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Youth marches for climate action draw millions around the world

In cities across the globe on Friday, protesters took to the streets to demand action on climate change. The demonstrations, easily the largest to focus on climate, represent a movement driven largely by young people -- many of whom left school to join the walkout. William Brangham spoke to several participants about their mission to reduce fossil fuel emissions and how they plan to execute it.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In cities all across the world today, protesters are taking to the streets in record numbers, demanding their leaders reduce greenhouse gas emissions to address climate change.

    William Brangham talked with several young people in this movement to understand what they want and how they're going about it.

    His report, and the conversation to follow, is part of our contribution to Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 news outlets to enhance coverage of the climate story.

  • William Brangham:

    From Germany to Australia to South Africa, and even with armed guards in Afghanistan, record numbers of people all over the world are on strike for the climate.

    Angry that their governments won't acknowledge the crisis, and worried about their own future on a warming planet, millions of protesters today demanded immediate action.

  • Aman Sharma:

    The climate crisis in totality is destroying my future. And I don't think we can hope to have jobs or have a nice future when our existence on this Earth is not guaranteed.

  • William Brangham:

    It's a protest unique not only for its size, but for those leading it, young activists, many leaving school today to make their point.

    The movement you see here today began over a year ago, and most of these protesters would credit one Sweden teenager for getting it all started, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg.

    Last fall, Thunberg started skipping school on Fridays to demonstrate outside the Swedish Parliament Building. Her sign read: "School strike for climate."

    Since then, she's become a global celebrity of sorts, quietly leading massive rallies, and confronting world leaders in brutally frank terms, like she did in front of Congress this week in Washington.

  • Greta Thunberg:

    I don't want you to listen to me. I want you to listen to the scientists. And I want you to unite behind the science. And then I want you to take real action.

  • Alexandria Villasenor:

    My first initial thought was that it is about time that someone said that.

  • William Brangham:

    Fourteen-year-old Alexandria Villasenor is one of the millions of young people who have followed Thunberg's lead and joined this movement.

  • Alexandria Villasenor:

    The young people of the United States are declaring the era of American climate change denialism over.

  • William Brangham:

    Villasenor was moved to action after a trip back to her home state of California was cut short by last year's deadly wildfires. She's now been on her climate strike in front of the United Nations headquarters in New York for 40 straight Fridays.

  • Alexandria Villasenor:

    We'd hang out with friends or we'd go out to movies or we'd go shopping, and we're giving up a lot of that. But I think that shows how committed we are to organizing and how committed we are to fighting for a future.

  • William Brangham:

    Seventeen-year-old Xiye Bastida is another member of this movement. She left Mexico with her family four years ago, after she says heavy rainfall flooded her hometown.

    Like many of her fellow activists, Bastida's message is to policy-makers.

  • Xiye Bastida:

    We don't need you to talk and talk, and say that you are going to pass this resolution or not, or — because resolutions and declarations are just words. We need you to pass policy. We need you to pass laws. And we need them to happen now.

  • William Brangham:

    This broad network of activists want several key things, passage of a Green New Deal, with its shift to 100 percent renewable green energy by 2030, protection and restoration of half the world's lands and oceans, stopping deforestation within 10 years, ending subsidies for industrial agriculture, and halting resource extraction on indigenous lands.

    Ahead of today's strike, Bastida and Villasenor joined Thunberg and others this week in Washington. They had a packed schedule, speaking on panels, meeting members of Congress, rallying in front of the Supreme Court. And everywhere they went, they were surrounded by handlers and cameras.

  • Alexandria Villasenor:

    As the climate crisis gets worse, more of us are feeling it, and more of us are living it. It's not something that is going to happen in 100 years. It's something that is happening right now to us.

  • William Brangham:

    Another young activist in Washington this week was Vic Barrett. This college student is a plaintiff in the landmark case Juliana vs. the United States, a lawsuit filed by over a dozen young Americans alleging the U.S. government has failed to adequately address climate change.

    If successful, the case could force the government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It's currently waiting on an appeals court ruling.

  • Vic Barrett:

    We're constituents. We live in this country. And so we're suing the U.S. federal government for violating young people disproportionately, constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property.

    They have discounted our lives incredibly in all the choices that they have made. And we're finally just standing up and saying, you can't do this.

  • William Brangham:

    One lawmaker in their corner is Senator Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts. He's a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution.

    What would you say to the critics who say, what on earth are leaders doing taking advice from teenagers?

  • Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass.:

    Well, on this, the teenagers are right, and the older generation has been wrong in terms of their lack of attention to this issue.

    Nineteen-year-old Katie Eder is another part of the movement. Originally from Milwaukee, but now working full-time in Los Angeles, she co-founded The Future Coalition, which organizes young people around a number of issues, including climate change.

  • Katie Eder:

    Young people feel like that nobody is doing anything, and so the responsibility is on our shoulders.

    And I think it's really important to acknowledge how sad that is. These kids who are really kids — they're middle school, young high school — and they honestly should not have to be planning protests. They shouldn't have to be lobbying their representatives. They shouldn't have to be trying to convince adults that they need to do something so we have a future.

  • William Brangham:

    Dana Fisher studies social movements in America. She's a sociology professor at the University of Maryland. And she's collected extensive data on this youth climate movement.

    Her surveys point to their potential impacts. Most of these young activists will be of voting age by the 2020 election.

  • Dana Fisher:

    In some ways, the school strike for climate change is what the sit-in was for the civil rights movement. It is a tactic that is doable for people in a very local way, where they can get involved in a movement.

    And as it diffuses, it can have a huge effect.

  • William Brangham:

    But Fisher says the challenge to this movement, to force a re-engineering of how the world creates and uses power, and to do it quickly, is enormous.

    It would involve converting all gas-powered cars to electric, closing all coal-fired power plants, and dramatically ramping up wind, and solar, and even nuclear power.

  • Dana Fisher:

    They are asking for substantive, transformative change, but they are talking about doing it through traditional political channels. And we have seen very few examples of when that's worked in our country or globally.

    And, usually, that happens around mobilization around a war. I mean, some of the activists are calling for a mobilization on par with World War II, right? And that's the kind of social change we're talking about.

  • William Brangham:

    The timing of today's march was intentional. Monday is the opening of the U.N.'s Climate Action Summit, where heads of government from around the world will meet in New York to present their plans for curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

    When we talked with Greta Thunberg last week, she stressed that, for now, this movement needs the adults to act.

  • Greta Thunberg:

    We are not doing this because we think it's fun. And we are not doing this to ease on your conscience. We are not the ones who are going to solve this. We are not the ones who are going to provide you with solutions.

    We are the ones who demand everyone to listen to the united science and to take their responsibility.

  • Alexandria Villasenor:

    When people see us on the streets with the river of students protesting, I want them to see that and realize that that is what change looks like, and that they need to be a part of it.

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