World / Science & Health

Sweden's Greta Thunberg demands climate action on day of global school strikes

Reuters, AP

Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg urged European politicians on Friday to focus on a climate crisis instead of “bickering,” as children walked out of classes around the world to back her demands for urgent action to curb carbon emissions.

Thunberg, 16, said the threat of societal breakdown posed by runaway climate change should overshadow every other campaign issue in the European Union’s parliamentary elections.

“If the EU were to decide to seriously fight the climate crisis, it would mean a decisive global change. And the EU election should reasonably only be about this. But it isn’t,” Thunberg told thousands gathered in Kungstradgarden square in Stockholm’s banking district.

More than 1.8 million people in 2,350 cities across 125 countries had joined the strike, according to a tally on the Facebook page of the Fridays for Future movement, a network of young climate protesters.

An estimated 1.5 million young people took part in a previous global school strike on March 15.

In New York, several hundred children and teenagers marched from Columbus Circle to Times Square, shouting their support for a “Green New Deal” proposed in Congress that calls among other things for 100 percent of U.S. power demand to be met though renewable energy sources within 10 years.

The protesters held a “die-in” in Times Square, lying on the ground for 11 minutes to represent the 11 years scientists have said it may take for earth’s temperature to rise to an irreversible tipping point if carbon emissions are not substantially cut.

In Rio de Janeiro, a small group of students gathered outside the state legislature to deliver a letter dated from the future in which they lamented Brazil’s loss of coastline, rainforests and species.

“We, the Brazilians of the future, are also asking you: is there anything more important than protecting life and ensuring a quality future for the next generations? No, there is not,” they wrote.

In more than a dozen other cities throughout the country, youth also staged strikes and took to the streets, using the issue to challenge the environmental policies of the far-right government of President Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro says excessive regulation has hindered economic development and has moved to strip the environment ministry’s authority over water and forestry services.

In Mexico City, a few hundred demonstrators gathered on the steps of a central monument before marching several miles to the sprawling main square known as the Zocalo.

Natalia Naranjo, 19, of the environmental group Nosotros por la Selva (We for the Forest), came to the demonstration in an animal-print top with her face painted to resemble a jaguar’s.

She expressed concern about a project known as the Mayan Train that would link beaches, cities and ancient ruins along the length of the Yucatan Peninsula and down into the state of Chiapas. Critics have said the fast-tracked project, designed to cater to tourists and boost the economies of poor communities, could threaten the environment, and Naranjo called for modifications such as elevating the train or making passageways for animals to cross.

“What we are trying to do is for them to evaluate the Mayan Train project, to evaluate the environmental impact that is being created and come up with solutions,” Naranjo said.

Naranjo called Thunberg “an inspiration for the whole planet.”

Climate change has moved up the political agenda this year, especially among young, first-time voters who fear that they will bear the brunt of global warming, spurring a wave of support for Green candidates.

The single most effective weapon in the fight against climate change — imposing taxes on those who emit greenhouse gases- can be politically fraught, however. Still, for the first time, the issue is expected to have a significant impact on European Parliament elections.

A recent opinion poll in Germany showed that climate change has overtaken immigration as the issue voters in the EU’s most populous nation are most concerned about. Elsewhere across the EU, climate change also features prominently among the top issues — along with immigration and the economy — ahead of the vote that began Thursday and runs through Sunday in all of the bloc’s 28 nations.

“In many countries, the climate issue has become increasingly one of the top issues that voters are concerned about when they talk about European issues,” said Derek Beach, a political scientist at the University of Aarhus, Denmark. “In Denmark, for example, this year it’s really almost the only issue that people are talking about in relation to the European Parliament election.”

Parties that have traditionally championed environmental causes, such as the Greens in Germany, are well-placed to benefit from the growing concern about climate change. The party clocked an unprecedented 19 percent support in Germany in a survey published last week, overtaking the center-left Social Democrats that are part of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition.

“We are very optimistic that we will achieve the largest parliamentary group we have ever had in the European Parliament,” said Ska Keller, one of two leading candidates for the European Greens.

“The climate issue is now finally on everyone’s lips, a subject that we have been credibly promoting for many decades,” she added. “We have very concrete proposals for what we want to do against the climate crisis, for the preservation of biodiversity, for the preservation of our environment.”

The Greens had 52 seats in the last EU legislature, making it fourth biggest political grouping, and are expected to gain more of the European Parliament’s 751 total seats.

Other parties, too, have been waking up to the issue of global warming.

Merkel’s center-right Union bloc has pledged to implement the 2015 Paris climate accord, which aims to keep average temperatures increases worldwide well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) by the end of the century compared to preindustrial times. But the party, like many others, has hesitated when it comes to backing tough measures scientists say are necessary to drastically curb greenhouse gas emissions, such as adding a climate tax to fossil fuels.

In France, raising gas taxes sparked nationwide protests and created the yellow vest movement for economic justice, whose weekly protests since November, especially in Paris, have often turned violent. That has made other European governments leery of openly backing such a move. Some right-wing parties are attacking the science of global warming in an effort to win voters fearing the economic consequences of combating climate change.

Experts say the EU as a whole is possibly a better place for making decisions on climate change than its national governments.

“This is probably one of the easiest things for most voters to see something that only Europe can deal with,” said Beach.

Still, climate change may seem like a luxury issue for voters in struggling economies such as Italy, he said.

“When your 20-something kids are both unemployed, then you would definitely perhaps be a little bit more concerned about that kind of economic bread-and butter-issue,” Beach said.

Thunberg has emerged as a leading figure in the movement since she first protested in favor of climate action alone in August outside the Swedish parliament. She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, featured on the cover of Time magazine and traveled Europe by train to lambaste senior figures in government and industry.

Children, teenagers and adults who had felt powerless in the face of the climate crisis have rallied behind Fridays for Future in the hope of forcing politicians and business leaders to heed scientists’ warnings.

“We are putting pressure on the governments and we want them to act fast and now,” said David Wicker, 14, who joined some 7,500 young protesters in Brussels.

Young people who took time off school to protest on Friday urged adults to heed calls by climate activists for a global general strike on Sept. 20.

In Paris, Celia Benmessaoud, 15, held up a sign saying “There’s Is No Planet B,” and said she hoped the school strike would change the world — echoing participants around the world, from India, Turkey and Gambia to countries across Europe.

Global warming caused by heat-trapping greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels has already led to droughts and heat waves, melting glaciers, rising sea levels and floods, scientists say.

Carbon emissions hit a record high last year, despite a warning from the U.N.-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in October that output of the gases will have to be slashed over the next 12 years to stabilize the climate.