Three years ago this week — on March 15, 2019 — an estimated 1.4 million young people and supporters in 128 countries skipped school or work for what was then the largest youth-led day of climate protests in history. That record was soon eclipsed by even larger demonstrations later that year, with 1.8 million joining a May 24 day of action, and 7.6 million protesting for the climate over the course of Sept. 20 and the week that followed. The school strikes for climate movement, launched by 15-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden in late 2018, had reinvigorated the global climate movement and brought public participation to levels never seen before.
By early 2019, thousands of young people were already skipping school to protest for the climate each week in Europe, but the school strikes had only just begun to catch on in the United States. March 15 of that year was arguably when Thunberg’s campaign truly became a global phenomenon, with large demonstrations in cities all over the world. The youth-led strikes went on to revolutionize and grow the climate movement, helping to popularize concepts like the Green New Deal and grab the attention of policymakers and the media. Three years on, it’s a good time to assess what this flood of activism accomplished and how the youth climate movement has adapted to the challenges of the early 2020s.
The years since the first global school strike have not been easy to navigate — for climate activists or almost anyone else. They have seen a global pandemic, a long-overdue uprising against racial injustice in the U.S. and — most recently — a war in Ukraine that has upset the established world order. COVID-related restrictions made large climate demonstrations hard to organize, and school closures made the idea of striking from class moot. While a surge in youth voter turnout helped sweep Donald Trump from the presidency and flip the Senate blue, the Democratic Congress has failed to advance comprehensive clean energy legislation. What’s more, President Biden’s administration has also walked back on some of its most important climate promises.
Yet, even as the mass demonstrations of 2019 have receded, and the very real barriers to progress at the federal level seem to mount, the school strikes and other large climate protests of 2019 have left a legacy too powerful to simply fade away. Instead of succumbing to the new challenges they face three years on from the first global school strike, climate activists are learning to adapt and build on their past efforts with bold new forms of resistance.
A legacy of organizing
“We never stopped doing climate activism during COVID,” said Shiva Rajbhandari, a climate activist and high school senior from Boise. “But the pandemic highlighted the intersectional nature of climate justice and the way climate change exacerbates society’s other problems.”
Rajbhandari attended a climate strike event in Boise on Sept. 20, 2019. For him, and thousands of other young people around the country, the day of action served as a point of entry into the larger national climate movement. While Rajbhandari had been involved in local environmental activism projects previously, the strike movement helped him take his participation in climate organizing to a new level. At the Boise event he connected with an organizer for the youth-led Sunrise Movement, which later led to getting involved in a new chapter of the direct action-focused group Extinction Rebellion.
Rajbhandari’s trajectory of involvement in the suite of new climate organizations that were taking root across the country in 2019 exemplifies how the climate strikes paved the way for a new generation of activists to become more deeply involved in the movement. Many of these young people have continued working for climate justice through all the challenges of the early 2020s.
When COVID-19 restrictions precluded organizing large climate protests, Rajbhandari shifted to other activism tactics. He got involved in Youth Salmon Protectors, a project of the Idaho Conservation League, and eventually became the initiative’s youth engagement coordinator. He reached out through social media to high school environmental clubs all over the Northwest — working to build a region-wide movement to remove the four dams on the lower Snake River that, along with warming temperatures, have contributed to a dramatic decline in salmon runs.
“Our goal is to help the general public think differently about the salmon issue,” Rajbhandari said. “Until now, it’s been widely seen as an old white man’s issue — like, ‘Grandpa loves to fish and now he can’t because there’s no salmon.’ We’re trying to highlight the stories of Indigenous people who’ve had salmon as part of their culture for millennia, and young people who may have never had the chance to see a wild salmon.” Students involved in the efforts have organized banner drops, held letter-to-the-editor writing campaigns and testified at hearings in favor of removing the dams.
The Snake River dams issue is a deeply intersectional one, overlapping with struggles for tribal sovereignty, sustainable energy and the health of rivers where salmon fight to survive as water temperatures rise. The school strike movement contributed to an infusion of new, youth-led energy into the campaign to remove the dams, as students who attended strike events looked for other opportunities to take action. It is just one example of how the strike movement continues to have ripple effects across the U.S. and the world.
State and local wins
When North Carolina passed a law in October mandating that major electric utilities source all their energy from renewables by 2050, it became the latest addition to a growing list of states with similar legislation. As recently as 2018, only California and Hawaii had 100 percent renewable electricity mandates, but today these policies are on the books in 11 states, plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, since the climate strikes and groups like Sunrise popularized the concept of a Green New Deal, municipalities from New York City to Seattle to Austin have used it to frame new, far-reaching climate plans that will reduce emissions at the local level. These kinds of actions are a reminder that while efforts to pass federal climate legislation have so far continued to fall short, the youth climate movement has had a real impact in the halls of state and city governments.
