On September 20, an estimated 4 million people worldwide took part in the global climate strike—the largest climate protest in history. On every continent, crowds of protesters choked city streets, halting traffic and swarming the steps of government buildings. Led by a genaeration of young people who refuse to tolerate world leaders’ inaction in the face of a rapidly warming planet, the turnout is a testament to their strength of will and the power of their collective force. We asked students to describe their experiences of the march and what they see as next steps in the climate struggle.
Stepping out of the subway, you could hear the crowd before you saw it. Not long after noon, southern Manhattan was shut down.
Growing up in rural Tennessee, not far from coal country, I am used to being one of the only ones to show up to environmental protests. Seeing tens of thousands of people standing beside me was a surreal feeling, almost like sleepwalking. And watching the wave of marchers roll over Foley Square, I was reminded of all the students still striking alone, in all corners of the world.
Shortly before the climate strike, I had the unique opportunity to ask Elizabeth Warren if she supported the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act, H.R. 2050. The ACHE Act would, essentially, put a moratorium on mountaintop removal mining, in recognition of its devastating health impacts, ranging from birth defects, to heart disease, and even death. The ACHE Act would, at last, put people before profit.
Along with many of my fellow Appalachian activists, I was pleasantly surprised when she said yes. To my knowledge, it was the first time Senator Warren has publicly opposed mountaintop mining—an important plank, arguably, of any just transition for Appalachia.
It’s easy to use the words “just transition,” or carry a sign calling for the end of coal. But it’s harder to envision what that future really is, and what it really means. This summer marks almost the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain, and in some ways history seems to repeat itself. Miners are still sickened and defrauded by the companies they work for, and the fight against coal is still in the streets.
Today, the Coal Wars have largely faded from popular memory. Maybe the student strikes are similarly one incredible moment, destined to fade away. I prefer to think that the momentum will build, and carry into some sort of justice for coal communities and others who have historically suffered from fossil fuel exploitation. On a deeper level, maybe it is enough to have just one extraordinary day.
For a single moment in time, whether standing on a mountaintop in West Virginia or the center of Foley Square, someone said that our lives are worth more than money. Our lives are priceless. My generation’s movement is peaceful, but we must never forget those who came before us, and lost their lives for our right to challenge coal, and its costs to communities like mine.
Robin Happel, Fordham University
After organizing a Harvard Strike for Divestment and Climate Justice, our group, Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, and hundreds of our allies marched over to Boston City Hall Plaza to join the citywide strike, where I had the privilege of speaking. Suddenly, the call we had made only an hour ago in Cambridge—that Harvard and its peer institutions stop investing in the destruction of their students’ futures and start showing real climate leadership—took on new meaning.
A sea of elementary school students with bright orange bandanas—used to identify themselves to their teachers at the 7,000-person rally—peered up at me from the bottom of the stage. As I gripped the microphone, casting my eyes over a crowd that spans generations and identities, I glimpsed a paper-mache mask of my university president’s head and couldn’t help but smile. These are my people, I think. How incredible it is that we get to be a part of this moment, together.
Surrounded by Green New Deal advocates and pipeline resisters, ours was part of a collective call for all of our institutions to wake up to the climate emergency. It was a powerful reminder of how intersectional and all-encompassing our movement can be—and must be, if we’re going to survive this crisis.
The diversity of rally participants and, particularly, of rally speakers—including indigenous activists and faith leaders—also spoke to the fundamental role of justice in our call to action. Because climate change and social justice are inseparable. Because the front-line communities who understand this crisis and its solutions best continue to be marginalized. And because even as millions of us strike around the world, there are millions of us who do not have that privilege.
No movement is without its flaws and obstacles. What’s important is that when it matters, the movement overcomes them—and that happens when people stand in solidarity with one another. It happens when we remind ourselves that we are part of one interconnected global community, living on a shared planet; when we share ecological grief but choose to be joyous anyways, expressing a radical love for one another and for Mother Earth with music, art, and poetry; when we say that no matter what tomorrow brings, we are not going anywhere.
So when it comes to next steps, the answer is clear: We need everyone who can be involved where their passions and skills direct them—whether that’s grassroots organizing, legislative advocacy, technological innovation, or art-making. And we need everyone to turn toward their institutions and demand that they step up. Because if we want a more just and stable future, then our fight is far from over. In fact, it is only just beginning.
Ilana Cohen, Harvard University
The September 20 climate strike showed the world that young people are devoted to taking the future into our hands. At least 600,000 people, primarily youth, participated in the United States across 1,100 registered strikes to demand transformative action on the climate crisis. Hundreds of youth organizers, many who organized a strike for the first time, have been working behind the scenes for weeks and months on organizing strikes in their communities. They are the foundation of this historic, youth-led climate strike.
September 20 was the beginning of a new wave in the climate movement. From the start, organizers have been clear that this is an intergenerational and intersectional movement. Centering the diverse lived experiences and realities of underrepresented voices is where the conversation begins, and we must and will continue to have these conversations.
