“No one is too young to make a difference”: stories from the global climate strike
Young people recount how they protested, in the face of poverty, conflict and toxic air pollution, for action on climate change.
Last Friday, young people around the world poured onto the streets in frustration at politicians dragging their feet on climate change. Protests took place in every continent, and organisers estimated that four million turned out in thousands of cities and towns worldwide.
This is a snapshot of what happened during the global climate strike on 20 September in over 10 cities across the globe – from Khartoum to Bangkok, Novosibirsk to São Paulo. Many of the accounts come from young climate activists and while the experiences they share – some of conflict and poverty – vary, they are united by their resolve to tackle the crisis.
Last Friday was the third time I walked out of school together with dozens of my classmates to demand action on climate change. On this occasion, we joined teenagers from schools across Bangkok in a march through the city centre to the ministry of resources. Along the way we repeated protest chants (“No more coal, no more oil, keep carbon in the soil”) and held up placards we’d made, which prompted people to stop and take photos. A few even joined us.
When we arrived at the ministry we held a die-in on the steps. A bunch of kids pretending to be dead outside their door got their attention. An official eventually came out of the building and we told them why we were protesting and handed them a petition calling for the government to limit its use of non-renewable energy.
I was glad we got some acknowledgement, but most of the time I feel like adults don’t listen to young people in Thailand. It’s frustrating that the government isn’t doing more to tackle climate change. I wish they’d just put everything aside for one second and focus on this issue.
When the air pollution reached hazardous levels in Bangkok earlier this year, I realised that the climate crisis is no longer something you hear about on the news. It's something that you have to live with every single day. I had to wear a mask when I went outside and I saw my friends a lot less. I’m privileged to even have that kind of protection and a bus to take me to school – the majority of the people in Bangkok don’t have that.
When I went to the first Bangkok climate strike in March this year it was shortly after hundreds of schools shut because of the pollution. The amount of cars that were driving around while we had to march with masks on our faces was ironic. It’s children and the elderly who are disproportionately affected by air pollution, so it makes sense for us to mobilise around this.
In Thailand, people don't think about climate change very much on a day to day basis. And that's one of the things that I really want to change. The climate strikes have mostly involved international school kids. I think a lot of Thai public schools don't recognise climate change as a valid reason to skip school. And I suppose a lot of Thai parents probably feel the same. I think that's a real problem because the strike have more impact if there were more local people involved. But at the same time, I understand that it’s difficult for everyone to take part.
I think climate change is class struggle, as well as an environmental struggle. There is an imbalance between the power that people have and the power that massive corporations hold. And these massive corporations make money for people who benefit off of the lifestyles that cause climate change.
In our current political system, change is really difficult. We need to push for more renewable energy and less polluting forms of goods production. But at the end of the day, it's so hard to be a human in 2019, every single thing you do has ethical or moral implications. It's not just about making these ethical choices anymore, we need structural change too.
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When I was 16, heavy floods devastated Sudan forcing 250,000 people from their homes. I joined a group of hundreds of young volunteers to help those who were most severely affected.
That was my first experience of public mobilisation and it got me interested in learning more about climate change and its devastating impact on my country. I decided to get more actively involved. I began working remotely for an NGO that provides training and mentorship to young climate journalists from around the world – many of them from countries in the global south also struggling with political corruption, human rights abuse, and economic instability. I was inspired to be part of a group of people working to improve conditions in my country.
Then came the revolution. In December 2018, a small group of angry schoolchildren in a Atbara, a city in northeastern Sudan, took to the streets to protest the increase in school lunch prices. By the end of the evening the crowd had burned down the local offices of the ruling political party.
News of the demonstration spread over Sudanese social media and, very soon, youth in other cities started to mobilise to take to the streets as well. We were calling for economic and social justice as well as an end to corruption.
Protests continued, often in a rather unorganised manner, for several weeks until a new body, called the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) was formed, with anonymous leaders. The SPA delivered a petition to the presidential palace in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital and my hometown, calling for the country’s 30-year dictator, President Omar al-Bashir, to step down.
Security forces immediately arrested everyone involved but that only made the SPA stronger. Every week after that a new protest was organised. I would check Twitter for the latest plans, organise with my friends, and head to the protest. They were seldom non-violent and we regularly heard of people being killed by security forces. My friends and I tried to prepare ourselves as best we could by mapping escape routes at protests and rehearsing stories to tell the forces should we get arrested.
