Record-breaking heat amplified waves of student climate protests in 2019

Activists pushed decision makers to take climate change seriously

youth climate activists

Greta Thunberg (at table, second from left) and other young activists filed a complaint with the United Nations in September, arguing that a lack of action on climate change violated their human rights.

Kena Betancur/Getty Images

This year was a scorcher. Summer temperatures broke hundreds of all-time records, bringing unprecedented melting to Greenland and helping to fuel wildfires that raged across the Arctic as early as June (SN Online: 8/2/19). And a stark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of a bleak future for Earth’s oceans and frozen regions as the planet heats up (SN Online: 9/25/19).

But climate scientists say that’s not 2019’s only takeaway: This year also saw record-breaking waves of climate activism.

“I’ve never seen so much protest,” says glaciologist Eric Rignot of the University of California, Irvine. He’s referring to the climate marches that swept the world and culminated in climate strikes during the September United Nations’ Climate Action Summit in New York City. “It’s actually a very exciting time.”

Many of these strikes were led by students, particularly 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Her #FridaysForFuture movement began in August 2018 as a personal pledge to protest every Friday until the Swedish government speeds up its plan for full carbon neutrality by 2045, which Thunberg has said is not soon enough. She says she will protest until her government agrees to reduce carbon emissions by 15 percent each year, achieving carbon neutrality within just a decade or so.

As word of Thunberg’s protests spread via social media, the movement went global; an estimated 1.6 million students in over 120 countries joined a coordinated climate strike on March 15. A second wave of student-led protests coincided with the September Climate Action Summit, with a record-breaking 7.6 million people participating in a global climate strike.

On September 23, Thunberg spoke bluntly to world leaders assembled at the summit. “For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear,” she said. “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.”

This intensity of climate activism “is long overdue, and it’s super exciting to see,” says Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. It’s something that climate scientists have “always dreamed about,” she says.

Of course, this year’s dramatic and record-smashing heat waves likely added urgency to the protests. 

From May to August, nearly 400 all-time high temperature records were set in 29 countries in the Northern Hemisphere. Europe baked under two back-to-back heat waves in June and July (SN Online: 6/28/19). Human-caused climate change made that oppressive heat between 10 and 100 times more likely in France, according to a report by the World Weather Attribution Network, an international consortium of climate scientists (SN Online: 7/2/19).

Temperatures at Anchorage International Airport in Alaska spiked to an all-time high of 32° Celsius (89.6° Fahrenheit) on July 4. India and Pakistan sweltered under a prolonged, deadly June heat wave that coincided with extreme droughts and water shortages. In Japan, a deadly heat wave swept across the country in late July, sending more than 18,000 people to the hospital in one week.

Globally, July was the hottest month in 140 years of record-keeping, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

This year’s intense heat — along with wildfires, slow-moving and deadly hurricanes (SN Online: 9/3/19) and other extreme climate events — may have helped bring the reality of climate change home to people.

Cobb recounts a recent conversation she overheard in the checkout line at a grocery store in Atlanta: “They were talking about this — the hurricanes, the wildfires, the ocean heat waves, the coral bleaching, the king tides in Miami (SN Online 7/15/19).” Climate change is front and center now, she says. “It’s definitely a kitchen-table issue at this point for tens of millions of Americans.”

Rignot says he’s happy to see that the conversations are moving away from debates about whether human-caused climate change is real and toward efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as strategies for adapting to a warmer world. “I’m personally a bit tired of being the bearer of bad news. The focus on solutions is heartening,” he says. “It’s common sense, and it’s starting to percolate through society.”

For their efforts, Thunberg and other teenage climate activists have garnered international recognition and awards. But while receiving the U.N. Environment Programme’s Champions of the Earth prize in September, 15-year-old #FridaysForFuture organizer Kallan Benson offered a blistering response. “Awards are for celebrating achievement,” she told the U.N. members. “The achievement we seek has not occurred.”

Carolyn Gramling is the earth & climate writer. She has bachelor’s degrees in geology and European history and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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