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Culture Re-View: When Greta Thunberg led the biggest climate protest in history

16 year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg arrives to attend the 49th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019
16 year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg arrives to attend the 49th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019 Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Jonny Walfisz
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20 September 2019: A 16-year-old Greta Thunberg leads the biggest climate protest in history.


On this day in 2019, just three days before the United Nations Climate Summit, around six million people across 150 countries joined together in protest to demand greater action against climate change.

The fact that millions of people all came together under the same cause on the same day is itself impressive. Estimates of how many people were involved range from four to 7.6 million. Whatever the exact figure, it was the greatest single day protest in history about climate change. A second protest followed on 27 September where an additional two million people took part.

Additionally impressive though was the figure central to the entire protest operation. The entire Global Climate Strike movement stemmed from a Swedish schoolgirl refusing to attend school until the government acted on climate change.

The year prior, in 2018, Greta Thunberg was a 15-year-old student in Stockholm. Alarmed at what scientists were saying about the climate crisis, she stood in front of Sweden’s parliament, the Riksdag, holding a sign saying “Skolstrejk för klimatet” (“School strike for climate”).

That initial protest against attending school until the government took greater action led to media attention, raising Thunberg’s international profile. She continued to strike every Friday, skipping out on school.

Richard Drew/Copyright 2019 The AP. All rights reserved
Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, center, participates in a demonstration in front of the United Nations, Friday, Sept. 6, 2019 in New York.Richard Drew/Copyright 2019 The AP. All rights reserved

Thunberg’s strikes inspired similar strikes in schools across the world with students in the Netherlands, Australia, Poland joining in.

Soon, over 270 cities had students refusing to attend school in protest of their countries’ lackadaisical attitude to the crisis.

In January 2019, just days after Thunberg had turned 16, mass school strikes took place with 45,000 German and Swiss students skipping school to demonstrate.

Following the growth of the student strikes, a global strike movement came into focus. 1.6 million people came out in protest in March 2019. Another strike in May to coincide with the 2019 European Parliamentary election ratcheted up the heat.

Bebeto Matthews/Copyright 2019 The AP. All rights reserved.
Climate change activists participate in an environmental demonstration as part of a global youth-led day of action, Friday Sept. 20, 2019, in New York.Bebeto Matthews/Copyright 2019 The AP. All rights reserved.

Then came the big one. A day before the UN Youth Climate Summit and a week before the UN Climate Action Summit at the New York headquarters, the global strike movement achieved its biggest set of coordinated protests yet.

Over 4,500 locations in 150 countries, people protested the policy inertia on tackling climate change. Thunberg was in New York for the strikes, having sailed to the US in order to travel there carbon neutrally.

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP
Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, center, speaks as she takes part during the Climate Strike, Friday, Sept. 20, 2019 in New York.Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP

250,000 people attended rallies in New York and Thunberg was one of the speakers at the Battery, in Manhattan. She also spoke at the UN Climate Action Summit alongside 15 other children.

“This is all wrong. I shouldn't be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!” Thunberg told the UN.

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

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