2019 saw climate breakdown solidified as one of the defining themes of our times. There are two global movements which can be attributed to pushing the issue to the top of the political, social, and economic agenda. Both began around the end of 2018, one in the UK, the other in Sweden. This is their intertwining story.

Greta Thunberg, August 2018 | Anders Hellberg, Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes, all it takes is one person to change a narrative and divert the course of history. Greta Thunberg is one such person. She first learned about climate breakdown at around eight years old, although several factors throughout Thunberg’s adolescence contributed to her taking action in September 2018.

Thunberg, who famously has Aspergers’, was 15 years old when she first started to gather attention in her native Sweden. Critics and climate sceptics often try to weaponise her age and mental health in an attempt to detract from her message. In the past, Thunberg has responded to this criticism in characteristic style, calling her Aspergers’ “a superpower”.

Furthermore, her mother has spoken earnestly in public about her daughter’s past eating disorder and struggles with her mental health. All of this serves to make Greta Thunberg more relatable. For the youth of today, far more so than with past generations, mental health is not a taboo subject – and a psychiatric diagnosis is not a weakness. 

In fact, the teenager’s openness and honesty is an endearing trait, and it is with this honesty that Thunberg addresses the issue of climate breakdown. Her approach is no-nonsense and rational, based in scientific consensus and around the concept of direct action. In August 2018, Thunberg began her school strike (‘Skolstrejk för klimatet’ in Swedish).

Sitting outside of the Swedish Parliament for three weeks ahead of the country’s general election, at first alone but soon joined by fellow activists, Thunberg intended to pressure Sweden’s politicians to act with urgency on climate breakdown. After the election, Thunberg continued her protest. Other school children began to follow suit and a movement was born.

Internationally, several associated groups were established, notably Fridays For Future, the UK Student Climate Network, and the Global Climate Strike. These groups were the grassroots organisation networks responsible for coordinating the mass school walkouts that became commonplace throughout the following year.

Although Thunberg’s protest was aimed at the political class, she decried the politicisation of climate activism. In a speech at the Stockholm Climate March on the 8th September, Thunberg stated, “Our school strike has nothing to do with party politics. Because the climate and the biosphere don’t care about our empty words for a single second”.

The speech is included in Thunberg’s book No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference, and it ends with a rallying cry: “if a few girls can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school for a few weeks, imagine what we could do together if we wanted to. Every single person counts […] Our life is in your hands”.

Thunberg was not alone in imagining an apolitical movement which could pressure politicians to deliver immediate and decisive climate action. Around the same time as her school strike began to garner international attention, on the other side of the North Sea, another movement was finding its feet.

In October 2018, Extinction Rebellion took to the streets of London and captured the attention of the international media. Initially, a crowd of 1,500 people congregated on Parliament Square in Westminster. Over the next few weeks, they were joined by thousands more in several locations across London.

The actions culminated in a mock burial on the lawns of Parliament Square, a protest outside the bars to Buckingham Palace, and the successful blockade of five bridges across the Thames in central London. Greta Thunberg, at this time on the cusp of international recognition, delivered the declaration of rebellion: “It is time to rebel”, she told the crowd.

The action in London inspired activists across the globe to establish their own Extinction Rebellion splinter groups, which now operate in locations across the globe, “from the Solomon Islands to Australia, from Spain to South Africa, the US to India”. The stage was just about set for climate activism to go mainstream.

In December 2018, Greta Thunberg spoke before the UN in her now infamous address: “You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again. You’ve run out of excuses and we’re running out of time. We’ve come here to let you know that change is coming whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people”.

If you hadn’t heard of Thunberg or the school strike movement before this point, you had now. It was this speech that put her onto my radar and sparked my interest in the movement. In February 2019, I attended my first school strike as a reporter, in Truro, Cornwall. The striking students were joined by thousands of their peers in over 60 locations nationwide.

I was still somewhat unfamiliar with the group’s demands, expecting to arrive at the strike and hear solid, scientific solutions, as I had at other climate demonstrations I’d attended in the past. Instead, I was told by one of the organisers: ““I’m not here to claim that I have any of the answers to climate change … I’m here to put pressure on the people in power”.

This is the defining concept behind the direct action that took place globally throughout 2019, and the defining method was that of civil disobedience. It was around this time that I attended my first Extinction Rebellion demonstration, also in Cornwall. The group staged a symbolic funeral procession through the streets of Truro city center.

