The kids are not all right. For more than a year, young activists have been staging climate strikes around the globe. They are about to get much bigger. Sparked by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg in Sweden last year, the school walk-out movement has spread to what organizers hope will be millions of children and adults around the world protesting for action to end the climate crisis.
“Young people refuse to sit by as our future is destroyed around us,” the organizers state in an explanation of the movement. “The urgency of the climate crisis requires a new approach and a just response centered on human rights, equity, and justice.”
The coming week will see protests continue, perhaps sparking a wider movement. Organizers expect millions of people to head to the streets in more than 500 US cities including New York; Boston, MA; Miami, FL; Houston, TX; Phoenix, AZ, as well as 100 different countries, just before the United Nations Climate Action Summit convenes on Sept. 23.
The demonstrations started small. Thunberg left her classroom one Friday last August to hold a sign outside the Swedish parliament reading Skolstrejk för klimatet (“School strike for the climate”). She was inspired, she says, by students who organized the March for Our Lives after surviving the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.
Today’s (Sept. 20) school walkouts are organized by a loose affiliation of youth groups and individuals that have taken up the cause in different locations. These protests will be distinguished not only by their size, but their age demographics. Adults are formally invited for the first time. Organizers want older generations to join the students in calling for a sweeping transformation of the world’s response to the climate crisis.
More than 100 companies are shutting down for the day, and a “digital climate strike” will see 6,000 websites go dark, from Kickstarter to WordPress. Amazon employees plan to strike over the company’s inaction on climate change (Bezos pledged on on Thursday to make the company carbon-neutral by 2040). Unions are backing the efforts. The New York City Department of Education has given striking students an excused absence, and more than 700 medical professionals signed a “doctor’s note” excusing students from school for the climate “global health emergency.”
The strikers, frustrated by decades of voluntary international actions such as the Paris climate agreements (which have yet to bring emissions in line with a safe climate), have issued a list of demands aligned with what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is necessary to avoid catastrophic warming beyond 2°C. The demands from the coalition of US groups include:
- implementing the Green New Deal by transitioning to 100% clean, renewable energy by 2030, phasing out fossil fuel extraction, and creating millions of new jobs
- respecting treaties with indigenous groups, ending resource extraction on their land, and passing Rights of Nature into law
- welcoming climate migrants and investing in prosperity for poor communities suffering from the effects of global warming
- restoring and protecting 50% of the world’s lands and oceans, including ending deforestation by 2030
- ending subsidies for industrial agriculture while investing in sustainable agriculture
If that sounds ambitious, it’s intended to be, says Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California Santa Barbara. One of the primary youth groups striking in the US is the Sunrise Movement, which was formulated explicitly to mirror the US Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Their goal, says Stokes, is to get 4% of the US population into the streets to support their demands on climate action. (Some research suggests 4% is the tipping point for public pressure to lead to change.)
They’re working with labor unions (historically not a ready ally for the environmental movement), recruiting young people to live and organize together in Sunrise Movement houses, and putting 10,000 more youth turning 18 on the rolls in battleground states.
“Sunrise had done lot of their homework and studied the history of social movements,” she says. “They’ve built an organization to mimic the civil rights movement. It’s not there yet, but it has the potential to get there.”