Global climate strike: millions take to the streets around the world

Students across the world miss school to take part in demonstrations aimed at raising awareness and spurring government action on climate change. This was the scene in London.

By Simon Ingram
Published 20 Sept 2019, 23:16 BST, Updated 16 Dec 2020, 12:04 GMT

Thousands took to the streets of Westminster on September 20, 2019 as part of the Global Climate Strike. 

Photograph by Simon Ingram, National Geographic

It's a day of rich sunshine in Westminster with just a hint of Autumn chill in the air. Though on the placards of the tens of thousands of those walking down Whitehall towards the Houses of Parliament, chill is very far from the subject of choice. Slogans ranging from the imaginative to the bluntly profane, corruptions of corporate logos, renderings of the Earth boiling atop crudely rendered fire and more than a few pot-shots at politicians are represented in every pocket of demonstrator here today.

It's a diverse bunch, too. There doesn't seem to be a truly agreed-on theme amongst the adults, with the home-made cardboard statements and too-loud public address system at Millbank audibly or visually belting out rallying cries on everything from capitalist greed, equality, neo-fascism, the migrant crisis and (of course) Brexit.

But to the many, many children here the theme is rather more unified: government-ratified action to address climate change, and safeguard their future. And quickly.

“It's so important to go and show them that we're not going to stop,” says one teenager, who with her friends are wearing the uniforms from the school they have walked out of to attend the demonstration. "To miss a few lessons at school... when this is about the future of our children. We're the ones this is going to happen to.”   

Police monitored the demonstration, which closed roads in central London around the Palace of Westminster and Whitehall.
Photograph by Simon Ingram, National Geographic

Small Beginnings

In simple terms, the purpose of today's protests is to lobby those in power – government, corporations and consumers – to take steps to reduce the human impact on the planet. The impetus began with one activist, the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, whose demonstrations outside her parliament led to a student movement known as Fridays for Future.  

A climate strike on 15 March saw demonstrations in over 100 countries, with campaigners claiming 1.4 million took part worldwide. Today an estimated 1.1 million people will demonstrate in New York City alone, with Thunberg in attendance. The city will be the venue for the UN Climate Change Summit next week.

Here in London, Thunberg's presence looms large: her face, the slogan from her often solitary protests in her native country – ‘Skolstrejk For Klimatet’ (school strike for climate) – visible everywhere in tribute. To many of the children here, Thunberg is an icon: “inspiration,” “amazing,” “cool” words used to describe the 16 year-old activist's influence on what has, in a little over a year, become a global rallying cry. Ubiquitous too is the egg-timer symbol of the Extinction Rebellion – the group that has become controversially synonymous with climate activism in the capital.    

Other UK towns and cities are seeing simultaneous demonstrations, big and small. Globally, today's demonstration is expected to be the largest climate mobilisation ever, with an estimated 3,500 events taking place around the world. It's controversial: many are critical of the disruption to public and education systems. The mass school walk-outs have been inevitably likened to industrial action, with teachers under pressure not to allow students to leave for reasons including safeguarding. 

One parent, at the event with her young son but not her daughter, says she faced no resistance from his school, but “a little more from hers.” Another parent says her daughter's school had taken a ‘neutral approach,’ but that her absence would still be recorded as unauthorised.

Alarm Call

By early afternoon the crowd has swelled, filling the Victoria Tower Gardens on the banks of the Thames, in the shadow of the Palace of Westminster's Victoria Tower. Here on the grass is the sculpture of The Burghers of Calais, by Rodin. Oil-black and comprised of tortured forms, the statue is a statement of the freedom from oppression; today it has been taken over by children, who have occupied niches of the sculpture from which to hold up their own statements: 'I'd rather learn than watch the planet burn.' 'Why study for a future I won't have?' 'Give us our planet back.' Some look incredibly young. All look determined.   

The crowd has been asked to set an alarm to chime at 1pm as requested in a collective statement: time's up on climate change. Some take out almost cartoon-like alarm clocks with old-fashioned bells, others use their phones. It's an anticlimax: no cutting, unified ringing filling the air, and it's quickly covered by people's voices rising into a cheer. But the point is made. 

One youngster remains on the very top of Rodin's sculpture for a long time, holding a placard made from what looks like a broom handle and a cardboard box. 'You're not changing things, so let us – there is no planet B.' it reads. Held aloft in front of Parliament flying its Union Flag – currently suspended under Boris Johnson's controversial prorogation – it's a strident sight.

Her mum isn't worried; she ‘free-runs and is pretty sure footed’, she says. Back on the ground, the girl is shy and suddenly looks tiny. When asked why she wanted to come today she says ‘she wanted to change the world.’ To her, Thunberg is simply ‘Greta.’

There is optimism here, particularly amongst the young. Elsewhere on the placards and chalk pavement inscriptions, there is anger, frustration, desperation. And perhaps, though not necessarily here, resignation. “I was watching a David Attenborough documentary with my son,” one parent says. “All of a sudden he turned to me and said, ‘Mum – we're not going to make it.’ That's a sad thing to hear from a 13 year-old.’

The event in London was part of a global event believed to be the largest climate change demonstration in history.
Photograph by Simon Ingram, National Geographic

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