Every year since 1995, our leaders or their representatives met at the so-called Conference of Parties, debating climate change, global warming in particular. Over time, the conferences' goal has become what is politically possible, not what is environmentally desirable. Hence, the emphasis has shifted from reducing emissions of carbon dioxide to helping nations adapt to whatever the future climate might look like. While adaptation is necessary for survival on a planet ravaged by the vagaries of global warming, it also means throwing in the towel against the fight to tackle climate change effectively.
The outcomes of these conferences clearly indicate that we are backing away from a disaster of our own making by surrendering to the whims of powerful people beholden to lobbyists, special interest groups and climate change deniers. Who will, therefore, pull us out of the climate change conundrum, so that our future generations can stay in a climate-safe planet? How can we remain hopeful while facing the growing, irrefutable evidence of devastating climate-induced changes around us?
On March 15, 2019, hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren all over the world, from the South Pacific to the edge of the Arctic Circle, answered the above questions, loud and clear. They skipped classes to protest what they see as the failures of their governments to take tough actions against global warming.
Although most of the protesters are under the voting age, they nevertheless want to have a say in the politics of climate change. Hence, they are boldly challenging the stewards of “their” planet who have the ability to make the real differences needed right now with regard to climate change.
The protest was inspired by a 16-year-old Swede, Greta Thunberg, to express children's frustration with older generations' laissez-faire attitude towards climate change. She kicked off a global movement after last summer's record heat wave in northern Europe and forest fires that ravaged swathes of her country up to the Arctic. Since August 10, 2018, she has been sitting outside the Swedish parliament every Friday, now known as Fridays for Future, protesting inaction by adults. She recently gave a speech to climate negotiators in Switzerland and told them, “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”
Fridays for Future was also observed in New York City, where students at dozens of schools across the five boroughs stayed away from their classroom and took to the streets. They hosted multiple rallies in front of the City Hall, Columbus Circle, Bronx High School for Science, Columbia University, American Museum of Natural History, and elsewhere. All of them chanted, “Money won't matter when we're dead.” “Sea levels are rising and so are we.” “I'm not showing up for school because adults aren't showing up for climate.”
They spoke about the importance of schools teaching students about climate change from a young age. “If we don't learn about it we might believe the things that are lies, that it's a hoax… They can't just leave a falling apart planet to us. We only have so much time to fix it, and we have to fix it while we still can, because by the time we're in power we can't fix it,” said the 13-year old Rachel Entin-Bell, who was protesting at the Washington Square Park.
The star of the protest was a 9-year-old kid, Zayne Cowie, who sat in front of the City Hall with his little sister on his lap holding a sign that says “Climate Strike.” “Climate change is happening faster than we can react. Well, we could react fast enough but nobody cares,” he said. Sadly, we are living at a time when a 9-year-old is more knowledgeable about climate science than the current occupant of the White House.
Starting in December 2018, following in the footsteps of Greta, Zayne opted out of attending Friday classes at his school and instead sit in front of the City Hall—rain, snow or shine—reading from the children's book of verse “Goodbye, Earth.” The first two stanzas are:
The World is big and I am small.
One day I wish to see it all.
Pacific islands, northern Lights,
Himalayas, desert nights.
The World is big and I am small.
The Earth's in trouble, hear her call.
Me and my nine-year-old peers
Have now lived through its hottest years.
xIndeed, when children come out on the streets to protest climate change, we know that it is high time for adults to wake up and act decisively. Unfortunately, adults are caught up in their egotistic needs of power, accumulation of wealth, comfort and socio-economic status, leaving very little time to care about future generations.
Ironically, children like Zayne, Greta, Rachel and others are the first generation who are least responsible for the 410 parts per million concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today, but will face most of the catastrophic consequences from it. They are coming of age when the window to ward off this nightmare scenario is rapidly shrinking.
Many older adults have been warning for decades that our future generations will suffer for our greed, selfishness and inertia from continued inaction. Now, those future victims are raising their voice to try and shape the agenda. They are the bastions of hope emerging around the world. Their message: No more business as usual. We need to act as though our future and the future of all life on this planet depends on what we do, because it does.
How did adults react to the protests? In New York City, 16 protesters have been arrested for blocking traffic in front of the American Museum of Natural History. They were charged for disorderly conduct. Shame on us, who are doing very little at addressing climate change, leaving the consequences to be dealt with by younger generations, yet arresting them for raising their voices against climate change.
Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.