What Happened to the Climate Change Movement?

Back in 2019, about a year and a half ago, the climate change movement took hold like it never had before. Under the public leadership of Greta Thunberg, protests were held with tens of thousands of students and adults in attendance. So what happened?

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Anders Hellberg / Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en

After her famous protests and activism around the world, Greta Thunberg was named TIME’s Person of the Year in 2019.

On Friday, September 20th, 2019, Bronx Science students joined 250,000 New Yorkers in a powerful response to the worsening state of climate change. The energy was palpable as protestors marched through the city, singing and chanting as one undeniably powerful force. The day culminated with a speech by Greta Thunberg, the de-facto leader of the climate change movement. Lines like “Our house is on fire… and we will not just stand aside and watch [it burn] brought massive chars from the crowd.” The Global Week for Future, as it was called, became a rallying cry for what seemed like only the beginning of a massive push for climate advocacy. 

Over a year and a half later, the story is very different. On March 19th, 2021, Fridays for Future held new climate strikes all around the world. The results were disappointing, to say the least. A little over 30,000 people protested worldwide, less than 1% of the 3.7 million protestors in 2019. The question, therefore, is obvious: what happened to the climate change movement?

Like many other abandoned events, the decline of the movement could be traced to COVID-19. Since Climate Change protests were primarily based on skipping class on Fridays to march, it makes sense that the yearlong absence from school buildings (for many students) would be a direct result of the movement’s decline.  

However, other movements did not seem to break down in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic. Following the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and many others at the hands of police, Black Lives Matter held massive protests throughout the United States; the movement is still going strong amidst the pandemic. So the question remains: what happened to the climate change movement? 

It seemed that, for a time at least, the words ‘climate change’ were interchangeable with the name Greta Thunberg. Starting in August of 2018, she held climate strikes and made public speeches that garnered worldwide attention. For over a year, she traveled around the world meeting celebrities, politicians, and world leaders, culminating in her now-famous address at the UN Climate Action Summit on September 23rd, 2019. Thunberg’s synonymy with the movement was both its greatest strength and its Achilles heel. Once the pandemic began and quarantining became a necessity, she was not able to go out in public and continue her advocacy in person; the movement lost its force when Thunberg could not go out and promote it. However, the limitations on Thunberg’s efforts cannot be the only answer to the decline of the climate change movement. Thunberg has a massive online platform and connections in traditional media. This means we must ask the question once again: what happened to the climate change movement? 

Greta Thunberg originally protested by sitting outside of the Riksdag (the legislating body of Sweden) for three weeks during normal school hours, holding her Skolstrejk för klimatet sign (School Strike for the Climate). (Anders Hellberg / CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)])

Greta Thunberg became the leader of the climate change movement, but that does not mean she should have been. There is no doubt that she is knowledgeable and extremely important to the movement, but there should not have been a leader in the first place. Having one person who is synonymous with a movement has worked before, but only in the pre-internet age. A part of the reason why the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr. were so successful at getting their message out was that the media worked very differently in the 1960s. Before the internet, there were very few places to get your information, so if the few news sources all were showing that one thing, symbolized by that one person, it would be extremely effective. Now, there are hundreds of TV channels and millions of websites, blogs, and social media platforms that will all show you many different things. There is no way Thunberg can possibly appeal to a majority of news outlets for that long all by herself. Comparing the Climate Change movement once again to BLM, there is not a publicized leader. Sure, there are people who are leading the charge, but are they in the newspapers?

While Thunberg is mostly out of the public eye at the moment, she is the subject of a new PBS documentary, Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World that is currently releasing, which could push her back to prominence. Along with this, Fridays for Future and the climate change movement as a whole are trying to move forward and reignite the passion as best as they can. As more people receive the COVID-19 vaccine, hopefully, protests and in-person events can eventually begin again, getting the earth on the path to a better future.

The question, therefore, is obvious: what happened to the climate change movement?

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