by Annina Claesson

Nearly 8 million people – that is how many people who took part in the global climate strikes from Sept. 20 to 27, 2019. Protests spanned the globe from Wellington to Alaska and from Siberia to Tierra del Fuego. This officially marks the global climate strike as one of the largest demonstrations in world history.

Even a year ago, this would have been hard to imagine. The story of the global climate strike movement resembles to a romanticised hero narrative. 16-year old Greta Thunberg’s journey from a lonely figure outside the Swedish parliament to the guiding light of a generation, sailing across the Atlantic to shame world leader after world leader, could have been spun out of fiction. 

Yet, as Thunberg emphasises in her speeches and as the cardboard signs of the strikes proclaim, this is no time for fairytales. We are still nowhere near the levels of action needed to keep the effects of the climate crisis below 1.5 degrees of warming. September 2019 was, once again, the hottest on record. Report after report show us how close we are to ecological collapse, jeopardising the complicated systems that maintain life on earth as we know it. Unprecedented policy measures are necessary if we hope to mitigate and adapt to climate processes already in motion. So what’s next for the climate movement?

The past year has shown that people all over the world, particularly the younger generation, understand that political mobilisation is urgently needed in order to push the needle on climate action. This was a global climate strike rather than a global climate march or rally for a reason. A strike means a refusal to let society go on as normal – a withdrawal of labour (or school attendance) intended to inflict losses to those in power, forcing them to address the grievance in question. The environmental movement, increasingly exasperated by the inaction of world leaders, has adopted disruption its primary tool to instigate change. 

The Extinction Rebellion group, originating in the UK but increasingly global in scope, represents one interpretation of disruption as a political tool. This movement utlises civil disobedience in order to disrupt the lives of policy makers and fellow citizens. Members of the movement risk arrest in order to push governments to take further action against the climate crisis before it’s too late. Oct. 7 marks the first day of the movement’s International Rebellion, two full weeks of peaceful occupation and shutdown of the world’s centres of power.

Additionally, Fridays for Future, the school strike movement inspired by Thunberg, will also continue to mobilise young students to leave school every Friday to protest for their futures. The official Global Climate Strike website also suggests getting involved in local climate action groups and initiatives. For France, the suggestion is to send a postcard to put pressure on France’s Minister of Economy and Finance Bruno Le Maire to publicly commit himself to support a fossil-free European Investment Bank.

Climate strikers tell us that this is only the beginning. Global grassroots movements are growing and finding new ways to shift global priorities. How will this translate into policy action in the world’s halls of power?

Dismissed as a “low politics, low priority” issue in many countries, environmentalism still suffers from a history of being unable to move from the bottom of the agenda, often institutionalised in toothless and isolated government agencies. In some national contexts, such as the U.S. or Brazil, even acknowledging the facts and science of the climate crisis is a starkly partisan question. The latest UN Climate Summit in New York was once again deemed to be a disappointment by climate activists worldwide. Nowhere in the world can a government display a solid plan to meet the Paris Agreement’s demands to stay below 1.5 degrees (the closest likely being Costa Rica, with an economy-wide plan to make the country carbon-neutral by 2050).

However, what movements such as the global climate strike are helping to usher in is a redefining the climate crisis as something that can and should become a mainstream policy consideration. National governments around the world are still slow to implement broad climate measures in all areas of public policy, but actors on other levels are leading the way. Civil society organisations as well as local governments have been bolder in considering climate as a dimension in a wide range of policy fields, including foreign policy. The withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Agreement prompted cities like New York to go out on the world stage to forge their own international climate partnerships.. As their streets are filled with protesting school children, cities will need to step up their ambition even further to meet the demands of future citizens.

The issue of climate justice and equity are also becoming increasingly common on placards as well as policy proposals. The fact remains that regions causing the least amount of emissions will be disproportionately affected by the climate crisis. This “climate debt,” largely carried by the West, is a new frontier in dismantling colonial legacies, placing very real economic demands on foreign aid, regional resource distribution, and migration policy. Climate justice is becoming a more frequent demand of the climate strike movement. Young people of colour and indigenous communities have been fighting for equity in climate action for a long time and are mobilising in greater numbers along with the climate movement as a whole.

The climate crisis is an issue that demands change from the individual level all the way up to international negotiations. The climate strike made it clear that the next generation and their allies are ready for this change. It proved once and for all that climate change is a political priority for citizens all over the world. Their passion will eventually reach the ballot paper. For the climate strikers, nothing less than a reshaping of society will be enough. History is waiting to see what happens next.