WASHINGTON, D.C. — On a muggy, warm March day, hundreds of students walked out of school and rallied at the U.S. Capitol building, carrying signs and expressions of determination as they demanded lawmakers take swift action to address the climate crisis.
“Who is dealing with permits?” one young organizer yelled at another, working out last-minute logistics for the D.C. segment of the March 15 global youth climate strike. At a central stage assembled on the lawn, some organizers were already speaking with reporters.
“There is no doubt that climate change is the greatest issue of our time,” said 16-year-old Nadia Nazar, from Baltimore, Maryland.
“Climate change is real and facts are actual facts,” echoed Isra Hirsi, 16, one of the strike’s national organizers, who hails from Minnesota and is the daughter of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN).
In the background, groups of students slowly poured in, sporting signs and backpacks. As one large group arrived, chanting and waving homemade posters, 14-year-old Karla Stephan, a D.C. strike organizer from Bethesda, Maryland, gasped.
“Oh my god, there’s so many people,” she said. “That’s amazing, sorry, I’m getting emotional.”
The moment was the end result of weeks of last-minute stress over organizing the logistics of the rally, one that mirrored hundreds of others around the world.
From Vanuatu to Pakistan, young people in more than 100 countries walked out of schools in a strike meant to call attention to the climate crisis. More than 1,600 events are taking place worldwide, with thousands of U.S. students in at least 136 cities and towns among those on strike.
The March 15 strike grew out of the activism of 16-year-old Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg, who has been protesting for climate action since August 2018. Her activism gained attention at the same time groups like the youth-led Sunrise Movement have become more prominent in the United States, sparking a larger global push for climate action from young people.
Many of those striking on Friday live in states where the fossil fuel industry has a deep hold, like Oklahoma and Texas. But in the wider D.C. area, the momentum behind youth climate activism has also struck a chord.
“We’re the national location… we’re right in front of the people that we’re demanding action from,” Stephan told ThinkProgress. “We have the privilege of being in this location.”
With the unavoidable backdrop of the Capitol building, the reality of politics loomed large throughout the event.
Those striking on Friday rallied in support of broad climate action, but they also came with a list of demands. According to a press release distributed by the youth-led Zero Hour, protesters are demanding that world leaders take action to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, a dangerous threshold of global warming referenced by the Paris climate agreement.
And as a report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently warned, without dramatic action to cut emissions, global temperatures will rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius in a little over a decade. That will likely result in unprecedented climate impacts far outpacing the devastating hurricanes, heatwaves, and wildfires that have already become commonplace in much of the world.
The youth activists also support the Green New Deal resolution introduced last month by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) — a blueprint for rapidly decarbonizing the U.S. economy that was discussed with enthusiasm during Friday’s protest.
“Make sure when you write your postcards, you say that you want a Green New Deal,” one organizer instructed strikers as they filled out letters to their representatives demanding climate action.
She also encouraged Maryland residents to support the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which she described as a “Green New Deal for Maryland.” That bill would require half of Maryland’s electricity to come from renewable resources by 2030 and has received support from local environmental groups.
Other students had less to say about legislation. When asked about his reasons for being at the rally, Tyreke Anderson, 17, pointed to his sign reading, “This ain’t it chief.”
“We got politicians that don’t really care about climate change,” he elaborated to ThinkProgress, while Sophia Sorrentino, 16, nodded next to him. “We need to make change, like, right now.”
Maya Hofstetter, 15, similarly called on lawmakers to take action. “I’m here because I think that I deserve a future and I want to see my kids and my grandkids grow up in a world that they can live in,” she said, adding that, “It’s great that America is finally stepping up.”
Many of the youth activists on Friday were teenagers, as are the primary organizers of the D.C. rally. But some younger participants arrived as the rally kicked off around noon, many in the company of chaperons. This included 8-year-old Mary, who did not give her last name but did shyly show off a “Save the Earth” drawing on her small purple backpack.
Speakers at the rally were also almost exclusively young people. The lone adult speaker was Omar, Hirsi’s mother, who introduced her daughter. “We are the light that can bring change,” Omar said, calling for lawmakers to pass the Green New Deal.
Omar may have been the only politician at the rally, but solidarity for the protesters cropped up elsewhere. Democratic presidential contenders have largely flocked to support the Green New Deal when it was initially introduced last month and a number praised the strikers on Friday. A few, including Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), appeared at local strike events.
And at time of publishing, several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates had expressed support for the students on Twitter, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Kamala Harris (D-CA). Still, other contenders who have expressed support for the Green New Deal were largely silent, including former Democratic Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ).
The students have allies elsewhere, too. Beyond environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, 350.org, and Greenpeace endorsing the strike, more than 240 scientists signed onto an open letter offering their support and arguing that the students’ demands are in line with the scale of the crisis.
“Students’ demands for bold, urgent action are fully supported by the best available science,” wrote the experts, including climate scientists Katharine Hayhoe, Kate Marvel, Kim Cobb, and Michael Mann. “They need our support, but more than that, they need all of us to act. Their future depends on it; and so does ours.”
That sentiment largely characterized the mood on Friday, as did the need to include all communities in the fight for climate change. Those speaking called for environmental justice and the prioritization of frontline communities, particularly low-income communities and people of color.
“You can’t separate climate justice from other justices,” shouted Havana Chapman-Edwards, 8, standing on a stool to reach her microphone.
Strikers widely avoided any mention of President Donald Trump, who has said he will withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, in addition to overseeing the mass-rollback of environmental regulations. But Stephan did briefly address the president’s penchant for tweets questioning global warming — namely, she suggested that he study up on climate science.
“I feel sorry for him,” she said, offering Trump some advice. “Just listen to the people who know what they’re saying. Listen to them, do your research, before you say, ‘Oh, it’s cold outside.'”