I was late, hurrying, pushing my two children in a buggy through Paul Street towards Emmet Place. I didn’t want to miss the start and was hoping to rendezvous with a friend.
The kids were waving cardboard placards and I could hear drumming ahead. I turned the corner onto Academy Street and stood there disbelieving. I nearly burst into tears. The street was completely flooded with protesters. There wasn’t a hope of finding my friend in the crowds.
Young and old were holding signs and flags and chanting “What do we want? Change! When do we want it? Now!”
Placards declaring “March Now or Swim Later”, “The Seas Are Rising and So Are We”, “There’s No Planet B” and the familiar “Down with this Sort of Thing”, along with a picture of the Earth’s rising temperature, were everywhere. A samba band at the top of the march provided the rhythm to the movement for change. The energy was incredible.
This was the first global youth climate strike. I knew momentum was building on the back of Greta Thunberg’s rising profile and the growing ‘Fridays for Future’ global movement, but I never expected to see 5,000 people, not just schoolchildren, march down South Mall shouting for climate action.
My main feelings were relief and hope. Relief that others were as worried as I was at the state of the planet, and hope that this might be the moment, this might be the movement, that changed things.
With my kids by my side, I was optimistic that this was the start of the beginning.
More than a million strikers took part in 2,000 protests in 125 countries. The main Irish protests were organised by a loose coalition of Cork and Dublin based second-level students. Teachers of these students that I spoke to at the time were deeply impressed by the resolve of the students, their organisational skills and composure at pulling of such a well-attended and well-behaved event.
Cynics dubbed it a school skipping exercise, but 11,000 people marched in Dublin and politicians praised young people’s dedication and passion.
Those words of encouragement were not gratefully accepted by strikers. The response was more “enough of the platitudes, show us you care about our future with real action”.
That initial March global protest was followed by others in 2019 and last Friday saw another global day of action organised by the ‘Fridays for Future’ movement — this time during a pandemic. Covid-19 has put a halt to mass gatherings but strikers got creative.
In Sweden, Greta Thunberg tweeted “Today is our global day of climate action, and we strike in over 3,100 places! In Sweden, gatherings of over 50 people are not allowed due to Covid-19, so we adapt.”
In Moscow, Russia, masked and colour-coordinated dancers performed a flash-mob type dance protest. In Toronto, distanced protesters shut down streets, staging a sit-in at an intersection. In Cork, protesters collected 500 placards and arranged them in front of Bishop Lucey Park, reminding politicians that the climate crisis hasn’t gone away.
Since March, 2019, the climate crisis is now firmly embedded in the political agenda, here and abroad. The Green Party is now in government driving a green agenda. The European Commission recently proposed cutting Europe’s emissions by 55% by 2030, up from its previous target of 40%. Yesterday, the front page of The Guardian newspaper announced “World leaders back 10-point pledge to halt destruction of planet Earth” — a plan to tackle climate change’s companion crisis — the biodiversity crisis.
Last week saw some major climate and biodiversity announcements in Ireland. Bord na Móna’s ambitious “brown to green strategy” will see the semi-state raise €1.6 billion to invest in wind and solar projects as well as peatland restoration to promote and protect biodiversity and carbon storage.
Then came the news that the Climate Action (Amendment) Bill was going to be published “in or around” the first 100 days of the government and that, in time, it would mean that legally-binding emissions limits would apply for each sector. Ireland has agreed to cut emissions by 7% every year up to 2030 and be 100% carbon neutral in 30 years.
Having the right legislation in place is crucial to help us achieve those targets, but looking at graphs that show how quickly carbon emissions need to plummet to avoid global warming of 1.5C is really frightening.
U.S climate scientist Zeke Hausfather tweeted “To have a 66% chance of avoiding 1.5C warming, emissions would have to fall 66% by 2030 and reach zero by 2036. For a 50% chance of 1.5C it’s a 46% reduction by 2030 and zero by 2043.”
That’s a lot of numbers, but essentially we need to have zero greenhouse gas emissions in 16 years if we want more than half a chance of avoiding a global temperature rise of 1.5C. Our carbon emissions need to fall off a cliff for breakneck decarbonisation. But we haven’t even reached peak carbon emissions yet. The emissions graph is still rising.
So, whether it’s placards on pavements, distanced dances, sit-downs or traditional (now distanced) street marches, the climate strikers need to keep reminding politicians and the ‘grown-ups’ of the stark future they’re facing without bold climate action.
Their efforts must be rewarded with tangible results. The emissions graph needs to change direction.