In the summer of 2018 -- Sweden’s hottest in 262 years -- Greta Thunberg, then a 15-year-old high school student, skipped class every day for three weeks to sit on the steps of the Swedish parliament with a sign declaring a “school strike for the climate.” Other students began joining her, or imitating her elsewhere, every Friday. The adult-dominated Extinction Rebellion started in London last November by blocking five key bridges for several days. They model their approach on the U.S. civil rights struggle and similar fights against South African apartheid, HIV/AIDS and wealth inequality.
2. What do the climate protesters want?
Thunberg first demanded her government take action to reduce the emissions that cause global warming, while Extinction Rebellion called on the British government to commit to becoming carbon neutral by 2025. Both movements share the overall goal of getting politicians to treat climate change as an emergency. They want countries to promise to switch their power sources to 100% renewable energy as soon as possible, preferably earlier than 2030, and put an end to subsidies for fossil fuels, which the International Monetary Fund estimates amount to $4.7 trillion worldwide, or 6.3% of global GDP. Scientists say vast changes are needed to keep the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Beyond that point, they say, the planet is at risk of irreversible events such as the melting of polar ice sheets, wholesale loss of coral reefs and destruction of other vital ecosystems.
3. How large are these movements?
More than 5,600 student Climate Strikes had taken place all over the world as of Oct. 17, with at least 2,100 more planned, according to registration records maintained by a clearinghouse called Fridays for Future. Organizers say a series of coordinated strikes in March drew 1.4 million participants and that even more showed up at a round of protests in May. Another wave of protests in September, dubbed “Global Climate Strike,” drew 7.6 million participants in 185 countries around the world, according to organizers. It’s harder to put precise figures on Extinction Rebellion, or XR, events, but the coordinated October 2019 “International Rebellion” included protests in at least 60 cities worldwide. In London, thousands spent two weeks blocking roads, gluing themselves to buildings and disrupting transport hubs.
Thunberg and some other protesters have met with European Union leaders and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Thunberg gave a blistering speech to a group of the world’s elite gathered at the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and sailed to New York in September to scold global leaders at the UN’s Climate Action Summit for not doing enough to address the climate crisis. She and other new-generation activists are pushing the old environmental hands -- such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the WWF -- to up their game or risk losing influence. Celebrities such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Emma Thompson have spoken out in support.
5. How have governments responded?
Some have been less than charitable. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was critical of the youthful strikers, saying the government is already acting on climate change and students should stay in class. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called Extinction Rebellion participants “uncooperative crusties” in “heaving hemp-smelling bivouacs.” But the protests have already changed the way politicians and businesses leaders talk about climate change and added urgency to the political debate. The U.K.’s House of Commons has declared a “climate emergency,” and some cities have followed suit, including Sydney, New York and Paris. There are no commonly agreed policies that come about as a result of such a declaration, though. Rather, it’s coded language meant to highlight the gravity of the climate situation.
--With assistance from Emma Vickers.
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