A year and a half ago, a Swedish teenager launched a protest outside her country’s parliament.
Greta Thunberg could be found there every Friday holding up a hand-painted sign demanding action to save the planet.
It was a lonely crusade at first, but soon people began to take notice of Greta. Her boldness and fearlessness — despite her child-like face and long braids — quickly captured attention. And before long, her message began to resonate with countless young people around the globe who fear an environmental catastrophe in the making.
She became — as one interviewer put it — an “icon.” And as world leaders were gathering for the start of this year’s United Nation’s General Assembly, the pleas of 16-year-old Greta and her followers were unavoidable. There was just no escape.
On Friday September 20th, young people across the planet — following Greta’s lead — took the day off school to protest for their future. They gathered along with supportive adults on every continent in the largest mass demonstration ever held to urge action on climate change.
Organizers say more than four million people worldwide took part in more than 2500 events scheduled in over 150 countries.
They turned out from London to Manila… from Melbourne to Rio de Janeiro. There were demonstrations in war-torn Afghanistan and in small Pacific Islands. A group of scientists even staged a protest in Antartica.
Here in the United States, students left their classes and demonstrated around the country.
In Washington, area high schoolers marched on the U.S. Capitol carrying hand-made signs reading “save our future” and “climate strike: this is what democracy looks like!”
And in New York — the site of the largest and most-watched protest of the day — there were crowds of determined teens chanting “Climate change is not a lie, we will not let our planet die!”
They heard from the leaders of their movement, including the Swedish teen who started it all.
“Right now we are the ones who are making a difference. If no one else will take action, then we will,” Greta told them. “We demand a safe future. Is that really too much to ask?”
The next day she put that question directly to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
The venue was a U.N.-sponsored meeting of young environmental activists held two days before a United Nations Climate Action Summit that would usher in the new General Assembly session.
“My generation has largely failed until now to preserve both justice in the world and to preserve the planet,” Guterres told the teens, adding he saw “a change in momentum” going into the summit.
He was mistaken.
A lot of countries spoke at the summit and while there were pledges of action to come, there were few offers of concrete substantive change.
The rhetoric of the adults in the room was unmemorable. But the words of Greta Thunberg — speaking out on behalf of her generation — made a lasting impression.
In a brief speech to the assembled diplomats, presidents and prime ministers, she captured the rage of those who see a planet at risk.
“You are failing us!” she said in a voice tinged with anger. “We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not!”
The speech was stern and dramatic. No one in the room could look away.
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” she said. “For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight!”
The United States did not speak at the Climate Action Summit. President Trump — who has long disputed the science on global warming — attended for only a few minutes. His sudden appearance brought a steely-eyed glare from Greta that was caught in a video that soon went viral on social media.
The United States once took a leading role in combating global warming, pushing other countries to take action as well. But now the Trump administration is rolling back a host of environmental regulations put in place by its predecessors, and the president has vowed to pull our of the 2015 Paris climate accord.
This, at a time when the U.N. is warning that current commitments are not anywhere near what is needed to protect our planet from the ravages of global warming.
As Secretary General Guterres put it: “… we are in a deep climate hole, and to get out, we must first stop digging.”
And then he warned the U.N. member nations about the long term, and the price of inaction for future generations:
“I will not be there, but my granddaughters will. And your grandchildren, too,” he told the Climate Action Summit. “I refuse to be an accomplice in the destruction of their one and only home.”
As for President Trump, he responded to Greta’s warnings by tweeting a clip of her U.N. speech and mocking her fear and anger: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”
That tweet may have found favor with his core supporters, but he apparently forgot that the students marching in the streets today are the voters of tomorrow.
Listen to the voices of the young people demonstrating in New York.
“You had a future, and so should we,” they shouted, adding words that should resonate with any politician:
“We vote next!”