POLITICS
09/20/2019 17:38 EDT

As Millions Join Climate Strike, Top Activist Warns: ‘It Could Get Ugly'

Tired of empty words and emissions targets without plans to meet them, the strike movement is coalescing behind a Green New Deal.

As politicians, city authorities and companies scrambled Friday to show support for the millions of climate strikers protesting around the world, one of the top campaigners behind the movement put the powerful on notice. 

“They’re going to glom onto whatever they can,” Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash, 26, said over coffee two hours before the rally in New York City began. “But we don’t want compliments. We want action.” 

The Friday event, which drew more than 250,000 to lower Manhattan, was the first of two demonstrations bookending the United Nations General Assembly. A second strike is set for Sept. 27. 

But Prakash, whose group’s protests have propelled the Green New Deal into the political mainstream and helped shape the 2020 Democratic primary debate, said the movement is preparing a set of demands that go far beyond simply rejoining the Paris Agreement’s targets for cutting planet-heating emissions.

Comparing rhetorical shows of support like former President Barack Obama’s call for “action” to the empty public statements politicians and corporations routinely release on Earth Day, Prakash said the demonstrators sought to conjure the original 1970 march that pressured then-President Richard Nixon to pass bedrock regulations and create the Environmental Protection Agency.  

This escalation of the stakes started earlier this week, when teenage climate strikers admonished lawmakers at a congressional hearing. 

Greta Thunberg, the Swedish 16-year-old who founded the strike movement last year, dispensed with legislators’ praise. “I don’t want you to listen to me,” she said. “I want you to listen to the scientists.”

Jamie Margolin, the 17-year-old from Seattle who founded the nonprofit Zero Hour, called delaying U.S. action “shameful and cowardly.” 

Thunberg and Margolin coined the term “Gen GND” ― Generation Green New Deal ― this week, suggesting that the movement would rally around the proposal for a sweeping industrial policy to dramatically reduce emissions by 2030, dismantle the fossil fuel industry and provide millions of secure jobs.

“We can’t be afraid to politicize the issue,” Prakash said. “We don’t need empty words of support.” 

The Sunrise Movement cut its teeth in 2018 campaigning for many of the left-leaning Democrats who are vocal advocates for the Green New Deal now that they’re in office. In February, a 16-year-old campaigner with the group confronted Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in a heated protest at her office, a video of which went viral. 

“We have to go to war with the wealthiest and most powerful people and industries in the history of the world, and we have to win,” Prakash said. “It could get ugly.” 

For some, it already is. When billionaire Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer showed up to Friday’s march in Washington, D.C., strikers booed him and chanted, according to a New York Times reporter, “stop running for president” and “you represent corporate greed.” Roughly 1,600 Amazon employees were scheduled to walk off the job on Friday to protest the company’s ties to fossil fuel companies and failure to do more on climate change. In a particularly stark example, protesters in New York demonstrated outside a Santander office demanding the bank forgive debt owed by Puerto Rico on the two-year anniversary of Hurricane María. 

Picket signs at marches across the U.S. included calls to prosecute executives at Exxon Mobil Corp. and other oil giants whose leaked internal documents showed they understood the dangers of climate change even as the company spent millions promoting disinformation about the threat. 

In a telling sign, the Twitter accounts of most of the big oil companies were mostly silent on Friday.