There is an image floating around the internet of Greta Thunberg in front of the Swedish Parliament building with a sign that reads “Skolstrejk för Klimatet,” which translates to “School Strike for Climate.” She cuts a solitary figure sitting against the wall, her head turned slightly to the side, the sign sitting next to her.
Greta Thunberg is not alone.
Millions of school-aged children took to the streets on Sept. 20 all across the world in support of her cause: the simple, yet radical request that those who are children today have a habitable planet to inherit from the rest of us.
The time period to make good on such an ask is vanishingly small. Climate science suggests we have until 2030 to cut global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent to keep global temperature rises from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius, shorthand for “catastrophic changes in the world as we know it.”
The window for political action may be as small as 18 months.
In Seattle, young people embraced that message with vigor, gathering by the thousands for a march on City Hall to demand that adults take action on climate change. They ditched school to gather in Cal Anderson Park for a morning of activities and a few opportunities to shout down a climate change denialist street preacher and to mock alt-right attempts to stir up trouble.
As the street preacher shouted through a microphone, kids surrounded him, dancing in a “ring around the rosie” circle as he tried to walk. One shouted, “Do you think hell is going to be as hot as climate change?”
Students had been told that participation in the climate strike would count as an unexcused absence. A draft letter made available to principals said that while students could walk out that day, state law “does not allow an excused absence for participation in a walkout.”
The announcement caused widespread outrage within the activist community, who recalled the district allowing students out of class to attend a Seahawks parade in years past. The district replied that only “specific schools in specific cases” had waived absences — it was not a districtwide event, said Tim Robinson, spokesperson for the school district.
Teachers found ways to get around the issue, however. Some students at the event said they just had to prove to their teacher that they were present to skirt an unexcused absence.
Heather Price, the Chemistry Department co-coordinator at North Seattle College, also pitched in. Price published a “doctor’s note” on Twitter for students who wanted to attend the climate strike on Friday.
It read, “Dear Teacher, Please excuse the absence of ____ on Friday. They were doing a special project for me (and the rest of the world) on strategies to address climate change. They’ll be happy to give a class report for extra credit. Regards, Dr. Heather Price, climate scientist.”
The idea came from fellow climate scientist Peter Gleick, and the note got some use, Price said Monday.
“I had a kid from Texas asking for a PDF of it because ‘my teacher wants it to be more official,’” Price said. “I have gotten responses from all over the world. It was translated into French. Both Peter and I got an interview request from Brazil. It’s all over the world.”
Youth need the space to protest, to call for action because they can already feel the physical and psychological impacts of climate change, Price said.
“Action feeds hope. Allowing children to have their voices heard gives them hope,” Price said. “If we silence them, we’re not fostering their ability to speak out and address the internal pain that comes with understanding the climate crisis.”
Young people who attended cared for more than their attendance records, however. Beyond the existential threat posed by a warming planet, the climate movement was a chance to show their seriousness, their commitment to something beyond themselves.
“Adults blame this sort of stuff on us,” said Jun Walls, 15. “They say we’re only just staring at our phones.
“This shows that we can do something,” Walls said.
The strike was more than kids from Seattle. Maggie Diaz, 17, and Ezra Broady, 15, came in from the Muckleshoot Tribal School. The event was a sort of elective field trip for the students, but they wanted to be there to join the youth-led movement fighting for the planet.
“We want to save our generation and future generations,” Diaz said. “it’s our planet, it’s where we live. We should be able to take care of it.”
Kids can see the effect of climate change in their everyday lives. They notice when the news reports on the devastation wreaked by storms like Hurricane Dorian and Hurricane Maria that laid waste to the Bahamas and Puerto Rico, respectively. They hear when they’re told that July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded.
But the effects of climate change can be more insidious than epic storms.
Dr. Anita Penuelas is a family physician in Seattle. She sees the impacts of climate change on her patients’ health in the form of heart attacks, asthma and heat-related issues that send people to the emergency room and intensive care unit.
She and health professionals Emily Cheng and Sarah Cornette were at a booth in Cal Anderson encouraging people, literally, to “ask a scientist” in an effort to spread better information about the impacts of climate change.
“It’s very real, very immediate and very important,” Penuelas said.
It was hard to see the scope of the climate strike until the call came around noon for people to begin lining up. A sea of humanity rushed to the southwest end of Cal Anderson, flooding from all sides. A drone hovered overhead, documenting the moment — it was the only way to get an accurate sense of the crowd.
When they were finally let loose, the young people roared down Pike Street, forcing cars to the side and even causing a bus to decamp. As they turned on Fifth Avenue, people scrambled to get out of their way. On foot and in cars, people dove toward the freeway to avoid the police road closures.
As they neared their destination, City Hall, kids were jumping on signposts shouting “Strike with us! Strike with us!”
They filled the space in front of City Hall on Fourth Avenue and took over the streets around the building where they started a program of speeches and song that would last hours.
None of this will stop climate change, of course. They know that. That’s largely up to the adults to do, the same ones who have benefited from the largess that brought this generation to the precipice down which they are staring.
But they made their point, and the whole world was watching.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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