Following a year of relative dormancy, the international youth climate strikes are back in the streets and online this week. During the first year of the pandemic, young people who had skipped school to demand that elected officials curb the climate crisis and otherwise worked protests into their weekly routines had to curtail some of their organizing in response to shelter-in-place guidelines of varying strictness. But some climate agitation continued, and many activists also joined fights for racial and economic justice as Black Lives Matter protests swept the world and COVID-19 exposed the failures of existing social programs.
On Friday, March 19, young people in over 800 cities and towns across the world will again join forces to call out world leaders for their failure to act on the climate crisis, urging them to treat it with the level of urgency that many nations have conveyed in their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jon Bonifacio is a climate activist from the Philippines. For many living in the Global South, he said at a press conference today, the climate crisis is as much an immediate existential threat as COVID-19.
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“It is a matter of life and death,” he said. A February 2021 study found that 8.7 million people died prematurely due to pollution linked to the burning of fossil fuels, nearly double what was previously estimated. The climate crisis, of course, has not paused during the pandemic. Since the last in-person international youth mobilization in February 2020, 100 people went missing in India after a glacier burst and swept away a dam; and Typhoon Goni made landfall in the Philippines, burying 300 homes under debris washed down from quarry sites on a nearby volcano, killing 16 people. The risk of destructive typhoons is increasing as global temperatures rise, since warmer water evaporates faster and syphons more force into storms.
“I spent many nights last year in the dark, without electricity, as the Philippines was ripped apart by an unprecedented typhoon season,” Fridays for Future Philippines activist Mitzi Jonelle Tan said in a statement.
While world leaders have tapped top scientists and joined forces to produce and distribute a vaccine in under one year, governments have not demonstrated a similar commitment to curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, world leaders have issued a flurry of plans that establish net-zero emissions goals by 2050 or 2060. “We need concrete and urgent action from governments and businesses, not more empty ‘net-zero’ loopholes,” Tan said.
Young activists’ issue with “net-zero” targets is based on the latest climate science. According to a March 16 article in Nature, “net-zero” is often a mirage. Without providing more specific information, it is impossible to evaluate the efficacy or ethics of a given country’s plan. “We can’t take comfort in vague targets,” co-author of the article and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) climate scientist, Joeri Rogelj, said at a press conference. Rogelj says limiting warming to Paris Agreement standards requires an aggressive commitment to reducing emissions and removing a small share of lingering emissions. “But how much we remove versus how much we reduce has important impacts,” he says. Any “net-zero” commitment implies the passing off of responsibility — or burden — elsewhere.
Genesis Whitlock is a climate activist in Antigua. She worries about what impact that “passing off” will have on Black and Indigenous communities in the Global South. “Some solutions coming from the Global North already perpetuate green colonialism,” she said, describing renewable energy projects spearheaded by business interests in more wealthy countries that fail to benefit people living nearby, such as the Noor Ouarzazate solar complex in Morocco. “This practice displaces Black and Indigenous communities, creates food scarcity and overall, further exacerbates inequality,” Whitlock said.
In accordance with the Paris Agreement, parties to the agreement are due to submit updated “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) — detailed plans mapping out how each government will adhere to domestic policies in line with each country’s emissions goals — ahead of the next global climate convening, COP26, in Glasgow in November.
When asked if any country’s nationally determined contribution was ample to curb emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, Rogelj pointed to the United Kingdom’s target of 68 percent economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 as “not too bad.” But the U.K. has no plan in place to actually meet that target, he said.
“I want July 1, 2021 climate goals and 2022 climate goals from them,” San Diego-based climate activist Edgar McGregor posted on Twitter. “I don’t want 2050 climate goals,” he said.
In line with Rogelj and other climate scientists’ recommendations, on March 19, youth activists will urge world leaders to submit nationally determined contributions with ambitious, detailed emissions reductions targets with an equity lens and detailed steps outlining how they’ll get there.
