“IF WORLD leaders choose to fail us, my generation will never forgive them,” voice of Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist, echoed across conference hall at the 2019 September United Nations (UN) Climate Action Summit. In a hall filled with representatives from all over the world, including 91 heads of state, Thunberg’s call for actions against the global climate change seemed to represent a simple yet powerful message—that we are facing a grave environmental crisis. As years of global efforts to deal with climate issues were met with little success, millions of students and activists from around the world put aside school and work to join the mass protests this September. Countries that have taken part in the September 2019 climate movement have dramatically increased the public pressure on governments, demanding them to take urgent steps to tackle the climate crisis.
Origins and early strikers
Rallies on climate change have been on-going for years, but the scale and publicity of these rallies were not escalated until August 2018. Officially initiated by Thunberg, “the school strike for climate”—also known as “Fridays for Future”—is an international movement of students who are boycotting their classes to join the protests, with the current environmental crisis forcing them in the face of an uncertainty of having a future at all. Thunberg first rallied for Sweden to meet its climate action pledges made under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Thunberg’s advocacy for authority’s greater focus on the environmental agendas inspired many like-minded individuals across the globe, and protests have since begun to be organized extensively. Beginning this year in March 2019, series of global strikes led by Thunberg have swept the planet—an approximate total of 7.6 million participants from over 163 countries took part in the demonstrations*. The first Global Climate Strike was in March 2019, followed by the second one in May, and the third one in September, the last marking the largest climate strike in history.
The 2019 September Climate Strikes
Advocated by an international grassroots movement Earth Strike, the September 2019 climate strikes, or Global Week for Future, were a series of strikes that took place from September 20 to 27 under the school strike for climate movement. The strikes gained huge public attention after the two protests held on Fridays: the September 20 Global Climate Strike and the September 27 International Earth Strike, which coincided with the 57th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring, a book published in 1962 that investigated the harmful effects of pesticides, which still inspires various global environmentalist movements today. Unlike previous strikes, the September strikes were participated by both members of the younger generation as well as adults. Organizers of the Global Climate Strike stated that the ultimate goal of the strikes is to raise awareness on the issue of climate change, urging for immediate actions such as a complete phase-out of fossil fuels, and an immediate transition to 100% renewable energy**. “We strike because we believe there is no Planet B,” stated organizers of Global Climate Strike, “and we should do everything in our power to stop this crisis.”
The talk on climate
Two major summits at the UN headquarters in New York were also held during the week of the strikes: the Youth Climate Summit on the 21st and the Climate Action Summit on the 23rd. Thunberg represented the movement and spoke at the UN Climate Action Summit, condemning world leaders for failing to tackle climate change. Faced with a worsening crisis, the UN Climate Summits aimed to put forth new initiatives by governments to confront climate change and achieve the goals that were introduced in the Paris Climate Agreement.
However, these were not the first conferences held in regards to climate change. The Kyoto Protocol held in 2005 aimed to implement the objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the Earth’s atmosphere to a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system***. Four years later, the Copenhagen Accord was signed in 2009. Being the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, the Copenhagen Accord similarly agreed that efforts would be made to mitigate the emission of greenhouse gases. The most recent climate treaty is the Paris Climate Agreement, introduced in 2015 under the UN Climate Summits. According to Koo Ja-ho (Prof., Dept. of Atmospheric Sciences), in an interview with The Yonsei Annals, the Paris Climate Agreement has two notable characteristics. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, which focused on participation among the great powers such as the United States and China, the Paris Climate Agreement aimed for a collective effort of all member states of the UN. Additionally, in contrast to most environmental law treaties which are top-down in nature, the Paris Climate Agreement followed a bottom-up approach, where all governments participating in the agreement autonomously chose their own goals.
One of the biggest issues with the Paris Climate Agreement pertained to its ultimate goal proposed: maintaining the increase in average global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius. Professor Koo stated that even exceeding the 1.5 degrees range would bring the global average temperature to the climate tipping point, causing an irreversible change in the climate system. “Even if strong and immediate measures are taken to preserve the climate, we have reached a stage where it will be difficult to achieve the containment of rising temperature,” expressed Koo. “Despite the gravity of the situation, the majority of the heavy carbon emitters such as the United States as well as other industrialized nations are more concerned with their economies instead, taking negligent approaches to tackle climate change.”
Rallying for change
The climate strikes have spread across the globe with active participation from countries all over the world. Germany had the largest number of participants, with a total figure of 1.4 million protestors and 575 demonstrations taking place in dozens of cities in the country. The German government’s concession of the country’s inability to fulfil its 2020 climate targets erupted a public outrage; The high carbon emission from the transport sector, limited the reduction of greenhouse gases to 32% in contrast to the official target of a 40% reduction****, disappointing many citizens who expected greater effort by Germany against climate change.
Gathering in the streets of Seoul, South Korean students and activists also joined the school strike for climate movement. According to The Korea Herald, an estimated 4,000 people gathered in Daehak-ro on September 21 to criticize the Korean government for its poor response towards climate change. The public discontent towards South Korea’s standing as an environmentally-responsible country can be justified; Korea is the world’s seventh largest emitter of greenhouse gases, with heavy reliance on coal-fired power plants and nuclear reactors, accountable for approximately 65% of net domestic electricity production as of 2018*****. Protesters criticized the country’s poor performance in the Climate Change Performance Index, as South Korea ranks 57th out of 60 countries, receiving extremely low ratings in the greenhouse gas emissions and energy use categories.
Fortunately, according to Professor Koo, Korea has been making efforts on climate change, investing time and resources to play its responsible role in the era of climate crisis. “In 2015, Lee Hoe-sung was elected as chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize award winning organization,” said Koo. “Furthermore, it can be seen that by stationing the Green Climate Fund (GCF) in Korea, specifically near Yonsei University’s Songdo campus, we can observe that the government is acknowledging the growing concern over climate change and aims to find a solution collectively with members of all generations.” However, protestors in Korea called for a more drastic change in the country’s energy policies, rather than a mere acknowledgment, such as a complete shutdown of the coal-fired power plants and extensive shift to renewable energy. Following the strike on the 21st, another was held on the 27th in Gwang-hwa-mun, four days after the UN Climate Action Summit to which President Moon Jae-in took part in discussing environmental issues with other global leaders. “Even though South Korea has never implemented plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, President Moon spoke at the summit as if there had been efforts to enforce the Paris Climate Agreement,” said Kim Bo-rim, one of the participants of the strike in an interview held by The Hankyoreh. “The government continues to threaten our future, ignoring the seriousness and urgency of the situation. We therefore have no choice but to take to the streets.”
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One student’s single act of courage has transformed into one of the largest movements in history. Climate strikes are signs of the growing awareness and anger towards the severity and scale of the climate crisis all over the world. A tribute goes out to all the remarkable participants of the climate strikes, who are needed in this time of climate emergency to fight for our future.
**Global Climate Strike
***Article 2 of the UNFCCC
****Clean Energy Wire
*****The Korea Herald