In the following months, both movements began to grow both in terms of participants and media attention. In April 2019, I followed activists from Cornwall and the South West of England as they marched from Lands’ End to Westminster, demanding the government declare a state of climate emergency.

As I documented the blockade that took place on Waterloo Bridge for over a week, similar action was being taken across the city, country, and globe. It cost the London economy millions of pounds, and thousands of protestors were arrested and released pending trial. The demonstrations sparked controversy, but also inspired honest discussion.

Within months, the UK government had declared a climate emergency. Other countries across the world followed suit. However, many activists felt that these declarations were emergencies in name only. Extinction Rebellion continued organising demonstrations, and students across the globe continued their school walkouts.

This continued pressure came to a head in September 2019, with the Global Climate Strike, also referred to as the ‘Global Week for Future’. This was to be the largest climate demonstration in history, with an estimated six to seven million participants worldwide, at more than four thousand locations in 150 countries.

It was here, in Autumn 2019, that it felt like the tide was truly turning for environmentalism. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in the United States, with his focus on a Green New Deal, was galvanising support. Political uncertainty in the UK meant that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party had a chance at delivering their Green Industrial Revolution.

The Green Industrial Revolution and Green New Deal were essentially one and the same. As I was told by Helena Nicholson, a journalist for the Socialist Appeal newspaper, at Labour’s 2019 Conference in Brighton: “the difference is in the branding”. What they propose is a radical transformation of the economy which aims to address economic, social, and environmental injustices simultaneously.

Extinction Rebellion, Labour Conference 2019 | Alex Welsford, Gweres © 2020

Extinction Rebellion and the youth strikes continued their actions with a sense of optimism and with their objectives in sight and within reach. This optimism didn’t last long, as it soon became apparent that the public mood was shifting radically into opposition. The methods of civil disruption which originally caught the public eye were now considered deeply unpopular.

In October 2019, a year on from Extinction Rebellion’s first demonstration, and six months on from the April uprising, activists took to the streets of major cities around the world, including London. They were met with disdain and an increasingly hostile media, with many commentators denouncing the privilege of the activists.

For many people, the mainly white, middle class members of Extinction Rebellion were insensitive to the plight of people of colour, and were accused of cosying up to the Metropolitan Police, still considered by many to be institutionally racist. This attitude, which included a thank you note to Brixton Police Station, proved a step too far for some critics.

Other arguments against the Extinction Rebellion activists included the criticism that, while many of the activists could well afford to skip work and protest, the ordinary working class citizens whose commutes were disrupted by the demonstrations could not afford to. This view grew in support, and is now the main critique leveraged against Extinction Rebellion.

In the weeks that followed, the landscape grew darker. Wildfires tore across Australia, leading to a catastrophic loss of life. An estimated 480 million animals died, almost half a billion. The Australian government denied that the fires had anything to do with climate breakdown, and defended its investments in the fossil fuel industry.

As the year drew to a close, the prospect of a climate-focussed UK government was snatched from existence when Boris Johnson’s Conservatives secured the most decisive electoral victory since Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Although the Labour and the Green Party had hoped it would be a climate election, Brexit was the defining issue.

Writing this in 2020, with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that these climate movements were unlikely to ever achieve their stated aims. But it is undeniable that they seized upon the zeitgeist of 2019, capitalised on an increasing public awareness, and hammered home the direness of the situation for anyone who hadn’t yet reached the same conclusion.

Looking back in reflection, as we have just done, it is possible to track a clear rise and fall narrative, from the successes of Greta Thunberg’s early school strikes to the failures of Extinction Rebellion’s second October uprising. But ignoring those later pitfalls, it is evident that 2019 was the defining year for global climate action.

With Coronavirus now the top of the news agenda for the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that climate breakdown will dominate the media discourse in the same way for quite some time. The need to self isolate means that gathering for mass civil disruption is a thing of the past, and is unlikely to happen again until well into 2021.

What does this mean for the climate? In 2018, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that we had just 12 years left to slow and reverse our carbon emissions before the climate warms more than 2ºC. In 2021, there will be just nine years left to achieve this goal.

The task then will be to learn from the successes and mistakes of 2019, to build a progressive and united front, without privilege or prejudice. With so little time left, these movements will need to streamline the action that inevitably takes place, ensuring to bring the public along with them when it happens. In the words of Greta Thunberg, “The real power belongs to the people”.