This continued until one day, in the first week of April 2019, the protestors managed to make their way into the military’s headquarters. A sit-in continued for nearly a week before al-Bashir was forced by the military to step down, much to our surprise.
The fight, however, was far from over. Al-Bashir started off as a brigadier in the Sudanese Army and, not unlike many countries in the global south, Sudan’s military plays a strong role in the country’s political movements.
The sit-in continued, with SPA leading the civilian side of the negotiations, and the military on the other side, for a transition of power to a democratically elected government.
The early days of the negotiations were filled with hope, people celebrated across the country. The sit-ins were full of people singing, dancing, reciting poetry and hoping for good days to come.
But then, during Eid in June, negotiations hit a wall and Sudanese armed forces stormed the sit-in and opened fire on protesters. Hundreds were dead and over 70 cases of rape were reported.
What followed was an international outcry and pressure from regional countries that eventually lead to the military council agreeing to a settlement with the new political parties.
Just weeks ago, a new 18-member cabinet took office and Sudan is now waiting on them to deliver promised reforms.
That there are four women in the cabinet and that the prime minister has called for religious and ethnic tolerance gives me hope. But I know that a lot more work needs to be done to make climate justice a pressing issue for the government – and for the people of Sudan.
Sudan currently lacks the technological and economic capacity to adapt to climate change which is why it is important that the new government prioritise resources to environmental and climate work. Grassroots activists also have a vital role to play in educating people so that the country is prepared to face the most defining issue of our times.
Lina Yassin, 21, climate activist.
Mexico has an impressive culture of popular mobilisation – uncommon in Latin America due to government repression and disenchantment with democracy – that has defined how Mexicans express themselves in times of crisis for decades.
Just a few weeks ago, thousands in Mexico City took the streets to protest violence against women at the hands of police officials. The capital’s main avenue, the Reforma, was completely shutdown and the feminist slogans were spraypainted across the city.
Mexicans were out in force again for the global climate strike last Friday. Hundreds of children and citizens marched from the Angel of Independence to Mexico City’s main square, the Zocalo, where they gathered until the torrential rain struck late afternoon. The marchers were mostly young people, but many children were accompanied by worried parents and grandparents frustrated by the government’s inaction and the impact this may have on future generations.
One elderly couple, accompanying their eight-year-old grandchild, said that older generations must do more to help the young people to combat the crisis. They added that schoolchildren shouldn’t be solely responsible for pressuring governments who are failing to meet the goals set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Others express their disappointment with Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the newly elected president, for taking neoliberal approach to environmental issues. His proposals to build a 1,525-kilometre trainline, dubbed the Mayan Train, through natural habitats and indigenous territories and a new oil refinery in Dos Bocas has angered Mexicans who see him as hypocritical and unable to recognise the current environmental emergency.
Beverly Goldberg, co-editor and social media editor, DemocraciaAbierta.
On Monday, Russia announced that it would finally adopt the 2015 Paris Agreement at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York. Days earlier, dozens of young Russians came out to protest as part of the global climate strike in 20 cities across the country. Both are signs that the issue of climate change is beginning to resonate after years of skepticism.
The Russian public now seems to be more open and perceptive of the climate change debate. This is due to a number of factors, from its prevalence in international media and social media to the visible consequences of recent climate catastrophes including wildfires in Siberia and floods in the far east of the country.
The turnout for the global climate strike actions in Russian cities was relatively small. Around 40 people gathered in Novosibirsk (where authorities granted a permit for a rally), 40-60 in Moscow (authorities refused a permit) and around a hundred in St. Petersburg (where the action was also approved by the local authorities). In St. Petersburg, Russia’s cultural and tourist capital, the protest was also attended by a number of activists from other countries (including Germany and the US). Although turnout was relatively low across the board, it marked the third time that Russians had participated in a climate strike.
Last Friday’s actions demonstrated that a new wave in environmental mobilisation is emerging in the country. Over the last few years, environmental awareness and protests across the country have been on a rise. Until now, this growing politicisation was mostly connected to local, and usually urban, environmental concerns. Among the most popular have been grassroot campaigns around waste disposal protesting poorly managed landfills or plans to build incineration plants. Air pollution and shrinking green space are also a hot topics, campaigns have been mounted in opposition to existing and proposed coal plants and the destruction of green areas in cities for housing or infrastructure development.
