When Thomas Lopez started showing up to the weekly rallies held by youth climate activists at the State Capitol earlier this year, he would often find ten or twenty young people in attendance, and there were weeks when there were even fewer.
“Sometimes it was only, like, four of us,” says Lopez, an activist with the Colorado Indigenous Youth Council. “But it’s those times, honestly, that matter more. Because if we’re not showing up during the small times, then the big times are just for show.”
Today, September 20, was one of the big times. Thousands of activists, many of them students from local high schools and elementary schools, marched through downtown Denver to the Capitol, where they rallied in support of a Green New Deal, an end to fossil-fuel development and a “just transition” to clean energy. The rally was one of nearly 3,000 similar events held all over the world as part of the Climate Strike movement, and organizers estimate that more than five million people around the world took part.
“It’s the most inspiring sight I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Nick Tuta, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate advocacy group that helped plan the event. “The energy of the young activists and our allies here today is just going to keep building and building. If you look back at history, at how actual society-wide changes have been made, it’s by millions of people taking to the streets demanding action, and that’s what we’re doing here today.”
As youth activists took to the microphone on the steps of the Capitol, residents of the Bahamas were still sorting through the debris of Hurricane Dorian, and parts of Houston were still waterlogged following the city’s second 1,000-year flood event in the last three years. Thousands of students from across Denver squinted into the sun in the middle of what’s projected to be the city’s hottest September on record, in a state suffering from a drought that has lasted so long scientists are coining new terms like “aridification” to describe it.
“Climate change is one of the biggest threats that we will ever face,” activist Aisha Kanu told the crowd. “It transcends borders, it transcends nationalities. People are being let down by those in power. I’m scared that there are other generations that will not get to experience the earth like I did.”
"People will ask me, 'What do you want to be when you grow up? Where do you want to go to college?'" says Sophie Kaplan, a sophomore at East High School who attended the rally. "I'm not sure if I'll even be able to make those decisions, because climate change is happening so fast."
The protests come at the end of a year-long surge in organizing that activists hope marks a turning point for climate action. In October 2018, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a major report warning that the world must cut greenhouse gas emissions nearly in half by 2030 to keep warming below catastrophic levels.
The wave of student climate strikes, also known as the “Fridays for Future” movement, was pioneered in part by Greta Thunberg, a sixteen-year-old Swedish activist who began striking outside that country's parliament building last year. In December, Thunberg’s speech at a U.N. climate conference, in which she accused world leaders of “stealing their [children’s] future in front of their very eyes,” made headlines around the world. Ahead of another U.N. summit next week, Thunberg has participated in several weeks of climate events in New York and Washington, D.C., after traveling to the U.S. in a zero-emissions sailboat earlier this month.
An estimated 250,000 people attended the climate strike rally in New York's Battery Park on Friday, where Thunberg was joined on stage by Boulder native Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, an activist who, along with environmental groups and other youth plaintiffs, sued the state of Colorado in 2013, alleging the state was failing to protect the health and safety of residents impacted by oil and gas drilling. Martinez is also a plaintiff in a case known as Juliana v. United States, which asserts that the federal government has violated young people's rights by failing to act on climate change.
Dr. Ietef Vita, a Denver artist and activist who has collaborated with Martinez and performs “eco-hip hop” under the moniker DJ Cavem, met with Thunberg in New York earlier this month. "She was super down-to-earth," Vita says. "I literally saw her right after she got off the boat.
"As an environmental activist, I think it's important to think beyond being on the front lines and using your voice," says Vita, who participated in a protest "art build" with Thunberg and Martinez ahead of the New York rally and traveled to San Francisco to march in a strike event there on Friday. "I think it's important to vote with your dollar, when it comes to culinary climate action. I like to talk to people about growing your own food, supporting your local farmers' markets. Your refrigerator is a good way to sequester carbon, by keeping it plant-based."
Organizers of the Denver strike issued a list of demands for climate action, including a transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, a halt to new permits for fossil-fuel development, respect for the rights of indigenous people and investment in fenceline communities impacted by pollution and those that are dependent on fossil-fuel industry jobs.
"Governments around the world have been asleep at the wheel," Tuta told the crowd. "We need a Green New Deal, and a just and equitable future for all."
There were at least twelve other climate strike events held across Colorado on Friday, and some who couldn't attend the rally at the Capitol held their own events elsewhere in the city. A group of over 100 high school students from Denver School of the Arts rallied at City Park Pavilion, where they took turns giving short, impromptu speeches about the impacts of climate change, ways to reduce their carbon footprint and the importance of getting involved in climate activism.
"We're the generation that's going to have to deal with years of irresponsible climate policy by outdated politicians," says Amelia Gorman, who helped organize the walkout. "It's going to really affect our future, so it's our job to speak out about it now, especially because we can't all vote or run for office yet."
Around the world, climate activists have planned a series of protests tied to the 2019 U.N. Climate Action Summit, which begins on Monday in New York. In Colorado, groups plan to demonstrate against the Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City, financial institutions that help fund fossil-fuel projects and more. As Friday's rally neared its end, Lopez urged everyone in the crowd to stay involved.
"This is the fun part," he said. "If we're going to be victorious, we need the work to be done. So don't just show up for times like this. Show up for the small things."