NEW YORK — "My children," said Alva, a 13-year-old, when I asked what she worries about the most. "Like, generations to come." She came to the Climate Strike with four friends from the United Nations International School—the kind of place for which you'd think an event like this would be the Super Bowl. But she said the teachers and administrators there barely mentioned it. That only convinced her crew they needed to go. "Most of us just felt like, because they didn’t really encourage us to do that, we felt more empowered to go and just tell them, 'We're just going to do this.'"
That's the kind of attitude we'll need in the perilous years ahead, and the kids I spoke to among the throngs of thousands upon thousands who gathered in Lower Manhattan on Friday had it. Alva stood in Foley Square, named for a Tammany Hall electioneer who could tell you a thing or two about fixing a political system at the expense of the popular will. She marched in the shadow of the towering state and federal court buildings that ring the square, those fortresses of marble and stone where, if the forces attempting to salvage our only planet as a habitat for human civilization should succeed, some of their best efforts will crash against the entrenched power of our system. Just this week, we were reminded of the threat our current Supreme Court, assembled via undemocratic means, poses to a Green New Deal—or even more modest measures.
But even around noon, when this march had scarcely begun, the kids were filtering in from every direction. Greta Thunberg, the Swedish 16-year-old who headlined this event, has been holding these strikes every Friday, but this one was different: the United Nations will hold a Climate Action Summit early next week, and the world gathered today to emphasize, in the words of another guy who liked a good march, "the fierce urgency of now."
One hundred schools in New York City were participating, and the city's Department of Education had granted students the opportunity to skip school to attend. Obviously, because kids are kids, this would have been a motivating factor. There was a party atmosphere in Foley Square, as the music bumped and the tribal drums bounced and high schoolers jumped up on each others' shoulders—or scaled lampposts—to wave their signs in full view of the crowd. There was more than one sign with an Area-51 joke: "If this wasn't so dire, I'd be in Nevada!" But make no mistake: these kids might not be ready to offer you the specifics of their plan for a carbon tax yet, but they know, on an almost visceral level, that something has gone badly wrong.
"The drastic changes in weather," 15-year-old Brianna said, when I asked her the same question I had of Alva: what worries you? "I have to dress accordingly for four seasons a day." She was part of a group dressed in ocean-blue bandana headbands. They'd built dozens of pieces of an ocean wave out of plaster, which they intended to put together on one side of the crowd.
"The storms are getting stronger, like, by the minute," said Katie, a classmate. Just this week, Texas has experienced a biblical event—extreme precipitation, inches of rain falling at rapid pace, followed by flash flooding that easily overwhelms our drainage systems. It's too early to link the event to warming ocean and air temperatures, but scientists say those factors will lead to more extreme precipitation events in the future. New York was the scene of more than one this summer, including one instance where three inches fell in Brooklyn in one hour, submerging a neighborhood at the foot of Park Slope like someone turned on the shower overhead. That followed on an extreme heat wave, and scientists say that's no coincidence. This is our future, but the future is now.
"Alaska sees it. It’s a lot more apparent, it’s more in your face," said Fiona, who came with her father, Danny, and her baby son, Indy. "There are whole communities that are sinking into the ocean." Among others, she's talking about Shishmaref, an island community that is sinking into the sea on the front lines of the climate crisis. Wildfires are tearing through Alaska along with much of the Arctic, sending an area of the world that is already warming much faster than the rest into hyperdrive. Fiona said glacier melt up there isn't a theoretical problem: the glaciers provide drinking water for communities like the one her family left to move to New York.
Esquire's Charles P. Pierce traveled to Shishmaref a decade ago to document the absurdity of an American territory sinking into the ocean while one of America's only two major political parties denied that the climate crisis existed. The official Twitter account for the Republican Party marked this day by fear-mongering about action—any action, really—to combat a crisis that poses an existential threat to our civilization. It seems they'll now admit it's happening, they just insist there's nothing we can or should do about it. This week, Republican members of Congress welcomed Thunberg by trying to mock her from the dais.
Oh, how small do Rep. Garrett Graves and his slimy slick-back look now, as tens of thousands march in this titanic American city in what is really a sweeping conclusion to the day's events. After all, 100,000 have already marched in Melbourne. 100,000 more took to the streets in Berlin. The streets were full, too, in Uganda. It's as if the whole world felt it necessary to yell out as one that, in the words of one sign at Foley Square, "The planet is on fucking fire." They were quoting Bill Nye, of course, and it warms the heart to see another generation has warmed to the TV scientist.
"We need to understand this is the one Earth that we have, and we have to take care of our planet while we still have it," Brianna said. Her friend Haley joined in: "Before it’s gone, and we all die too soon, because they’re killing us."
They're not wrong. Indigenous groups and those representing Puerto Rico marched alongside the students in New York, trumpeting the call of climate injustice. Our society's most marginalized have borne the brunt of our earliest climate catastrophes, just as the poorest all around the world will in the coming years. But soon everyone, and especially the children, were chanting along here: "What do we want? Climate justice. When do we want it? Now." Perhaps the kids can already feel that searing pain of unfairness, of having your life upended by those who came before you or by powerful forces beyond your control.
There is no more denying that we have destroyed these children's birthright and left them a world in peril. There are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on Earth, a planet that in the scheme of things is just one tiny speck in a galactic backwater. Human history, too, is almost immeasurably small in the 14-billion year span of all that we know exists. But we have certainly made our mark. We have put all the miraculous life that for so long coexisted with us at grave risk, including the 3 billion birds that have disappeared from North America over the last 50 years. The gravest concern is that it is not just a problem for Alva's future children, or even just Alva. Her parents may well live to see the extent of what we have wrought out of all our greed and avarice. Someday, we will cherish what we have—or what we have left.
In the meantime, though, we can take heart. The kids have arrived, and they are making noise. "On the train here, I saw so many people who were part of this," Alva told me, "and I was just like, dang, I’m going to look at this when I’m older and say, 'I was a part of that.'" Determining what, exactly, she will have been a part of is what this whole thing is about.
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