Interestingly, local and national environmental concerns were also at the forefront of Friday’s climate strikes. Protesters in St. Petersburg were holding placards with messages demanding that authorities scrap proposals for a new coal plant near the city, condemnation of Arctic oil spills, and calls to end the transportation of waste from Moscow to northern Arkhangelsk.
Although climate change seems to be a relatively new topic for Russia environmental activists, more of them are now beginning to link local causes to the global climate agenda. Russia is one of the largest exporters of fossil fuels and many local communities (as well as a large number of jobs across the country) are dependent on oil, gas and, to a lesser extent, coal production.
One could argue that the country has become less skeptical about climate change. Climate denialism and skepticism is becoming more rare in political, business, scientific, media and public contexts – but it hasn’t disappeared. There is now awareness of climate change and the risks and consequences are often recognised as a danger for Russia (and the benefits from a warming climate are mentioned less than before). However, there is still a lack of readiness for ambitious climate action due to a number of reasons, foremost economic dependence on fossil fuels. But now youth climate activism in Russia is making the issue difficult to ignore.
Angelina Davydova, journalist and oDR contributor.
Last Friday, schoolchildren across Nigeria went on strike to demand action on climate change. In Abuja, I joined over a hundred young people on a march, many who had walked out of school or work. Their message to leaders – spelled out on dozens of placards – couldn’t be clearer: “Our future matters”.
In solidarity with Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement, I have been striking every Friday for almost a year. During this time, I’ve reached out to schools, indigenous communities and religious organisations to talk to people about the climate crisis. I’ve told them what we can do as individuals, but also why we need to demand action from our leaders now. I have had to sacrifice a lot as I have no external funding for my work.
I became more familiar with climate change as an issue while studying agricultural economics at university. I saw firsthand how the climate crisis has affected food production – it was disheartening to discover the impact on crop yields in Nigeria. Then, last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report warning that we have only 12 years to avoid catastrophic global warming. I saw this report as an indictment of our leaders who are still not ready to take action despite the alarming scientific evidence. Instead, they keep passing the buck from one government to another.
I describe myself as an “ecofeminist” because the climate crisis places women and girls at greater risk of harm. I’ve seen how their direct contact with nature and the role they play in the family makes them more vulnerable to the impact of climate change. Struggles for gender and environmental justice are linked: striking a balance in terms of gender equality will also lead to balance in our ecosystems. It’s vital that women are part of the decision-making process if we are to tackle the crisis.
In Nigeria, the media are failing to cover the crisis adequately. Outlets are more interested in reporting on political intrigue than holding power to account. Our leaders are also disinterested in the climate crisis: despite their promises they have yet to sign a climate change bill into law. World leaders also need to wake up: I’m saddened that countries in the global north are not making more progress despite being the biggest polluters. Politicians only take action when an emergency forces them too, but we young people don’t want that – we want change now.
That’s why I’m participating in the African Youth Climate Hub. Through the hub, young representatives from across the continent are taking matters into their own hands and coming up with innovative ideas in the struggle for environmental justice.
Oladosu Adenike, 24, climate activist.
North Africa, Middle East
Despite the relatively low levels of mobilisation around climate change in the Arab world, a number of small demonstrations took place in the region during the global climate strike. The largest took place in Marrakech where over 500 people took to the streets to demand climate justice.
“The annual United Nations Climate Change Conference was held in Marrakech in 2016 which resulted in a huge jump in awareness on the issue,” says Dania Cherry, communications lead for Greenpeace Lebanon.
She adds that while youth in other countries in the region are starting to understand how critical the issue is, the extent of public awareness and mobilisation is influenced by a number of other factors. Their experience of extreme climate conditions plays a significant role, as does conflict, political corruption, and economic crises.
While most states in the region, to varying extents, censor information online and limit the role of civil society, better access to education, growing urban populations, and social media platforms have enabled the spread of climate activism.
The governments of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have been increasingly promoting a discourse around environmental issues that focuses on technocratic solutions while preventing civil mobilisation around the issue.
The UAE has been actively building its ‘green economy’ and encouraging sustainability in recent years as part of its economic plan to grow its non-oil sectors. In 2017, a detailed national climate change plan was launched that highlighted the country’s efforts to manage its greenhouse emissions, increase its ability to adapt to changing climate, and become a leader in clean energy. A $27 million fund has also been launched by the government that provides low-interest loans to green projects and businesses.
