On Friday, September 20, 16-year-old climate activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greta Thunberg addressed thousands of high schoolers who had walked out of school in New York City. The crowd of demonstrators, which the mayor’s office estimated at 60,000, had marched through the streets of Lower Manhattan to protest the destruction of their future. It was a scorching day for late September, and Greta’s impassioned speech had to be stopped twice when audience members fainted in the heat. “What is the point of educating ourselves and learning the facts when the people in power refuse to listen to the educated and pay attention to the facts?” she told the crowd.
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio had given high school students permission to leave school to attend the protest. In my own high school in Queens, hundreds of students streamed out of the building with the ringing of the fourth-period bell. We moved as one towards the train station, many of us holding signs and posters high above our heads.
As we arrived in Foley Square, the meeting point for the march, we were met with the largest congregation of people I have ever seen. Swept into the crowd, we began marching and chanting, “The seas are rising and so are we!”; “There is no Planet B”; and many other messages of hopeful anger.
It wasn’t just high schoolers, though. There were elderly protesters, delighted to witness the messages they had chanted for decades being adopted by a new generation. There were young children with their parents, religious groups, socialists and other activists, all joined together by a common cause: the fight for the future.
Up to the Adults
I asked protesters why they’d come out. Bibi Ahmad, a 15-year-old student at Brooklyn High School of the Arts, said she was “tired of adults not doing anything.” Gina Ginenthal, a 17-year-old student at the Baccalaureate School for Global Education, hoped to convince politicians that the climate crisis is an issue worth caring about in the 2020 presidential election. “We need to inspire change,” Gina said, “Politicians must see climate as a priority.”
During the march, I heard the chant “Donald Trump has got to go!” many times. During his time in office, Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, basically refusing to help other countries fight the problem of climate change. He put a climate denier—someone who doesn’t agree with the 97% of scientists who say that climate change is real, and that human activity is responsible for causing it—in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency and rolled back environmental protections.
However, the problem did not start with Trump. Greta Thunberg said it perfectly in her Battery Park speech: “The people in power—their beautiful words are the same, the empty promises are the same, the lies are the same, and the inaction is the same.” For decades, leaders have failed to take meaningful steps to prevent and address the looming climate crisis.
The climate march was the latest event in a youth-led movement that began over a year ago, when Greta began skipping school every Friday for a “climate strike” outside the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm. In her view, it makes no sense to go to class when the planet is under assault. Across the globe, other teens joined her Friday strikes, including New Yorker Alexandria Villaseñor, who I interviewed last year outside the headquarters of the United Nations.
An estimated four million people around the world participated in the march, which was held a few days before the UN Climate Summit kicked off in New York. Greta has spent the last year pointing out the clear evidence that we must do something now. Since the industrial period that began in the 1800s, humans have been pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning coal, oil, and natural gas. Those are called fossil fuels because they have been buried in the ground for millions of years. They contain carbon, which goes into the air when we burn them to produce energy. Carbon dioxide, methane, and other “greenhouse gases” trap heat within our atmosphere, raising the global temperature.
The last five years are the hottest in recorded history, and scientists say we are moving toward catastrophe much faster than expected. The polar ice caps are melting, and all that water makes sea levels rise.
There are more climate-related disasters happening: fires, floods, and droughts. Developing countries bear the brunt of climate change. Hurricanes and tornadoes are becoming more common, destroying communities in places including Zimbabwe and Barbados.
Coastal areas are at risk. Much of New York City will eventually be flooded if carbon emissions continue at this pace. It’s scary and depressing to think there might be no future for my generation and the generations after us. I’m 17, and my sense of hopelessness has grown stronger every year.
Like Greta, I am tired of political inaction. According to the Center for American Progress Action Fund, there are 150 climate deniers in the current Congress, who have collectively received millions in campaign funding from fossil fuel industries. This is unacceptable. Making meaningful and swift progress on the man-made climate crisis seems almost impossible when those leading this country deny its existence.
We need to face the truth: The problem is being caused by big businesses calling the shots. A 2017 report from the Climate Accountability Institute says more than 70% of the harmful emissions come from 100 companies, with Exxon, Mobil, BP and Chevron at the top, along with state-run gas and oil companies in China and Russia. According to Scientific American, oil giant Exxon was already aware of the catastrophic consequences of climate change over 40 years ago, a decade before the public had even heard of it. Exxon and companies like it have been hiding the effects of climate change to protect their huge profits, which could soon be under threat.
World leaders need to do more. At the UN summit, 65 countries pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. That means that by some combination of lowering carbon emissions and removing carbon from the atmosphere, they will reach a point where no carbon is being added. Some businesses said at the UN that they would regulate themselves. But the two biggest polluters, China and the U.S., set no goals. President Trump didn’t even speak.
Metal straws and reusable shopping bags are not enough. We need to hold our politicians accountable, and refuse to surrender to the pressures of fossil fuel company lobbyists. We need to switch our energy sources to renewable resources like sun, wind and water. Governments need to work together and support companies that use renewables instead of fossil fuels. As Greta said, “We demand a safe future. Is that too much to ask?”