In 2020, global carbon dioxide emissions fell by 6.4 percent, with striking drops in major industries like aviation, which plummeted 43 percent from 2019 levels. But in week 20 of the pandemic, emissions began to climb. Data from the International Energy Agency shows global emissions were 2 percent higher in December 2020 than the same month in 2019.
At an average warming of 1.19 degrees Celsius, the world is presently on target to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius by February 2034, according to modeling by the Copernicus Climate Change Service. 1.5 degrees Celsius is the level of warming IPCC scientists like Rogelj suggest as the limit on warming that would potentially avert some of the most harmful impacts of the climate crisis, such as exposing 420 million fewer people to extreme heatwaves.
“Targets that delay emissions cuts for 10 or 20 years are a death sentence for countries like Uganda,” climate activist Vanessa Nakate and founder of the Rise Up Movement said in a statement. “People here are already suffering from unprecedented drought, famine and flooding at 1.2 degrees of warming.”
In the U.S., as with elsewhere in the world, organizers committed to climate action have continued waging targeted efforts to push officials on climate throughout the pandemic.
The Sunrise Movement has launched its “Good Jobs for All” campaign, which is pushing the Biden administration to launch a jobs program that employs 18 million people currently out of work in the U.S. to build a clean energy grid and healthier communities overall. Continued organizing by Indigenous activists and allies in opposition of the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota has caused Enbridge to temporarily halt construction on the project, as of March 18. In India, activists have opposed a major waste incineration venture in Bandhwari.
But the youth climate strike movement — which burgeoned into an international force in 2019 and drew an estimated 7.6 million people into the streets in September of that year — has largely been on hiatus. Whereas the WhatsApp and Slack chats that Fridays for Future USA organizer Kat Maier was looped in with in 2018 were an endless flurry of notifications, they mostly fell silent mid-pandemic, Maier told Truthout.
In recent weeks however, a crackdown on protests across the world, including the arrest of 22-year-old Fridays for Future activist Disha Ravi at her home in Bengaluru, India, in February; and the resistance movement amid the military crackdown in Myanmar, have reinvigorated some climate activist circles.
“People immediately sprung up, the chats went crazy again,” Maier said. “I think those kinds of crackdowns have had the opposite effect of what the people who are cracking down wanted.”
Young people in over 50 countries will host events on Friday, which will adhere to local COVID guidelines, including in-person protests in Portland, Oregon; Montijo, Portugal; Luanda, Angola; Capetown, South Africa; and Sitapur, India. Youth organizers say the attempt to bring back the climate strikes is intended to give young people a push to figure out what collective action might look like in their backyards and to tune back in to the cicada storms, polar vortex, historic flooding, and other impacts of the climate crisis that people in much of the world have continued to experience.
Bonifacio said that during the pandemic, the Fridays for Future movement has poured more energy toward centering activists who face the climate crisis in their everyday lives. “Because we were forced into these online spaces, we had an opportunity to interact with a lot of people around the world,” Bonifacio said, adding that as a result “there was a privilege check” that was missing in some of the early climate strikes.
In addition to demanding meaningful emissions reductions plans from world leaders, young people in 20 countries, including Bangladesh, Kenya and the United Kingdom, will also focus March 19 actions on urging London and Hong Kong-based Standard Chartered Bank to defund fossil fuel infrastructure it currently backs. The Bank has invested $24 billion in coal, oil and gas operations since the Paris Agreement took effect in 2016, according to a 2020 report by the Rainforest Action Network, all the while posturing as climate-conscious.
Fridays for Future organizers in the U.S. say they’re focusing on building power to support local and state-level climate policy changes. Representatives of other youth climate activist groups, including local chapters of the Sunrise Movement and Zero Hour, will also be supporting the U.S. strikes. International organizers say March 19 is intended as the first in a return to regular ongoing protests — local health conditions permitting.
“What you saw in 2019,” Mitzi said, referring to the swelling youth climate strike movement, “that’s just the beginning.”