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Young climate activists join Greta Thunberg for first major Fridays for Future strikes of pandemic

Greta Thunberg's Fridays for Future demonstrations resumed on Sept. 24, uniting climate protesters in Berlin, London, Rome and other European cities. (Video: The Washington Post)

LONDON — Young people around the world spilled into streets, city squares and local parks on Friday, following the call of Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, for the first big, in-person, coordinated climate protests since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Thunberg, who started the Fridays for Future student movement in 2018, was in Berlin, where the turnout was especially high, and where voters are gearing up to select a successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel in national elections Sunday.

“Yes, we must vote, you must vote, but remember that voting only will not be enough. We must keep going into the streets,” she said to a crowd outside the Reichstag parliament building.

The pandemic forced young climate activists to adopt new strategies to highlight their cause, including digital protests. A global Fridays for Future strike in March was held partly online.

But with coronavirus-related restrictions relaxing in many countries, street protests can resume once more. Students demonstrated in more than 1,500 locations around the world on Friday, though not in the numbers they achieved in 2019. In September of that year, millions of young people took to the streets in what were regarded as the largest climate change protests in history.

Friday’s demonstrations were designed to coincide with the opening of the United Nations General Assembly this week in New York, where climate change was discussed as an urgent issue. Activists are also gearing up for COP26, a major international climate conference that will be held in Glasgow, Scotland.

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“Symbolism of in-person interaction, and the return of voices to the streets, is particularly important in the lead-up to COP,” said Darrick Evensen, a lecturer in environmental politics at the University of Edinburgh. “A picture is worth a 1,000 words — well, you don’t have pictures of people corresponding on Facebook or Instagram or TikTok,” he said.

While the upcoming elections loomed over Friday’s protests in Germany — which were scheduled at more than 400 locations in the country — many slogans and banners reflected the crisis in a broader sense, demanding a stop to coal energy production and a rapid transition to renewable sources.

“The politicians aren’t doing anything,” said Marcus Schmidt, 30, referring to the current German government. “I’m here to show that we have it in our hands now, to elect a government that perhaps finally changes something.”

Germany’s Green Party topped the polls earlier this summer, but it has since dropped to third place, behind the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Some fear that the Green Party’s decline in the polls could mean that even if it enters a coalition government, it could lack the strong mandate it would need to implement its proposals.

Both the SPD and the CDU broadly agree that more-decisive action on climate change is needed, but they disagree on how far the next government should go, and their proposals are less extensive than those put forward by the Green Party.

At the Berlin protest, a balloon depicting conservative front-runner Armin Laschet bounced in the air with the slogan: “Climate protection with CDU/CSU? Nothing more than hot air!”

Many protesters in different parts of the world commented on the importance of being able to attend demonstrations in person again.

Patricia Kombo, a 25-year-old media analyst from Nairobi, said that a group of about 40 people gathered in a local park and tagged Kenya’s Ministry of Environment in their social media posts from the rally. They were then invited to the ministry’s office, she said, where they met with their delegates for COP26. “It was great to actually talk to them,” she said, adding that protesting in public still offers “a lot of visibility.”

Sommer Ackerman, a 24-year-old in Helsinki, was among the 150 or so who gathered outside of Finland’s Parliament to demand urgent action, with a focus on local issues such as forestry. “We are sick and tired of empty promises,” she said. “It’s not good enough to set targets for 10 or 20 years out; the world will be even more on fire than it is now.”

She said that during the pandemic, activists in Finland “always tried to find a way,” and relied on social media, tweet storms and writing messages around the city with chalk.

Dylan Hamilton, a 17-year-old marching through the streets of Glasgow, said that since the last big march before the pandemic, climate concerns have gained more traction in political circles. But he said he was unconvinced that action would match the rhetoric.

“The government’s messaging has gotten better, but emissions are still going up,” he said. “We want them to go down, and will keep marching until they do.”

Noack reported from Berlin.

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