The atmosphere was celebratory. But the occasion was not.
As the crowds poured into New York’s Battery Park on Friday, a historic moment was made. In the biggest climate march the world has ever seen, young and old school and work strikers in 150 countries from all continents including Antarctica, took to the streets.
Young Champion of the Earth for Asia and Pacific, Sonika Mandahar, was among the climate marchers. “What I feel is that everyone is joining hands to create a wave, to empower people to drive change and scale it up around the world,” she said.
Mandahar is one of seven young entrepreneurs in New York City this week after winning the United Nations Young Champions of the Earth prize for outstanding work to protect our world.
“This makes me feel empowered because by joining this march we are together. We are trying to empower the grassroot people—they will drive the green economy—and that drives me,” she said.
The time to act on climate change has never been more urgent, the marchers in New York City chanted. Their message was conveyed best by Fridays for Future founder, 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.
On Saturday, the Fridays for Future moment was honoured with the 2019 Champion of the Earth for inspiration and action, the UN’s flagship global environmental award. Established by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2005, the awards celebrate outstanding figures whose actions have had a transformative positive impact on the environment. From world leaders to environmental defenders to technology inventors, the awards recognize trailblazers who are working to protect our planet for the next generation.
“We are not in school today, and this time we are not alone,” Thunberg said on Friday. “We have some adults who are not at work today either. And why? Because this is an emergency. Our house is on fire… Why should we study for a future that is being taken away from us? That is being stolen for profit?”
Warning against empty promise and token praise, Thunberg challenged world leaders, gathering in New York for the Climate Action Summit and United Nations General Assembly, to step up to tackle the climate crisis with action, not words. Speaking to crowds of 250,000 gathering in the heat of the day following the march from Foley Square, she said:
“We deserve a safe future. We demand a safe future, is that really too much to ask? Right now, we are the ones who are making a difference, if no one else will take action, then we will. It should not be that way, we should not be the ones fighting for the future, and yet here we are… Together, united, we are unstoppable. This is what people power looks like.”
Those most responsible for this crisis will be held accountable, she added. And: “If you belong to that small group of people who feel threatened by us, then we have some very bad news for you. Because this is only the beginning. Change is coming, whether they like it or not,” she said.
It was a hot day, and Thunberg stalled her talk twice to call out moments when people in the crowd needed medical attention due to intense crowds and heat. Around the world, more than 4 million people joined the marches to protest inaction on climate change.
In Australia, 350,000 people took to the streets. Crowds gathered in London, Berlin and cities around the world. “This is the biggest climate strike ever in history, and we all should be so proud of ourselves because we have done this together,” said Thunberg.
Indigenous rights activists joined the line-up on the stage at Battery Park to urge action. Artemisa Xakriaba, an indigenous Amazonian youth leader, said indigenous groups using traditional knowledge had warned about the climate crisis for decades.
Seventeen-year-old Israel Gonzalez and 16-year-old Dunya Jadallah were among those in the crowd striking school in New York. “We’re trying to make a difference. And it’s really nice to see that people are finally here making a difference,” said Gonzalez.
Jadallah continued: “Look at all these people, they came here to show that this earth will not change unless we do something about it. If we don’t do anything about it, everything on this earth will die. All these people in one of the busiest cities I know—we’re trying to save our world from disaster.” This time, it has to make a difference, she added.
Niklas Hagelberg, UNEP’s climate change coordinator said, “Youth and the younger generation have every reason to be out and asking for action because climate change will be part of their lives.”
Whether in negative or positive ways—for example through new job creation—climate change will shape their futures.
“Something has changed and there is definitely more attention on this topic. This year, the UN Secretary-General has asked for not just commitments, but plans on what will be done. In addition to those plans, he has also asked for the finance sector, both public and private, to step forward and finance those actions,” said Hagelberg.
Expectations are that individuals, governments and companies will pledge commitments towards a carbon-zero future, he said. “Whether it’s carbon neutrality by 2040, like Amazon has just committed to, or carbon neutrality by 2050: that’s the level of commitment that is needed from all of us,” he said.
This will take different forms, he added. For example, in the energy sector, it will be necessary to reconsider how to reduce our carbon footprint to use less energy more efficiently, whether retrofitting a building or installing new lighting systems. It is necessary to invest in carbon-neutral products and solutions, to drive a different kind of economy.
Leaders from around the world will attend the Climate Action Summit this week. Expectations are high that they will map out strong plans for a more sustainable future, and commitments which pave the way for a carbon-neutral future.
Issues on the UN Environment Programme’s agenda will be front and centre at the summit. They include highlighting how governments, civil society and individuals can take action on climate, sharing updates on the Sustainable Development Goals, celebrating outstanding environmental action and much more.