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Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg fronts a Fridays For Future protest at the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm on Sept. 25, 2020.

JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

United under Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, young people rallied worldwide on Friday to demand urgent action to halt catastrophic climate change, in their first global protest since the coronavirus crisis began.

With wild weather wreaking havoc across the world – from fires ravaging the U.S. West, to abnormal heatwaves in the Siberian Arctic and record floods in China – organizers said their aim was to remind politicians that, while the world focused on COVID-19, the climate crisis was more acute than ever.

Demonstrations were planned in more than 3,100 locations, though with pandemic-related curbs limiting the size of gatherings, much of the action shifted online.

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In Stockholm, Ms. Thunberg and a handful of members of her group, Fridays for Future, assembled outside parliament with signs bearing slogans including “Stop Denying the Climate Is Dying”.

“We need to treat the climate crisis as a crisis. It’s just as simple as that. The climate crisis has never once been treated as a crisis and unless we treat it as a crisis we won’t be able to, so-called, ‘solve’ it,” Ms. Thunberg told reporters.

Organizers said turnout was expected to be far smaller than the global climate strikes held one year ago, which drew more than six million people onto the streets.

Participants were asked to post pictures on social media and join a 24-hour global Zoom call – though mass gatherings were held in countries including Germany.

In Berlin, police said nearly 10,000 people took part in demonstrations. Protesters cycled in groups to the Brandenburg Gate, where they sat in face masks, observing social distancing and chanting: “Strikes in school, university and companies. That is our answer to your politics”.

ON THE FRONT LINES

The demonstrations focused on communities that have contributed little to greenhouse gas emissions, but are on the front lines of devastating climate threats including violent storms, rising seas and locust plagues.

Activist Vanessa Nakate, who led 30 young demonstrators in Kampala, Uganda, on Friday, said the climate-change debate has tended to sideline voices from vulnerable developing regions.

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“The world was so focused on the California fires,” she said. “When California was burning, communities in Africa were flooding – but where was the attention?”

In Kenya’s capital Nairobi, about 30 activists gathered in a park, with some donning headgear made of discarded plastic bottles.

Their protest centred around media reports, first published in The New York Times, that industry group the American Chemistry Council (ACC) is lobbying to ensure Kenya continues importing foreign plastic trash, despite a government pledge to stop doing this. ACC has said the reports are inaccurate.

“We say Africa is not a dumpsite, and Kenya is not a dumpsite,” activist Kevin Mtai said.

In the Philippines, Mitzi Jonelle Tan, a 22-year-old Fridays for Future activist, said recent flooding had wiped out a local COVID-19 testing centre and caused a tree to fall on her home.

“I hate that it is a normal thing to experience these impacts. I hate that it is a normal thing that people are suffering – because they don’t need to,” she said.

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People in the global South are dying because of climate change, said 19-year-old Belgian activist Anuna De Wever ahead of a planned protest in a Brussels square.

“As one of the richest continents, we [Europeans] have the biggest responsibility to fight climate change in the most ambitious way possible.”

Mya-Rose Craig, an 18-year-old Briton, travelled to the Arctic – one of the world’s fastest warming regions – with Greenpeace to stage the most northerly protest on an ice floe.

Activists in Bogota, Colombia, said they would use the event to urge their government to ratify the Escazu Accord, an agreement among Latin American and Caribbean countries that enshrines protections for those working on environmental causes.

In Australia, thousands of students earlier took part in about 500 small gatherings and online protests, to demand investment in renewable energy and oppose funding for gas projects.

While global climate negotiations have faltered during the pandemic, a surprise announcement by China this week means that two of the world’s top three emitters – China and the European Union – have now committed to becoming carbon neutral, halting their net contributions to climate change.

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Whether the United States, the second-biggest emitter, joins them is likely to depend on the result of November’s presidential election.

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