2019’s protests were unprecedented, driven by passion. The pandemic dampened activism and showed the importance of mass events in spurring political change. Is a comeback at hand?
By Bob Berwyn, Delger Erdenesanaa
September 24, 2021
The first global Fridays For Future climate strike of 2021 will help show if the youth climate movement can rebuild momentum while parts of the world still grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. At least 1,300 protests are planned around the world on Friday, including about 300 in the United States.
The movement that was sparked by Greta Thunberg’s solitary school strike and vigil at the Swedish parliament in 2018 quickly grew into a social juggernaut that measurably shifted public concern about climate, according to researchers with the Institute for Protest and Movement Research, a global online academic forum.
Over the next years, attending local strikes became a gateway to sustained political organizing around climate change. Lorena Sosa, an 18-year-old college student from Orlando, Florida and an organizer with the youth climate group This Is Zero Hour, said she was well aware of climate change before 2019, but didn’t know what she could do to help solve the problem.
“For the longest time I had this huge stress about the impact we were having on the environment,” Sosa said. News headlines about deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline left her feeling powerless, she said. But in September 2019, Sosa heard about a protest happening in her city as part of a global day of climate strikes organized by the Fridays for Future movement. While the Fridays for Future strikes are often seen as an expression of young people’s fear of climate catastrophe and anger over government inaction, Sosa said her local strike in Orlando also gave her a sense of community and hope. “I saw teachers, students, workers, from all parts of the city coming together, sacrificing the work day or the school day to mandate a better future,” she said. “And it really made me feel grounded—that there was hope for our future.”
During the first global climate strike in March 2019, 1 million people joined in demonstrations, and during late September that same year, up to 7 million people protested during a global week of climate action. By the end of the year, climate had risen to the top of the list when people in Germany and other European countries were asked about their most pressing concerns, said Bremen-based Sebastian Haunss, a political scientist at the protest and movement research institute.
“The size of protests we had in 2019 is actually unprecedented,” Haunss said. “Before Fridays For Future, I’m not aware that there were in any way comparable synchronized and coordinated international protests, as we saw during the 2019 global mobilization wave. It’s really something that is new to this last wave of protest.”
But physical distancing requirements and limits to gatherings during the pandemic dampened the wave of activism.
“It made clear how important congregation still is for social movement,” Haunss said. “Demonstrations are not something that social movements can compensate for with other things. The idea that the internet would make it possible to demonstrate effectively without physical protests was contradicted during the pandemic.”
Before the emergence of the Fridays For Future movement, climate protests often were focused on specific events, like government summits and United Nations climate conferences, with participation numbering in the tens of thousands at most, he said.
The wave of mass demonstrations in 2019 may have helped build a foundation for even more urgent manifestations of climate protests, going as far as a recent wave of hunger strikes by young climate activists in Germany.
The Fridays For Future movement speaks “directly to young people, making this a really urgent issue for them now, instead of an only abstractly urgent issue that is in principle far away,” Haunss said.
“If you follow the hunger strike of some activists here in Germany, it is clearly an expression of people arguing that this is so urgent that they even put their health and lives in danger to do something against it,” he said. “It’s something immediate that requires … quite comprehensive action.”
Whether or not the movement has succeeded depends in part on how you measure it, he said.
“Friday’s For Future has a number of concrete demands, and none of them has been clearly achieved, but they have had an effect on some political decisions and political discourse,” he said. And at the global level, it’s important to remember that the youth climate movement is not monolithic, he added.
Thousands Marching in the Streets are Hard to Ignore
The Fridays For Future model of mass climate marches was a key factor in moving the political and social needle in Europe, but never became as widespread in the United States. Even so, the 2019 Fridays for Future protests were important because they kept the spotlight on the climate issue, said Mélanie Meunier, a researcher at the University of Strasbourg, France and author of a February 2021 study on youth climate activism in the United States.
“There are still people who don’t even want to hear about climate change, but they can’t ignore it when thousands of people are marching in the streets, so it increased awareness at a very basic level,” she said.
In the United States, youth climate activism has been most effectively expressed at the political level by the Sunrise Movement, she said. By focusing youth activism through a political lens, the Sunrise Movement achieved measurable results, arguably helping Joe Biden win key electoral states in the 2020 election, she said.
Currently, the Sunrise Movement is lobbying to make sure key climate provisions of the Biden administration’s infrastructure passage are passed.
In hotly contested Arizona, the Arizona Youth Climate Coalition, alongside other organizations, is lobbying Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to support filibuster reform in Congress. Many progressives believe reforming the filibuster is key to passing adequate federal climate legislation.
Chris Allen, an 18-year-old high school senior in Tucson, joined the coalition after attending and organizing local Fridays for Future climate strikes in 2019. Before then, he said, he only knew about climate change “in an abstract sense.”
But the climate strikes made him realize just how drastically the issue would affect his own life. And as they did with Sosa, the strikes introduced Allen to the movement to stop climate change.
Young people like Allen have also brought a stronger sense of social justice to the movement. They say they recognize the need to cope with climate consequences that have already arrived, and to uplift the communities most affected.
For example, the Arizona coalition’s Tucson chapter is currently pushing city council members and the county board of supervisors to open cooling centers that people, particularly the homeless, can go to during increasingly severe heat waves.
During the lockdown days of the Covid pandemic, the group also pivoted to organizing mutual aid for the White Mountain Apache Tribe. Allen’s fellow activist Katherine Cohen, a 17-year-old high school senior in Phoenix, said she and other coalition organizers distributed food, water and clothing to tribal members who needed supplies.
“We picked issues where we would be able to have an impact and be able to help populations that weren’t getting any help,” Cohen said. Many youth climate groups organized similar efforts during the pandemic, finding ways to directly help their communities and form alliances with other social justice causes.
The pandemic hit just as the youth climate movement was picking up momentum, said Yasmin Bhan, a 17-year-old high school senior in New York City and a local leader of Fridays For Future who’s helping organize Friday’s strike. She is hoping that a return to in-person strikes will help to recruit even more young people to the climate movement.”
“There’s a lot of pressure on us to fix this issue we’ve inherited,” Bhan said, adding that her biggest hope is that people who attend the strike will keep fighting for climate action afterward. “At the end of the day, we really just want an Earth that we can continue to live on. That’s the end goal.”