“I heard a strike was being arranged in Abu Dhabi and got excited but then a colleague pointed out that events like this are illegal.”
Yet, emissions are expected to continue to rise and there is little to no room for discourse in local media and civil society that questions government policies.
“I heard a strike was being arranged in Abu Dhabi and got really excited but then a colleague pointed out that events like this are illegal,” says Eric Sapula, who is based in the UAE. “I tried to get in touch with the website that had put up the details but there was no response so I assumed it was, at best, poorly organised and decided to forego it.”
In Saudi Arabia, at least two climate activists, have arranged weekly Fridays for Future events in their respective cities that focus on increasing awareness about recycling. Challenging the country’s role in oil production, however, is off-limits.
“I can tweet about how, say, private restaurants should not use plastic straws because it is bad for the planet but I can’t hold a rally to demand the government reduces emissions. Well, I could but I’d probably get arrested,” says an Emirati graduate student, whose name has been redacted for safety reasons.
Other countries in the MENA region where there are fewer restrictions on freedom of assembly – such as Tunisia, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan – all saw a few dozen activists take to their streets during the global climate strike.
“Climate change is a human rights issue that is going to impact everybody,” said a student and an activist based in Tunisia who took part in the protest, but didn’t want to be named.
“When young people talk about climate change, people here don’t often take it that seriously because we have much ‘bigger’ problems to deal with. They don’t understand how the climate crisis will only worsen other issues and any and all policies going forward should keep environmental justice in consideration. We are working to make that happen.”
Rabiya Jaffery, journalist and NAWA contributor.
While more than a million people took to the streets across the world, only about a hundred gathered in the south Indian city of Bangalore. But the protest grew as bystanders swelled their ranks in the evening.
“At the end of the day, we want people to begin talking about climate change. And eventually take action,” said Nimisha Agarwal from a non-profit organisation called jhatkaa.org.
The city endures critical levels of air pollution and the crowd had gathered there to draw attention to it. Some students from the city’s colleges performed street plays, highlighting the ill effects of air pollution.
According to the latest Census of 2011, Indians between the ages of 15-24 years constitute one-fifth of the country’s 1.3 billion people. Younger people need to lead the battle in climate change, said Avinash Mathur, a resident of Bangalore for 10 years. A huge chunk of those in attendance were young. Parents had brought their toddlers along. “They are the ones facing the brunt of climate change, they need to be educated right from the start,” said a parent, who also said she was inspired by Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg.
In the western Indian city of Mumbai where open spaces are harder to find, people gathered in smaller numbers across the city. However, almost all of them were concerned over a recent government decision to cut over 2,600 trees in the heart of the city’s forest and 54,000 mangroves in order to build a bullet train line.
Information sessions on climate change were held across schools in the city and will continue till the 27th of September.
“Why should our generation bear the brunt of the situation?” asked Avni Oberoi, a 13-year-old student in the capital city of Delhi. She said she had almost stopped using plastic in her day to day life. But the country’s poorest might not have the luxury of eliminating plastic from their lives.
India made a commitment at the landmark 2015 UN climate conference to reduce greenhouse gas emission intensity by 33 to 35% below 2005 levels by 2030. However, media reports suggest India is nowhere near meeting those targets.
Raksha Kumar, journalist and 50.50 contributor.
I live on the small island of Tabugon with my family. It’s beautiful and peaceful, but it is changing. Since childhood, I’ve witnessed the challenges my family face, due to the connected issues of poverty and climate change. As local fisherfolk, my parent’s income and our lives depend on the sea.
Climate change has made the weather more and more unpredictable. At times we’ve not had enough to eat due to a low fish catch. Or my parents cannot afford to provide food or a school allowance. At present, water is very scarce, so we need to cross another island to buy water, even though it’s very risky for us.
I feel so sad every time I witness senseless and uncaring people destroying our environment. It breaks my heart. It also breaks my heart when I see children in our community suffering from poverty, because their livelihood is so affected by climate change, just like my parents.
As a young person and concerned citizen of our community, I am campaigning to protect our ocean by educating people about the damage caused by dumping waste in the sea. My parents and other residents in our village are involved in environmental and coastal management, like mangrove planting and sea patrolling to keep away illegal fishermen.
We still remember typhoon Haiyan. We were so scared of the strong winds. The roof of our house was blown off. We sheltered in our kitchen, but then strong winds blew the coconut trees onto our kitchen. We panicked and cried. We decided to evacuate to our church but we couldn’t go immediately because of the falling trees and other debris flying around.
