The Era of Polite Climate Activism Is Dead and Buried

Activists blocked the streets of Washington as Greta Thunberg issued an ultimatum to world leaders at the UN.
September 23, 2019, 7:42pm
A protester stands mockingly in front of a cop in the street.
A climate protester in Washington, D.C. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty

On Friday, climate activists around the world, led by teenagers and adolescents, staged a strike, demanding action from legislators and the other powers-that-be to drastically reduce carbon emissions and ensure a just future. Mass protests shut down the normal functioning of business in cities large and small. Everyone knew it was coming: Some school districts gave students permission to skip their classes, and even some employers supported their workers taking the day off to participate.

In one sense, this might be understood to have taken the sting out of the protests; after all, if the authority figures in your life are giving you the go-ahead to do something disruptive, how disruptive is it? In another sense, the fact that schools and bosses blessed the protests might be seen as an indicator of how well organized (or attuned to the political mood) the activists who'd called the strike really are. In any case, millions of people worldwide were mobilized—no small feat in an age when every day brings a new crisis, outrage, or scandal.

But while U.N. officials and others made a show of praising the strikers, the political establishment's attitude towards the mostly young activists has been condescension, as the teens realized when they arrived at the United Nations for a Youth Climate Summit on Saturday and were greeted by a Game of Thrones actor. It's nice that young people care about the world, some leaders seem to be implying, but there's no reason to take them seriously.


On Monday morning, hundreds more protesters took to the streets of Washington, D.C., to shut down traffic, this time without anyone's permission. While they may have fallen short of their stated goal of bringing "the whole city to a gridlocked standstill," traffic was halted at nearly two dozen locations around downtown D.C. at various points on Monday morning, shutting down important intersections and streets heavily populated by lobbyists and elected officials.

They have been met with contempt and derision from the political class who days before were fawning over the very same movement's leaders for their pluckiness. "Not sure blocking K St and screaming 'we demand a green new deal' is going to get it done," Josh Dawsey, a White House reporter for the Washington Post, tweeted. "In general, messing with traffic is not a great way to build solidarity with the working class," Chris Arnade, a former bond trader who left Wall Street to write a book about poor people, wrote. "As you can see from the picture that I took of the so-called global warming protesters outside of my office, what they are really against is capitalism and freedom," USCIS acting director Ken Cuccinelli warned, posting a grainy photograph of protesters holding a sign that read Capitalism Is Killing The Planet.

Few incidents illustrate the fundamental hypocrisy better than when President Barack Obama, who signed the U.S. onto the Paris Climate Agreement, took the time last week to flatter Greta Thunberg, giving her a fist bump and telling her "You and me, we're a team," later describing her on Twitter as "one of our planet's greatest advocates." This is a president who presided over the largest increase in domestic oil production in U.S. history, for which he was more than happy to take credit as he left office.

The reality is that liberals and conservatives alike have little to no interest in taking the climate strikers' most necessary and radical demands seriously. The constituency that the strikers need win to their cause is not composed of U.N. diplomats, ex-presidents, or the Democratic Party, but instead people like the 50,000 unionized autoworkers who are engaged in a labor strike against General Motors. "The number-one priority for every organized group supporting bold climate solutions has to be winning a settlement that is good for the autoworkers," labor historian and organizer Jane McAlevey writes in The Nation, "one that guarantees that any transition to electric-oriented jobs in the GM plants will preserve the workers’ union contract, create permanent jobs, and offer wages and benefits of the same standard as those enjoyed by full-time GM workers before the Great Recession."


Demands for a livable wage, like demands for a habitable planet, are unlikely to be granted by a class of elites for whom the status quo is working out pretty well. All the more reason, then, that these demands be made forcefully by a unified coalition of young people, workers, and others who have a stake in changing the future. The potential for such a coalition exists, as the millions who protested on Friday showed; whether that potential can be realized is an open question, one that most bosses and politicians are working very hard to suppress.

To her credit, Thurnberg has shown no fear, nor any sign of being assuaged by authority figure's head-patting patronage. "You are failing us, but young people are starting to understand your betrayal," she told the U.N. on Monday. "And if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you."

But inaction does not represent failure on the system's part—it's what the system was designed to do. When demands for real change become even louder, an interrupted commute or empty classrooms may be the least of the powerful's concerns.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Brendan O'Connor is a freelance journalist working on a book about immigration and the far right for Haymarket.