What Is the Climate Strike? An Adult’s Guide to What, Why, and How to Help

September 9, 2019
Photo: BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
Erika Spanger-Siegfried
Director of Strategic Climate Analytics

[UPDATE: The list of “Things You Can Do” below includes updates from the youth organizers of the climate strike as of Thursday, Sept 19th. Please read for the latest on how to take part in this important moment!]

TOMORROW, Friday, September 20, a rare moment will take place in the long and bruising climate fight: a youth-led, global demonstration of power, solidarity, and determination—and if history is any guide, real beauty, too. On this day, in thousands of locations around the world, young people—perhaps millions—will strike against a status quo of complacency, inaction, and injustice on climate change, and join voices to demand a livable future. Here are some exciting updates on how the strike is shaping up:

  • There are over 1000 events planned across the United States alone!! This is not just big city thing. This is not just a coastal thing. This is wall-to-wall America. Check out the map below.
  • There are over 4500 events happening in 142 countries worldwide. Find one near you!
  • In the U.S., NYC has given the green light for its 1.1 million students to join the strike and teacher organizations are encouraging their members to support student strikers.
  • LOTS of adults are planning to turn out, including trade unions representing hundreds of millions of people.
  • Organizers count more than 1000 companies as strike supporters. A partial list is here.
  • coalition of tech workers from some of the biggest tech companies (Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, and more; though so far, not Apple) are walking out.
  • There are 5000 websites participating in the digital climate strike so far.
  • More than 700 medical professionals have signed this “doctor’s note” for striking students.

That’s a lot of strikes. Find one near you in the U.S. and around the world. Credit: https://strikewithus.org/

Wow, right? But as the strikes begin with students walking out of school in protest, some confusion, wariness, even skepticism on the part of adults is still common and understandable, but can hopefully be addressed and dispelled so we can make the most of this important moment.

Here are some things you need to know to about the strike, including why this moment is so vital, and how you can show your support as an ally to youth around the globe and right here at home.

Young activists at the March 2019 Youth Climate Strike in Santa Rosa, CA. Photo: Fabrice Florin.

What is the climate strike?

Just as striking workers gather to demonstrate their power and express their demands, like safer conditions and fair pay, students will walk out of school on September 20 to gather and voice their demands for urgent action and climate justice for all.

Credit: David Solnit

This strike is youth-led, with the 16-year old Swedish climate activist and original climate striker, Greta Thunberg, among its leaders. It is global, with more than 2500 events currently planned in 117 countries, and a large and growing number (511 and counting!) here in the US. It precedes the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City on Monday the 23rd and kicks off a week of climate actions and events planned around the world.

And it is meant for all: in a departure from the student strikes of the past year-plus, which have grown increasingly large and garnered increasing media attention, the youth organizers are not just welcoming but urging adults to participate side-by-side with them.

Why a strike?

Unlike a march or rally, a strike disrupts the business-as-usual workings of the day, thereby directly engaging those disrupted (e.g., employers, customers, supply chains) and gaining much broader attention. In the global climate movement, high points to date have included, here in the US, the People’s Climate March in New York City, 2014, and in Washington DC, 2017, where roughly 311,000 and 200,000 people turned out, respectively, in those cities alone. These events served to demonstrate the size of the movement and, as any participant can tell you, boost the morale and sense of solidarity of its members. But disruption was not the goal of these events.

That changes on September 20, because we are clearly at a moment in the climate fight when business-as-usual needs disruption, including those that strikes can provide.

Under business-as-usual, emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and forests have led us to a dangerous place. But for many adults, it’s been a comfortable ride so far; many in the US can’t easily reconcile the seeming security of their status quo with the existential dangers it’s bringing and profound injustice it’s deepening through climate change.

Business-as-usual is marching us toward an era of unrelenting climate strife, so if adhering to it is now a kind of lunacy, then disrupting it is vital. The world needs a loved one to grab and shake it and shout “what are you doing?” And, sadly, who better than its children? How better than with their global strike?

Why should we support it?

A 12-year old girl (my daughter) at the 2014 Climate March in NYC. Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried

When I was around Greta’s age, climate change was already in the news and on my mind. But unlike today, we had time then to arrest the problem, bend the upward curve our emissions were on, and avert really dangerous changes and impacts. And unlike Greta and today’s young climate activists, I had great confidence that we would do it. Anything else would be insane, disastrous, unthinkable. But here we are, several decades later.

We’ve already warmed the planet 1 degree Celsius. Young people, from recent high school graduates on down, have only known a world of record-breaking temperatures. Kindergarteners starting school this month have lived in the five hottest years on record. And with just this modest warming, each year brings new unprecedented catastrophes: hurricanes and cyclones, inland and coastal flooding, droughts, wildfires, and heat waves.

