At the end of September, more than 7 million people took to streets around the world to demand climate action—it was one of the largest coordinated, global protests in history, according to 350.org, one of the organizations that helped plan the events.
Organizing their advocacy around the U.N. Climate Action Summit on Sept. 23, climate activists in 185 countries gathered Sept. 20–29 for events that ranged from community garden planting to major, coordinated strikes, according to 350.org. Demonstrators made colorful signs with clever quips like the “Earth used to be cooler” and advocated for things like transitioning away from fossil fuels, restoring biodiversity and respecting Indigenous land. The events kicked off with global demonstrations on Sept. 20 and culminated the same way on Sept. 27—though some local groups continued to host smaller gatherings through Sept. 29.
Monica Mohapatra, 350.org spokesperson, said the global turnout surpassed initial estimates of 3 million demonstrators, and she credits the youth’s mobilization efforts for the high turnout. She said the global demonstrations were a critical moment for the climate movement.
“Even if we did underestimate the turnout, we didn’t underestimate the significance of this political movement for climate change and climate activism,” Mohapatra said, noting that the demonstrations showed that it’s possible to take action on the climate crisis.
But now that the September demonstrations are over, how are people continuing to mobilize for climate action? Organizers shared what’s next for the climate movement and ways people can continue taking action.
Organizers applauded the demonstrations’ high turnout, which Mohapatra said surpassed 350.org’s “wildest expectations.” Still, she said it’s hard to say how the demonstrations may influence specific policy. For now, the walkouts have changed how people are talking about climate change.
“The goal of the climate strikes was to shift the public narrative and to recenter the youth and their messaging, so I think [the demonstrations] accomplished that in the U.S. and globally,” Mohapatra said. “I think that’s the biggest outcome of the strikes.”
Isa Flores-Jones, spokesperson for Sunrise Movement, an environmental group that helped organize demonstrations throughout the country, said the global action also succeeded at engaging first-time climate activists and soon-to-be voters.
“Many of the people who came out to Sunrise-organized climate strikes had never participated in any kind of climate action before,” she said. The demonstrations gave them “a taste of coordinated political action.”
Activists at some of the demonstrations, she said, made demands for a regional Green New Deal, or a transition away from fossil fuels. A Green New Deal is essentially a plan for tackling climate change. Sunrise Movement advocates for a 10-year-plan that moves the U.S. to clean and renewable energy by 2030, guarantees living-wage jobs and creates a just transition for workers and communities.
Public support of such policies may help local leaders advocate for future initiatives.
“The climate strikes have created a political context that makes it possible for local lawmakers and federal politicians to advocate for a Green New Deal at all levels of our society,” she said.
Not every community is tackling climate change the same way, though. In Hawaii, the focus is less on a Green New Deal and more on efforts that directly affect the island. Oahu native Tabatha Knudson, 18, said local efforts are centered on plastic reduction, clean energy use, proper waste management and solutions to rising sea levels, a result of a warming climate.
“It’s not that we don’t support [a Green New Deal], it’s just that we don’t really think of it first because we are a little disconnected [from the continental U.S.],” said Knudson, who is co-president of Surfrider Manoa Club at University of Hawaii at Mānoa. “We focus on local issues.”
On whether the demonstrations could influence public policy, Knudson said she hasn’t yet seen any measurable effects. However, she said the global actions did increase civic engagement and that engagement could “directly correlate to more wins … in policy and sustainability in general on the island.”
Kimaya Mahajan, 15, who is a state lead for Washington Youth Climate Strikes, said she believes the global demonstrations created a lot of momentum in her community, too. And there are enough people who understand the urgency of the climate crisis to keep that momentum going.
From her perspective, this September’s climate demonstrations weren’t like other marches. The momentum won’t slow now that they’re finished. She said she believes people will continue taking action.
“I’m not worried,” she said about the future of climate action.
As for the next phase of the climate movement, Mohapatra said it will largely focus on transitioning away from fossil fuels, a form of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. According to the EPA, between 1970 and 2011, emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes contributed about 78% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions. Organizations like 350.org are working to mobilize people at a regional level to take on large fossil-fuel projects like pipeline expansions. She said 350.org is also hosting voter registration drives and providing special support to communities fighting fossil-fuel projects around the world. People can find local events and organizations at the Global Climate Strike website.
“We’re trying to drive that momentum [from the demonstrations] into tangible action, and what that looks like is people fighting locally,” she said.
She added that the demonstrations proved that it’s possible to take on something as big as the climate crisis. “The climate strikes have shown us and the world that [people are] ready to engage in what’s going to be a long fight.”
How can people take action?
Mahajan admits that climate change hasn’t always been at the top of her mind. But her perspective changed earlier this year when she met leaders from Zero Hour, a climate activism group that focuses on youth of color. Through conversations at a Zero Hour panel in Seattle, she learned how climate change disproportionately affects certain populations.
A longtime advocate for human rights, Mahajan credits Zero Hour—and, more largely, the climate movement—for opening her eyes to the ways climate change has threatened members of marginalized communities.
“It’s a human rights issue all the way through,” she said.
Mahajan helped organize five strikes in the state on Sept. 20. She also emceed at the Washington climate strike in March, which was part of a larger demonstration that attracted 1.6 million people globally.
She has advice for adults and youth who want to take climate action, and it extends beyond forgoing straws or plastic water bottles.
“While it’s really important for us as individuals to be conscious of our own carbon footprint, the only way we’re going to be able to combat climate change is with system change,” she said.
She advised people to call, email and write letters to their local representatives. She also encouraged supporting candidates who prioritize climate change. For those not old enough to vote, she said this can be accomplished through educating others about the candidates.
Ahmad Ibsais, 18, a college student at the University of Florida and a member of Zero Hour, shared sentiments similar to Mahajan’s.
“I think the issue is not with individual people. It’s with the government and political structure, which is promoting economy through fossil fuels,” he said. “People can reduce their own carbon emissions, but the biggest issue is the fossil fuel use through these larger companies.”
Like Mahajan, he encouraged youth who aren’t yet old enough to vote to contact their local representatives and lobby for climate-conscious policies. He said local representatives are likely to listen, given that younger generations will soon be able to vote.
“If they don’t fight for [climate action], they’re going to get voted out,” he said of the local leaders.
Ibsais, who wrote about his decision to strike on Sept. 20 for Al Jazeera and has spoken publicly about climate change, said youth can also take action by educating others. He said people can find creative ways to educate all generations.
“I definitely recommend whatever skill you have that it can be used in some way to promote the climate crisis,” he said, citing his own passion for public speaking and graphic design, both tools he’s used to highlight the climate crisis.
“Things can happen if youth are putting their best foot forward.”