Sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has sparked a global movement with her “school strike for the climate.” Last year, she started skipping school on Fridays to stand outside the Swedish parliament demanding climate action. Since then, she has inspired millions around the world to join her. The final two Fridays of this month, Sept. 20 and 27, are expected to be some of the largest global protests in history. These two strike days fall on either side of the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit on Monday, Sept. 23.
Organized during the U.N.’s annual General Assembly meeting, which brings leaders from around the world to New York City, the Climate Action Summit aims to “spark the transformation that is urgently needed and propel action that will benefit everyone.” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the urgency of the moment this week:
“July was the hottest month ever. These five years will be the hottest five years on record. We see the rising level of the ocean taking place, the highest concentrations ever of CO2 in the atmosphere … we are really dealing with a very dramatic threat, not only to the future of the planet, but to the planet today.”
Greta arrived in New York City on Aug. 28 after a two-week voyage aboard a zero-emissions, high-speed sailboat. Since then, she has been on the go, joining youth school strikes at the United Nations and in front of the White House, giving scores of interviews and engaging with grassroots activists, politicians and others to demand urgent action. On Monday night, in recognition for her work linking the climate emergency to human rights, Amnesty International gave her its 2019 Ambassador of Conscience Award.
Speaking with members of the Senate Climate Change Task Force in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, Greta said: “Don’t invite us here to tell us how inspiring we are without doing anything about it … I know you are trying, but just not hard enough. Sorry.”
The Paris climate agreement, signed by almost every nation in 2015, was supposed to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. President Donald Trump announced his intention to pull the United States out of the agreement on June 1, 2017 — failing to note that the earliest date the U.S. could leave would be November 2020. That is why the Trump administration has been sending low-level officials to the annual U.N. Climate Summits, where they spend their time promoting coal and other fossil fuels while energetically avoiding questions from the press.
Despite the Paris agreement, the planet as a whole continues to burn more fossil fuels. In a report issued just over a week ago, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicted that global petroleum consumption, for the first time ever, would surpass 100 million barrels per day in 2019. The International Energy Agency stated recently, “Despite legitimate concerns about air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, coal use will continue to be significant in the future,” and that coal comprises “27% of all energy used worldwide and … 38% of electricity generation.”
The rapid transition away from fossil fuels to a fully renewable energy economy will require a cooperative, global effort unprecedented in history. Several versions of this needed transformation for the United States have been articulated, first in the Green New Deal bill proposed by New York Democratic Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey. 2020 presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders has put forth a $16.3 trillion plan that he says would create 20 million jobs and pay for itself within 15 years. His plan also promotes environmental justice “in a truly inclusive movement that prioritizes young people, workers, indigenous peoples, communities of color, and other historically marginalized groups.”
Greta Thunberg’s words from last December’s U.N. Climate Summit in Katowice, Poland, bear repeating. The two-week ministerial meeting was almost over, and the plenary schedule was running late. At close to midnight, Greta, then 15 years old, gave a short, powerful address. She rocked the hall, and her words quickly resonated around the world:
“We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past, and you will ignore us again. We have run out of excuses, and we are running out of time. We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.”
On Tuesday, after sustained protests for several years, the University of California announced it is divesting its $84 billion pension and endowment funds of all fossil fuel investments.
The storms that batter island nations from the Bahamas to the Philippines, and coastal communities from Florida to Newfoundland, are occurring with greater frequency and greater strength. In response, a rapidly growing global movement of climate activists, led by youth, is heating up as well.