When I found out about Greta Thunberg, I realised how important it is for us young people to be involved in climate change. Especially for us who live on isolated islands and rely upon fishing. I feel angry at those who are abusing our natural resources.
World leaders are not doing enough. When foreign governments give aid to poor countries it goes into the pockets of the rich and the people remain suffering in poverty.
My message to other young people around the world is to listen to the cries of youth in poor countries like the Philippines, their voices must be heard.
Glory, 19, climate activist.
With thanks to ICODE and Christian Aid.
When the news that the Amazon rainforest was up in flames made headlines last month, Brazil’s reputation on the world stage sunk to a new low. The president, Jair Bolsonaro, faced international condemnation for his track record of rolling back environmental protections.
The crisis has prompted change back home too. The stereotypical view that Brazilian youth are only passionate about football, cheap beer and partying no longer holds true – if it ever did. A new generation of Brazillians are out on the streets protesting rather than dancing.
The government’s destructive plans for the environment, particularly the Amazon and its peoples, spurred large crowds of young people to gather outside the Museum of Art of São Paulo on Friday, November 20, to demand a change in policy.
Amid persistent drizzle and smog, strikers shared pollution masks with their fellow demonstrators before they set off to march. Just a few weeks prior, São Paulo residents witnessed a scene straight out of a sci-fi film when the skies went completely dark at 3 p.m. The phenomenon was caused by the fine dust particles from wildfires in the Pantanal region in Paraguay and Bolivia that were carried by the moisture moving toward Brazil’s largest city during a cold front.
The previous weeks in São Paulo had also been marked by dangerously low humidity that dipped below 20% just two days before the strike. It was the driest day of the year in a city where humidity averages above 70% every month of the year.
People are scared. Everybody I talked to at the event mentioned the dire political situation in Brazil, expressing fear that the next election cycle might be too late to turn the emergency around. And who can blame them? Brazil went from being “the country of the future” to the destroyer of the world’s lungs in a matter of years. Brazilians know how quickly destruction can spread.
The amount of children and teenagers at the protest really demonstrated what this movement is about. As one 9-year-old boy who took the stage before the crowds began to march put it, “no one is too young to make a difference”. This is, perhaps, the first national crisis younger generations have experienced in their lifetime. Brazil — like a lot of Latin America — experienced almost two decades of prosperity, boasting economic growth of 7.5% and unprecedented reduction in poverty rates. The country’s growth rate has since plummeted, reaching -3.5 in 2015. It is currently hovering just above 0%.
The 21st century was Brazil’s to take. Until it became obvious that it wasn’t. In just three years, the Brazil of the future became the Brazil that never will be. That is, unless we turn things around fast – the people that showed up on Friday believe we can.
“We, the people, carry the power in our voices to change the institutions”, a young man named João told me. “We have to to go out and make these demands”.
Manuella Libardi, editor, openDemocracy Brasil
Absences were excused for New York City public school students who participated in the climate strike last Friday. Estimates suggest that nearly 250,000 people descended upon lower Manhattan to demand our leaders take immediate action to address the climate crisis.
Marching through the canyons of Wall Street, the protest had a distinctly anti-capitalist flair. As the crowd passed Zuccotti Park, the site of the Occupy Wall Street movement nine years prior, an older pro asked the adolescent strikers, “Do you remember Occupy?”
While the vast majority of strikers were infants during Occupy, the systemic critiques that defined the movement, were now being propelled by the youth – as they ebulliently marched into the heart of global finance.
The streets were transformed into a colossal playground. Students climbed onto any elevated surface they could find – scaffolding, lampposts, and bollards – demanding that the adults in power take immediate action to save their future.
As the strikers filled Battery Park, a diverse set of speakers took center stage including members of the indigenous community, students activists, Jaden and Willow Smith and Greta Thunberg. Asking the thousands of young onlookers in front of her if the leaders gathering at the UN Climate Action Summit will hear them, the crowd responded with an emphatic “No”.
“We will make them hear us,'' Thunberg responded.
Aaron White, North America editor, ourEconomy.
An earlier version of this article stated that two climate strikes previously took place in Russia. It also stated that on 20 September 2019 protests took place in 11 Russian cities. The number of past climate strikes was in fact three, and actions took place in 20 cities.
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