti-war protests during the Vietnam war, to name a few. Whether this movement succeeds in compelling world leaders to move more rapidly to remake the planet’s energy system seems a tough haul. Some teen activists worry that the movement might not be able to sustain itself beyond school strikes.
More than a few teens who began as fervent activists have dropped out, citing depression, anxiety and other fears that the world’s leaders will not act in time to prevent their lives–and the lives of their children–from being irretrievably altered by climate change.
Kathleen Rogers, president of Earth Day Network, which bills itself as the “world’s largest recruiter to the environmental movement," remains optimistic that the youth activists will ultimately prevail. One of the hallmarks of social movements that succeed and change history, she says, is that they are intensely personal to those leading them.
“Vietnam was personal because young people were getting drafted,” she says. “This is personal to these kids. They’ve had a steady diet of what’s going to happen to the world. It’s in the news. This movement has consistently been getting bigger and bigger.”
In Washington, where a panel of activists appeared ahead of this week’s events, when they were asked how adults could help, the answers seemed obvious to many youths in the room.
Kallan Benson, the national coordinator for Fridays for Future USA, recommended asking young activists how they could contribute.
“We are a youth-led movement,” she said. “We need you guys to help us."
“You’re all able to vote,” said Jerome Foster, a National Geographic Student Explorer who helps with voter registration campaigns.
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, one of the 21 plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the U.S. government and youth director of Earth Guardians, summed up the activists’ sentiment in the succinct and direct way that has come to characterize the leaders of the movement.
“You’re still here,” he said. “You’re not off the hook yet.”