“I love our lobbying work,” said Anna Cerosaletti, director of operations for the statewide organization New York Youth Climate Leaders, or NY2CL. “It’s so powerful to have youth bring their concerns directly to policymakers at the state level.”
NY2CL, which launched toward the end of 2019, was a direct outgrowth of the strike movement founded by students who participated in that year’s mass demonstrations. The group’s first major campaign was to advocate for divesting New York’s pension fund from fossil fuels, alongside other member organizations in the Divest New York Coalition. In July 2020, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli announced the fund would divest from coal. That December, in response to continued pressure from climate activists, the comptroller’s office committed to full divestment from fossil fuels, including oil and gas. The move marked a stunning victory for a state divestment campaign that had been running for years, before gaining new momentum in the wake of the 2019 youth-led climate activism surge.
Today, NY2CL continues to work on policy in New York, including a bill to divest the state’s Teachers’ Retirement System from fossil fuels and legislation to eliminate subsidies for coal, oil and gas. The organization has navigated COVID by focusing on setting up virtual lobby meetings between legislators and students. “Someday I hope we get to actually talk with legislators in person,” Cerosaletti said. “But virtual lobbying has worked really well. It’s a great way to continue reaching legislators during a pandemic.”
Tarnishing corporate polluters’ image
Last September, student activists at Harvard scored a victory in a campaign that once seemed unwinnable: After nearly a decade of public pressure, the Ivy League school announced it would allow remaining investments in fossil fuels to expire, effectively divesting from the industry. A tweet from the student-led Divest Harvard campaign called it “a massive victory for our community, the climate movement, and the world — and a strike against the power of the fossil fuel industry.”
An influx of first-year students who had been involved in climate strikes and similar demonstrations helped reinvigorate an existing divestment campaign at Harvard. Their long-awaited victory provides yet another illustration of how climate activists have continued advancing their cause since the school strike movement crested. In fact, even as some other kinds of organizing subsided over the last couple years, divestment campaigns at higher education institutions have continued winning victories almost uninterrupted.
In September 2019, around the time of the largest international strike day, the University of California system announced it would divest its $13.4 billion endowment and $80 billion pension fund from coal, oil and gas. Smith College in Massachusetts followed suit that October. Schools that committed to full or partial fossil fuel divestment in 2020 included Georgetown, University of Pennsylvania, Antioch, Cornell, Creighton and University of Vermont. In 2021, this list grew by over a dozen additional institutions including Columbia, Tufts, University of Southern California, Rutgers, University of Michigan, Amherst and Princeton.
The divestment movement has always been about reducing the political power of the fossil fuel industry by hurting its public image — and victories on campuses have helped pave the way for developments that would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago. At the United Nations climate conference last December, 20 countries including the U.S. announced that they would end public financing of overseas fossil fuel projects. It was merely one of the highest-profile examples of how global capital is fleeing the industry.
According to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, more than 250 financial institutions and insurers around the world have taken steps to reduce their exposure to coal since 2012, with a majority of commitments having been announced in the last few years. At least 80 companies have established similar policies to avoid oil and gas. “In many ways, the fossil fuel industry is on its heels,” said longtime climate activist Matt Leonard, who has worked on national campaigns to stop fossil fuel infrastructure. “They don’t have the political capital they once did, or the same degree of influence. Investors are realizing they aren’t a viable long-term investment. That’s a huge change.”
Changing with the times
The invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and world governments’ unprecedented global response to it, is a stark reminder of how national and international politics in the 2020s can be reshaped by developments that would have been difficult to predict months or even weeks beforehand. The task of navigating such a constantly changing political landscape is one of the major tests confronting today’s climate activists. At the same time, each new crisis illuminates ways in which global climate, environmental and social justice issues are interconnected.
“The Ukraine invasion has revealed the extent to which the U.S. is still dependent on fossil fuels,” Cerosaletti said. “Energy prices are high, and everyone’s understandably stressed about that. But if we weren’t so reliant on our own individual modes of transportation — for instance, if public transit was more accessible — banning oil imports from Russia wouldn’t seem like such a big deal.”
The most destructive waves of the pandemic may hopefully be behind us, but the climate movement will almost certainly have to meet fresh challenges head on in the coming months — whether related to events in Ukraine, future COVID variants or completely new international crises. How activists will adapt their organizing to deal with these developments remains to be seen. But what is certain is that the movement that brought millions of people into the streets in 2019 has proved itself durable enough to survive for the long haul.
“The youth climate movement is more alive than ever,” Rajbhandari said. “What’s really changed over the last few years is the background music.”
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