Hundreds of thousands of youth around the globe protested last week against government and corporate inaction on the climate crisis.
They congregated in cities on every continent — from Johannesburg to Nairobi, New York to San Francisco, Berlin to Warsaw, Lahore to New Delhi, Melbourne to Brisbane — making their voices heard in a world run by adults they say aren’t doing nearly enough to curb greenhouse gas emissions and prevent the world from growing hotter.
The photographs were inspiring — teenage demonstrators marching in Stockholm, amassing on Capitol Hill, cramming the streets of Hamburg, Karachi, Rio de Janeiro and Manila, expressing their fear and rage.
The New York Times estimated some cities had turnouts in the range of 100,000 and others in the tens of thousands — making it “the first time that children and young people had demonstrated to demand climate action in so many places and in such numbers around the world.” And unlike mass protest movements in the past — whether against apartheid or the Vietnam war, or in favour of civil rights — the rallies on Sept. 20 were on an unprecedented geographical scale, spanned all income groups and were facilitated by the Internet.
“We demand a safe future. Is that too much to ask?” Sweden’s 16-year-old climate activist, Greta Thunberg, declared in Manhattan. “Right now we are the ones who are making a difference. If no one else will take action, then we will.”
Thunberg, who travelled to the U.S. by a solar-powered yacht, said she hoped the day of protest would be a “social tipping point” (there are 1.8-billion youth in the world between the ages of 10 to 24 — the largest generation of young people in history), and earlier in the week, appeared before the U.S. Congress to submit a report published a year ago by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “I don’t want you to listen to me,” she told the lawmakers in Washington on Sept. 18, “I want you to listen to the science.”
The landmark study on the climate crisis — with input from 91 scientists from 40 countries analyzing more than 6,000 scientific studies — found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current pace, the atmosphere will warm up by as much as 1.5 C (2.7 F) above pre-industrial levels by 2040. The study warned that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 45% by 2030 and cut to zero by 2050.
The student-led protests preceded the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit in New York on Sept. 23 — a meeting to discuss what actions need to be taken to slow global warming. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on business and government leaders to come to the gathering with “concrete, realistic plans to enhance their nationally determined contributions by 2020.”
The urgency can no longer be debated, as polar ice melts, seas rise, droughts grow longer, and storms and floods become more vicious. The latest evidence: Hurricane Dorian, which levelled parts of the Bahamas, leaving at least 53 people dead and 1,300 missing.
As world leaders assembled at the UN summit, a study released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development concluded that “taxes on polluting fuels are too low to encourage a shift to low-carbon alternatives,” and that “70% of energy-related CO2 emissions from advanced and emerging economies are entirely untaxed, offering little incentive to move to cleaner energy.” The study warns that just 18% of emissions outside the road sector are effectively taxed. “Taxes on coal —which is behind almost half of CO2 emissions from energy — are zero or close to zero in most countries.”
U.S. President Donald Trump dropped into the climate summit at the UN headquarters, but according to The New York Times, “made no address there, and didn’t stay long.”
The U.S. is the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, yet Trump wants to revive the coal industry and has made a habit of rolling back environmental regulations ever since he came to office.
His most recent attack on efforts to fight climate change target California’s rules on tailpipe emissions. As students took to the streets, Trump said he would revoke the state’s authority under a federal waiver to set auto-emission rules that are stricter than federal standards. California’s legal waiver to implement its own standards on tailpipe emissions was granted under the 1970 Clean Air Act.
The UN climate summit produced few concrete results, and in her speech, Sweden’s Thunberg chastised presidents, prime ministers and corporate executives worldwide.
“You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say, we will never forgive you.
“People are suffering, people are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”