By NORA ECKERT, DAN NOVAK, HEATHER KIM, AYANA ARCHIE and HORUS ALAS
Capital News Service
WASHINGTON – Thousands took to the streets of the nation’s capital on Friday as part of a global youth strike for climate change, wielding signs like “No Planet B,” donning polar bear suits in the sweltering heat and chanting “Green New Deal!”
The swell of protesters urging action to address climate change congregated downtown and marched its way to the United States Capitol.
The Washington gathering was one of thousands of strikes around the globe, an outpouring initiated by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. She started sitting out school on Fridays to protest climate change one year ago in Sweden, catalyzing other students and groups around the world to join her “Fridays for Future” campaign.
Although it’s a movement spurred by young activists, people of all ages and backgrounds participated in the strike.
“It’s a youth-led movement but they have shown that they’re very willing to have adult allies,” said John Clewett, a 69-year-old from Falls Church, Virginia. “I think it’s very important to have allies across all demographics, because this is the most important issue facing any of us.”
Cindy Speas, 71, also from Falls Church, attended the march with Clewett, explained why she felt compelled to join: “It is the youth that are going to have to live with the results that are not happening now, which is climate change mitigation,” she said.
It’s a reality that weighed heavily on the young people in attendance. While some schools did not excuse students to attend the march, many said the consequences of missing one day of school paled in comparison to the dangers of climate change.
“I’m here because I’m afraid,” said 14-year-old Abhaya Tyrka, a Washington area resident. “I’m afraid for my life and I’m afraid for the lives of others.”
Twenty-four-year-old Adrian Cruz of Baltimore said Thunberg’s efforts were responsible for the massive turnout in Washington, and that “it’s going to be children” who spearhead the climate movement.
The strike was held in advance of a week of global climate change events aimed at getting governments to take action.
On Monday, the United Nations General Assembly will meet for the Climate Action Summit to discuss strategies to reduce greenhouse gases, among other climate change measures.
Early estimates say millions showed up for coordinated strikes across the globe, with Thunberg leading the New York iteration.
On Wednesday, she appeared before the House Climate Crisis Committee and a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, offering a 2018 United Nations climate change report in lieu of her own written testimony. Thunberg arrived in the Capitol following a long voyage on a zero-emissions sailboat, as she has given up flying due to its environmental impact.
“I am submitting this report as my testimony because I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists,” she said. “I want you to unite behind science. And then I want you to take real action.”
It’s a message that resonated with people at the march.
A group of seventh graders from Saint Francis International School in Silver Spring, Maryland, said Thunberg has inspired them to take more action on the issue and recognize their ability to shift public opinion.
“She’s very brave,” many said. “She’s very smart,” chimed another. “It shows that we can also take care of the world, not just adults,” one girl said.
As the crowd made its way to Capitol Hill to the beating tempo of drums, chants and cheers, embraces were just as common as impassioned yells. There was a sense of optimism underlying the urgency.
“I’m very hopeful that people are mobilized. I’m hopeful for change, for a change in policy,” said Late Lawson, a 48-year-old resident of Rockville, Maryland.
He and about 50 other colleagues at Oxfam America, a nonprofit dedicated to ending poverty, walked out of the workplace that morning, with support from their employers, Lawson said, as he held a sign that read “Agissons Maintenant!!!”, which means “act now” in French.
Erick Lopez, 46, of Silver Spring, Maryland, walked through the crowd in a brown Franciscan habit with a traditional rope belt. The Order of Friars Minor member at Saint Camillus Church said he was heartened to see so many young people at the protest.
“I love the fact that there are so many young people here, because they are the present, and they are the future. We owe it to them to do something now,” Lopez said.
Speakers at the march’s end reminded participants that climate change affects some groups of people more than others. It was something that resonated with one young attendee.
“This crisis isn’t just about loving the Earth,” Noam Brenner, a 21-year-old student at George Washington University, said. “It’s about marginalized communities that will be at the front lines, across the U.S., who will suffer the most.”
It’s a finding echoed by a joint investigation by Capital News Service and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism titled “Code Red,” which found that rising temperatures disproportionately affect the urban poor in Baltimore.
Collaborating reporting from NPR found it to be a nationwide problem, calculating significant correlations between heat and income in dozens of major U.S. cities.
Some viewed the strike as just one part of a long battle, and something that wouldn’t make any change in isolation.
Zachary Tashman, a 23-year-old who wore a crisp shirt and tie after finishing up his job at an association of nonprofits in Washington, said the real power of the movement is its global push.
“The only way Washington is going to take notice is if we show it with people power,” Tashman said. “We’re never going to have the money on our side. So we always have to show our power with our feet.”
In Annapolis, Maryland, about 70 people gathered a few blocks from the State House and marched with colorful posters and banners to the City Dock.
Ella Iams, a 15-year-old sophomore at Severn School in Severna Park, Maryland, held a bullhorn and led a chant of “Hey hey! Ho ho! Fossil fuels have got to go!”
Iams, 17-year-old senior Emma Seiss, and 14-year-old freshman Ella Moulsdale, both at Severna Park High School, had mutual friends, discovered that climate change was their collective passion, and helped organize the demonstration.
(Capital News Service correspondent Greta Easthom contributed to this report.)