By Alick Ponje:
It was a hot New York afternoon with thin patches of clouds lining the blue sky beyond striking high-rise buildings that define this city’s Lower Manhattan.
Over 250,000 people defied the weather to participate in a march that kicked off at Foley Square and landed in Battery Park where speeches and performances were conducted.
Elsewhere in the world, more than four million youths and adults were said to have also taken to the streets, calling an end to fossil fuel extraction and consumption, a just transition for frontline communities and holding polluters accountable.
“We are doing this to wake our leaders up, to get them to act. We deserve a safe future; we demand a safe future. Is that too much to ask?” probed Greta Thunberg.
The 16-year-old Swedish climate activist whose one-person strikes in Stockholm helped flare up what has now become a global movement, has been drumming up support for climate action, calling on elected leaders and institutions to act on what she describes as an emergency.
She has taken this message to New York just as she did to Katowice, Poland, last year where activists, corporations, governments and many more gathered for the Conference of Parties.
But Greta and hundreds of millions of other young people globally see less action from leaders and corporations.
“The people in power make the same promises; the lies are the same and the inaction is the same… This Monday, the leaders are going to gather [at UN Headquarters] for UN Climate Action Summit. The eyes of the world will be here.
“They have a chance to prove that they are united for climate action. We will make them hear us. We have not taken to the streets and skipped classes for nothing,” Greta charged, at Battery Park.
She also paid tribute to parents and other adults such as President of the New York State Nurses Association, Judy Sheridan Gonzalez, who skipped work to march together with their children.
For school children, Greta sees the march as a strong statement that they are adamant about climate action.
“This is an emergency. Our home is on fire… We are united behind the science. Even if it means skipping school, we will do that because it is important. Why should we study for a future that is being taken away from us?
“Some say we should study and become climate scientists to solve the problems, but that will be too late,” she stated.
Several other speakers backed the idea that climate action should happen now. Yet they also stated that it would be naïve to imagine that governments and corporations will earnestly take that path without being pushed to.
Gonzalez gave an account of the toll of climate change on people’s health and nations’ health systems.
Beyond the physical suffering that climate change-related disasters instigate, she said, there are other health related problems which are becoming common.
“There are heat related complications which we must deal with. Floods are leaving toxic substances which threaten lives. There are new bacteria and viruses brought about by this climate catastrophe,” she said.
And with the march happening at the 2nd anniversary of Hurricane Maria which struck Puerto Rico and resulted into the island’s deadliest natural disaster, the nurse was reminded of the suffering that some people experienced.
She then called for a minute, of silence in memory of all those who have lost their lives in the climate change precipitated disasters in recent memory and urged young people not to relent in their quest for a sustainable future.
“You are the unsung heroes of the universe. Saving the planet is saving all our lives and saving our lives is our business,” she summed up.
And elsewhere, the message has been the same. Young people and adults have been hoisting placards bearing pain.
The damage to the planet is threatening their future, the messages cry out loud.
For instance, in Malawi, a country whose southern section was badly hit by Cyclone Idai earlier this year, young people also took to the streets to demand climate justice.
Journalist and activist Charles Mkoka says sustained pressure on political leaders can result into the change that young people are seeking.
“The youthful population has a longer lifespan to live, hence the need to think about sustainable development and a prosperous tomorrow. More importantly, as Africa, we are talking about the vision of a prosperous tomorrow,” Mkoka said.
He is of the view that Malawi needs to do more to combat climate change. He also acknowledges efforts that have been put in place.
“The recently introduced carbon tax should be channelled to climate change and not Account Number One. That only shows that our commitments to fighting climate change are a bit misdirected,” Mkoka said.
His sentiments are echoed by another climate activist, Dorothy Tembo, who points out that Malawi is lagging behind in fighting climate change.
She reckons that the country’s actions are not well designed and consistent for easy tracking and monitoring.
“This year’s national budget on climate change is worrying, so we don’t have financial support from the government. Interventions are led by development partners whose budget we have no power to control,” she says.
Perhaps, more protests will bring governments’ attention to things that matter, according to the youth, who state that there is some force in numbers.
For Friday’s strike, the placards which the protestors carried bore familiar messages which, according to the marchers, need action now because they are talking about a crisis now.
“There is no planet B,” screamed several placards which the participants in the multiracial and multigenerational protest were hoisting in different parts of the world, while others called on leaders to “stop denying” as “the earth is dying”.
They also chanted “we want climate justice now”.
Other placards, for instance, in Malawi, said, “I am still a student, protect my future”.
But the problems—mutually identified across the globe—will only ebb away through effective and sustained political will from the governments that, on the other hand, seem unwilling to help reduce emissions.
And there are those who believe that more pressure from the young people is ideal to turn things around.
“The young people have spoken and it is good for our leaders to listen. Us, the older generation, have also joined the young people because the crisis is not for the future,” said Todd Griffin, a New York resident who had joined the peace march in the city.
And as world leaders assemble at UN headquarters to demonstrate how they are combating climate change, the protesters will be out to see if there is anything new in dealing with the crisis.