“The planet can do without us, but we cannot do without the planet,” one of the signs at the march read, according to the Associated Press.
Many of the protests are inspired by 16-year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg, who skipped school last year to protest in front of the Swedish parliament, demanding more decisive action on climate change. Thunberg and others have pointed out in interviews and at rallies that their generation is protesting government inaction on climate change because they are the ones who will live with the effects.
A recent U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report — which reviewed about 6,000 scientific studies — found that some of the worst repercussions of global warming, including sea-level rise, widespread droughts and mass extinction of vulnerable species, could become reality for much of the world’s population as early as 2040. Most babies born today will not have completed college by that point.
Since Thunberg’s first public appearances, tens of thousands of students in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Australia and other countries have followed her example. Rallies earlier this month drew thousands of students in more than 50 German cities, with organizers estimating that 30,000 joined the rallies. Meanwhile, in France, where a backlash against emissions-reduction plans has partially triggered what’s known as the yellow vests movement, a less noticed campaign on the opposite side of the political spectrum has also gained momentum in recent months.
More than 26,000 students so far have pledged in an online manifesto that they will never work for companies they deem to be heavy polluters, which they hope will shame companies into becoming more forceful players against global warming.
“Either we stick to the destructive path our societies have chosen, being content with the commitment of only a minority of people, waiting to sift through its aftermath,” the authors of the manifesto wrote. “Or we take our future into our own hands and collectively decide to anticipate and incorporate social and environmental ambitions into our daily lives and jobs; take action to change direction and avoid stalemate.”
While the manifesto’s ambitions largely fit into French President Emmanuel Macron’s stated goal of reducing emissions in the country, other governments have openly attacked the young climate change protesters in recent months.
In Australia, thousands of students skipped school late last year despite government warnings not to do so, rallying across the country in major cities such as Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Australia’s conservative government has been under criticism from climate change activists for continuing to back coal as an energy source and for what critics say is only a halfhearted implementation of emissions-reduction goals. Unlike the United States, however, Australia has vowed to stick to its pledges under the Paris climate agreement.
The students who rallied across Australia in November argued that far more needs to be done to address climate change, beyond the goals already set by the international community. In taking to the streets, the students ignored warnings by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who had urged them to stay in school rather than join the rallies.
“We don’t support our schools being turned into parliaments. What we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools,” Morrison said last year. The government’s resources minister, Matt Canavan, later sparked more outrage among climate change activists when he told a Sydney radio station that the “best thing you’ll learn about going to a protest is how to join the dole queue,” referring to unemployment.
In Australia and elsewhere, climate change skeptics quickly tried to dismiss the protests as an attempt by green activists to bring global warming back onto the agenda. But supporters see the rallies as a sign of a widening generational divide, with younger people across the world holding older generations accountable over climate change inaction and the looming threat of global warming.
Their sense of urgency is backed by a number of academics, including by researchers with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who recently concluded that the world has only 12 years left to limit global warming to an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) this century. If temperatures rise above that, scientists predict a dire climate crisis with more floods, devastating heat and worsening poverty across the globe.
That will be about the time many of the young people currently protesting will be deciding whether to bring children of their own into a changing world.
Mounting pressure on political leaders from young protesters comes as more studies are suggesting that some of the worst impacts of climate change could materialize even quicker than bodies such as the U.N. intergovernmental panel have so far predicted. Earlier this month, a new research paper found that annual Antarctica ice loss has increased sixfold since the 1970s and concluded that the East Antarctic ice sheet has already become a major contributor to sea-level rise.
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