Today the problem is spinning rapidly, soon to be out of our control. Unlike the less-complicated hope and optimism I was fortunate to grow up with, today’s young people can’t hope to simply stop climate change. They must hope for things like slowing its rate of acceleration and learning to live with its consequences. Many are, sadly but rationally, growing up with fear and dread for the future. Also rationally, they have little confidence that our leaders will, on their own, do what’s needed to contain the crisis. Who can blame them? Emissions reached an all-time high last year and are continuing rise, critical policies like the US Clean Power Plan are being repealed, the US intends to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, the list goes on.

The world is still busily becoming a more fractured, exhausted, unjust, and now feverish place. Young people know we’re going to hand them a mess beyond fixing unless we start working harder and faster at fixes today. But they lack power to make those decisions. The youth climate movement is their collective voice. The strike is their moment to make the world listen. And they’re asking adults to help them be heard.

My colleagues and I recently analyzed the changing spread and frequency of deadly heat. It was a sobering piece of work and deeply troubling to many on our team. We found, by mid- and late-century, a quadrupling and an eight-fold increase, respectively, in days of deadly heat in the US, and the alarming spread of days so hot they defy calculation with the National Weather Service heat-index formula.

In wrestling with how to communicate these  results, we concluded that there’s no excuse for holding back anymore. The time for reticence has passed and it’s time to take risks, speak up, fight hard.  We concluded that report this way: Our future […] is not a future the children of the 21st century would choose for themselves. The rest of us chose for them. We now face another choice: to protect what we can of that future and ensure it is recognizable and safe for today’s children and youth as they live out their lives. Or to let us all, but especially them, face the gravest consequences of the course we have set. The people who will inhabit and steward this rapidly changing century deserve our hardest, most ambitious work today to hold the line and defend the future.

In fact, it is those people who are already trying to hold the line and defend their own future through these strikes. They deserve so much better. At the very least, they deserve our support and solidarity on September 20. And frankly, they deserve those of us who can to join them in the streets.

Two boys at the 2017 People’s Climate March in Washington DC. (My son on the left.) The green sign reads: Climate Warrior in the Making. Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried

UPDATED: How can we help?

If we can, we should strike on September 20.

Find a strike near you, take a few hours, show up. Not only will you be showing up for the younger generations and playing a direct role in the climate fight, you’ll be helping to represent the millions of adults concerned about climate change, many of whom can’t afford to miss a day’s wages, can’t take a day off without risking their jobs, can’t get to a strike, or can’t physically participate. You don’t necessarily need to take the entire day, but if you can attend a strike event in person, do it.

Most importantly, the youth strike organizers are asking all supporters to do the following TODAY (this is a a copy and paste from their shareable doc here):

  1. Go dark on social media! Update your profile pictures to the black circle attached.
  2. Make and post a #StrikeWithMe sign if you haven’t already done so.
  3. If you’re attending a strike on Friday, learn how to submit photos and video to us, plus sign up to be part of our nationwide live-stream.
  4. Send any pre-strike content you’d like to be featured in our live-stream to [email protected], such as photos and videos of you preparing to strike, your art builds, making signs, etc. by 5 pm Thursday 9/19.
  5. Post to Twitter/Instragram/Facebook: TOMORROW, young people and adults are coming together all over the U.S. and world to call on government officials to take immediate climate action. Visit StrikeWithUs.org to find a #ClimateStrike near you! #StrikeWithUs

And there’s more:

  • If you’re a member of an NGO, faith institution, business, union, community group, or other organization, sign on as a strike supporter here. And if you haven’t yet informed your members of the strike, now’s the time! You can encourage people to join a strike in the U.S. here and outside the U.S. here.
  • Does your organization, business, etc. have a website? If so, join the digital climate strike! Check it out.
  • Grab and distribute some of the beautiful strike artwork on paper, stickers, posters, social media or some other creative way you might have up your sleeve.
  • Speaking of creative, take a page out of this person’s book and advertise the strike in a prominent spot. A little chalk, e.g., goes a long way in grabbing attention and helping to build the buzz.
  • Make your sign tonight! Here is some inspiration from the November strike last year and others here.
  • On the day, take photographs and share them on social media.
  • And remember, adults didn’t create the climate strike. Young people are the hosts, we’re invited guests, and we should act accordingly and follow their lead.

If you can’t leave work tomorrow, I’m sorry, we’ll miss you, but there are other ways you can take part and lend your support.

From the signs and art, speeches and singing, and the spirit and passion of those on strike, I expect that the day the youth climate movement is building will be something to behold. As happens when strangers gather in an act of peaceful protest, it will be a gift of solidarity that strikers give each other to energize and sustain for the fights ahead. And it can also be that shoulder-shaking gift, given by millions of strikers, to a world that so badly needs it.

There are few moments of truly great potential in this grueling, bruising, too-often-losing climate fight. This is one of them. We need it. By stepping up, you can help make it so.

Photo: maisa_nyc