Bill McKibben: Today Could Mark the Largest Day of Climate Action in Planetary History

Why students and workers across the globe are going on a climate strike.

Bill McKibben September 20, 2019

Youth have taken the lead in organizing global climate strikes—for this one, they want the adults to turn out, too. (Getty Images)

This sto­ry orig­i­nal­ly appeared in Truthout. It is repub­lished here as part of In These Times’ part­ner­ship with Cov­er­ing Cli­mate Now, a glob­al col­lab­o­ra­tion of more than 250 news out­lets to strength­en cov­er­age of the cli­mate story.

A day in the streets can demonstrate to everyone that the zeitgeist is shifting, and decisively.

What do Ben and Jerry’s, an 800,000-member South African trade union, count­less col­lege pro­fes­sors, a big chunk of Amazon’s Seat­tle work­force and more high school stu­dents than you can imag­ine have in com­mon? They’re all join­ing in a mas­sive cli­mate strike this com­ing Fri­day, Sep­tem­ber 20 – a strike that will like­ly reg­is­ter as the biggest day of cli­mate action in the planet’s history. 

More than this, what they have in com­mon is some­thing they share with much of the rest of human­i­ty: a rapid­ly grow­ing fear that glob­al warm­ing is out of con­trol and that we must act with remark­able speed if we have any hope of get­ting our civ­i­liza­tions safe­ly through the cen­tu­ry. This grow­ing real­iza­tion is clear in many places: in the UK, for instance, where Extinc­tion Rebel­lion began its mas­sive civ­il dis­obe­di­ence, a cam­paign now spread­ing around the world. And in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., where the Sun­rise Move­ment and Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez have been build­ing pow­er­ful sup­port for a Green New Deal.

But the cli­mate strikes, of course, had their gen­e­sis in high schools – or, more exact­ly, out­side of high schools, which is where 16-year-old activist Gre­ta Thun­berg found her­self last autumn. Why, she asked the Swedish author­i­ties, should I spend all day in school prepar­ing myself for the future when you aren’t prepar­ing the coun­try or the world for the future? That is a good ques­tion – so good that it quick­ly spread around the planet.

I’ve known school strik­ers on every con­ti­nent with schools, and they should give every­one heart: Youth activists are awake and aware and work­ing hard. As usu­al, those in the most vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties are lead­ing the way. This is a move­ment in which Indige­nous youth, kids from com­mu­ni­ties of col­or and those who live on sink­ing islands are on the front line.

But these young activists are also ask­ing for help. On May 23, at the end of the last mas­sive school strike, Thun­berg and 46 oth­er youth activists released an open let­ter to The Guardian urg­ing adults to join in next time. Because, as they point­ed out, there are lim­its to what young peo­ple can do on their own. If you can’t vote, and if you don’t own stocks, then your abil­i­ty to pull the main levers of pow­er is lim­it­ed. They wrote: Sor­ry if this is incon­ve­nient for you. But this is not a sin­gle-gen­er­a­tion job. It’s humanity’s job.”

Peo­ple around the world are respond­ing to the call. The biggest demon­stra­tions will prob­a­bly be in New York City, because of the excite­ment sur­round­ing Thunberg’s arrival by sail­boat to address the UN Gen­er­al Assem­bly. But there will be ral­lies in all 50 states (a full list is at glob​al​cli​mat​estrike​.net). Often, they’ll be led by stu­dents at local high schools and col­leges, but in many cas­es, the empha­sis is on adult par­tic­i­pa­tion – shop own­ers are clos­ing their doors for the after­noon, and chefs shut­ting down restau­rants to feed demonstrators.

Can this world­wide strike gal­va­nize us into sig­nif­i­cant cli­mate action? By itself, sure­ly not. No sin­gle thing is enough to make a deci­sive dif­fer­ence – not block­ing pipelines or divest­ing port­fo­lios or elect­ing new sen­a­tors. But a day in the streets can demon­strate to every­one that the zeit­geist is shift­ing, and deci­sive­ly. It’s the zeit­geist that activists real­ly play for: the sense of what is nor­mal, nat­ur­al, obvi­ous. (Think of how gay mar­riage now seems con­ven­tion­al to many Amer­i­cans, and then try to remem­ber what it seemed like to much of the cul­ture a decade ago). 

We’re com­ing up on the 50th anniver­sary of the first Earth Day. In the spring of 1970, 20 mil­lion Amer­i­cans – 10 per­cent of the country’s pop­u­la­tion – took to the street for that protest. It was almost cer­tain­ly the largest day of polit­i­cal action in its his­to­ry. And that was enough. The zeit­geist shift­ed deci­sive­ly, and Richard Nixon, of all pres­i­dents, signed into law all the most impor­tant envi­ron­men­tal laws, from the Clean Water Act to the Endan­gered Species Act. (Inci­den­tal­ly, these are all laws that Don­ald Trump is cur­rent­ly try­ing to gut.)

You can find the signs to indi­cate we might be on the cusp of a sim­i­lar shift. The polling shows that Amer­i­cans are far more con­cerned about cli­mate change than even a year or two ago. Part­ly that’s because of good orga­niz­ing, part­ly it’s because the plan­et con­tin­ues to demon­strate our fol­ly with fire and flood and part­ly it’s because Don­ald Trump has bel­lowed his cli­mate denial­ism so loud­ly that it’s begun to dis­con­cert every­one who is not in his cult. Sur­veys show that he’s more out of touch with Amer­i­cans on the envi­ron­ment than on any oth­er issue. If and when Trump goes, cli­mate denial­ism as a pow­er­ful polit­i­cal force may well go with him.

But even if we leave cli­mate denial behind us, will we real­ly start to move with the speed we must? The answer to that will lie in how many peo­ple tru­ly demand action. We’ll start to find out what the num­bers look like on Sep­tem­ber 20.

Bill McK­ibben is the author of more than ten books, includ­ing EAARTH: Mak­ing a Life on a Tough New Plan­et and Deep Econ­o­my: The Wealth of Com­mu­ni­ties and the Durable Future. He is the founder of the envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions Step It Up and 350​.org. He lives in Ver­mont with his wife, the writer Sue Halpern, and their daughter.
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