Through my work as a digital organizer and content strategist in the climate movement, my goal is to help amplify stories of the front-line youth across the country, as it is vital to reach current and potential allies through content. The future generation shouldn’t have to demand a livable world, but we are—and we’re not stopping.
Dillon St Bernard, The New School
Over the past year, I began to truly study how my actions impacted the environment, how I could change them for the better and how to start meaningful conversations among family and friends. But until I witnessed a “die-in” staged at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, climate change just felt like words on a screen, posts on social media, and passing comments between friends and family. Until I saw a crowd of strangers play dead in the middle of a thunderstorm to illustrate the reality of our dying planet, climate change was something I would only have to worry about when I grew older. Until I felt that eerie silence wash over me and the gravity of the situation sink in, climate change was not a reality. But because I saw fellow young people actively participating in and protesting for our right to inherit a healthy earth, my perception of climate change transformed into a three-dimensional truth with palpable calls and consequences. Climate change is knocking on society’s door, and we need to answer with concrete action. We need to keep standing up, showing up, marching, talking, writing, demonstrating, thinking and exchanging ideas. We need to bring this issue to all corners of our realities, all the way from Tumblr to town halls. We need to hold ourselves, others, and our leaders accountable and to the highest standards, and we need to inject hope back into the idea that we will one day live on a healthy planet, if only by the strength of our will and our love for each other.
Georgia Dalke, University of Winnipeg
It is fitting that Friday’s climate strike took place on an unseasonably warm day in Saint Paul. With temperatures rising well above 80 degrees, thousands of Minnesotans stood listening to speeches and calls to action in the shadow of the state capitol.
Time is running out. We know that. But what Friday demonstrated is that thanks to the leadership of young people, from the streets of our towns to the halls of our Congress, the climate movement in this country has matured.
More and more people are beginning to connect the dots between the environment and other issues—to understand how our economic system is built on resource extraction, how the vast majority of the world’s greenhouse gas is emitted by a handful of multinational corporations, and how black and brown communities are made to disproportionately suffer the effects of climate change.
In Minnesota, for instance, a generation of climate activists have cut their teeth battling to stop the construction of a new Enbridge oil pipeline that would tear through Native land in the northern part of the state in violation of tribal treaty rights. Those activists know who is destroying the environment, where they’re destroying it, and why. The people who are standing against Line 3, and who stood against the Dakota Access Pipeline a state over, are not interested in fighting over plastic straws and individual meat consumption.
They’re thinking bigger. That’s how we got a speaker on Friday making connections between air pollution in North Minneapolis and drought in Somalia. That’s how we got a speaker from majority non-white Richmond, California, home of a massive Chevron oil refinery, quoting Berta Cáceres on the evils of rapacious capitalism, racism, and patriarchy that have shaped its realities, environmental and otherwise. That’s how we got members of the surging ranks of the Democratic Socialists of American to drape a banner over a balcony inside the capitol building asserting that we now face a choice between eco-socialism and eco-apartheid.
The climate movement has grown up. Its leaders know that the climate crisis is inextricably intertwined with all of the other crises that are tearing apart our society. To stop one, we must stop them all.
Abe Asher, Macalester College
I participated in the September 20 Student Strike as a grad school organizer for the Harvard Rally for Climate Justice and Divestment. Our action was based at Harvard University, drawing out students and professors at the university as well as local high school and primary schools.
The rally was organized by Divest Harvard, a group based primarily out of the college, and Organizers for Radical Climate Action (ORCA), a group of graduate students primarily based out of the Graduate School of Design. We held a one-hour rally at the central plaza of Harvard University. Speakers included Gina McCarthy, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration; Marc McGovern, the mayor of Cambridge; Harvard professors; and students and children from the local community.
We participated in the global climate protest not only to echo the demands of the Greater Boston Strike (which organizers were closely in touch with), but also to rally for specific demands at Harvard University of divesting from fossil fuels by Earth Day 2020 and creating a mandatory course around climate justice at various Harvard graduate schools.
We protested, chanted, and sang outside the Harvard Science Center for one hour. As a graduate school organizer based at the law school, I worked with the Environmental Law Society to bring out students from Harvard Law School, as well as coordinating between the other graduate students of the university, including the Graduate School of Arts and Science, the Harvard Kennedy School, and Harvard Medical School. Twenty organizations at Harvard Law School alone signed onto the rally, and even more registered across the university.
I truly believe that more direct and disruptive action in the future, and continued coordination with the local community, will be essential to generate even more attention on the issue and calling out Harvard’s own hypocrisy. Harvard University has an outsize influence in the world and wants to be seen as a leader for its work. We hope that continued pressure of students and faculty on building true climate justice will help the university truly become a leader in this field. Activism is more crucial than ever. People have to wake up and see the emergency. The intellectual establishment cannot be complicit in the status quo and clap itself on the back for business-as-usual.
Ava Liu, Harvard University