Global Climate Strike demonstrates mass movement to address climate change

On Sept. 20, cities and towns across the globe swelled with an estimated 4 million activists demanding their governments address climate change. Led by students and supported by hundreds of organizations including the AFT, the uprising, held days before the Sept. 23 United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York, is thought to be the largest demonstration for climate action in history, and it underscored young people’s passionate commitment to saving the planet.

a young woman holds a sign that says 'don't be a fossil fool'

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Nearly 200 countries participated in the strike, and thousands of students in the United States walked out of school to participate. Educators, including AFT members, were deeply involved in the movement, navigating an array of policies in various districts regarding student absences, logistical support and participation in student-led actions—as well as teaching classroom lessons on climate change. Their unions also made climate strike endorsements, such as the one from the California Federation of Teachers—which also has its own Climate Justice Agenda—and engaged in political advocacy for better environmental policy at the legislative level.

a girl holds a sign that says 'this is a nightmare but I still have a dream'

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“From students walking out in solidarity against gun violence, to young people marching for action on climate change across the world, we see powerful examples of what happens when young people take action for change,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten, who marched with AFT members from the United Federation of Teachers (New York City public schools), the Professional Staff Congress (City University of New York) and United University Professions (State University of New York) in New York City.

“If we can help students learn about the science of climate change, help them understand free speech and citizen advocacy as part of civic education, and encourage their belief in themselves, we’ve done our job in helping the next generation secure their future,” said Weingarten.

Demonstrations in Washington, D.C., showed the array of organizations supporting the movement. Led by D.C. public school students, adults from the Washington Teachers’ Union, the AFT, the Sunrise Movement, Zero Hour, OneMillionOfUs,, DC Youth Climate Strike, National Children’s Campaign, Our Children’s Trust and others marched to the Capitol with a message for legislators: Act now to save the planet.

“We salute the students throughout the world who are leading the movement on this most urgent of issues,” said PSC leaders in New York, who urged members to incorporate climate change material into teaching, offer logistical support or join the walkout. “Our house is on fire; let’s act like it.”

At university campuses across New York state, “UUP members—the unionists who work with these students as SUNY faculty, staff, counselors and healthcare professionals—joined the rallies, marches and workshops that these outstanding young people organized,” said UUP President Fred Kowal. “Today, these students were our instructors, and we learned some valuable lessons about how to take your future into your own hands to get something done.”

young girl holds a sign that says 'stop climate change now!'

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Members of Rutgers AAUP-AFT (the Rutgers University chapter of the American Association of University Professors), many of whom are climate scientists, followed rallying students across campus and to U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone’s office, where they protested donations he’s received from the fossil fuel industry and urged action on a strong Green New Deal.

AFT allies Public Services International and Education International supported the effort globally. PSI is focusing on corporate influence, particularly from the fossil fuel and agro-business sectors, fighting against “the corporate capture of our governments.” Education International is committed to strengthening the role of education and research in fighting climate change and is supporting Fridays for Future strikes—student demonstrations every Friday to demand better climate change policy.

The Global Climate Strike is the brainchild of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, a Swedish student and environmental activist who sailed to New York from Sweden—a zero-carbon endeavor—to lead the movement there. Actions will continue through the week as the United Nations holds its Climate Action Summit.

[Virginia Myers/photos by Pam Wolfe]