First came squeals from people near the stage, then a roar of cheers. The crowd of more than 3,000 gathered at the intersection of Dubuque Street and Iowa Avenue Friday afternoon for the Iowa City Student Climate Strike rally, quickly switched to a chant of “Greta! Greta! Greta!” as the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg took the stage. She was joined by students who, inspired by her work, have led the local climate strike since March, and a few local politicians.
“I don’t think any one of us expected this many people,” Thunberg said at the beginning of her remarks.
Before she spoke, the crowd heard from Mayor Jim Throgmorton, Meskwaki artist and writer Dawson Davenport, as well as members of the Iowa City Student Climate Strike.
“This is the real hope,” Thunberg said. “So many people gathering here on a weekday with such a short notice.”
The entire event was organized in less than a week by the local climate strikers, who reached out to Thunberg as she was touring North America following her speech to the U.N. Climate Action Summit on Sept. 23.
“As you all know, the U.N. Climate Action Summit was a failure,” Thunberg said. “That was unfortunately what we had expected.”
Too many world leaders are still unwilling to accept the science of climate change, and act with the urgency this science demands, she explained.
“But no matter what, we need to continue,” Thunberg said. “No matter how hopeless the situation may seem, we must always carry on and we must never allow ourselves to give up. That is simply not an option.”
“We teenagers and children shouldn’t have to take the responsibility,” she continued. “But right now, world leaders are acting like children, and somebody needs to be the adult in the room. And we promise we will go on every Friday for as long as it takes.”
Thunberg started her climate activism in August 2018. She’d first heard of climate change in 2011, when she was 8 years old, and couldn’t understand why adults seemed to be doing so little to address it, she has explained in interviews. Following Sweden’s hottest summer in 262 years, she decided to spend her days outside the Swedish parliament until that fall’s elections, to try to focus attention on climate change.
She carried a sign with “Skolstrejk för klimatet” (“School strike for the climate”) painted on it, and handed out leaflets that used the sort of blunt language she has become well-known for: “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.”
People began taking notice of the diminutive, determined girl.
“I am doing this because nobody else is doing anything. It is my moral responsibility to do what I can,” Thunberg told the Guardian two weeks after she started her strike in Stockholm. “I want the politicians to prioritize the climate question, focus on the climate and treat it like a crisis.”
She would sit on the cobblestones outside the parliament, studying her school books.
“What am I going to learn in school?” she said. “Facts don’t matter any more, politicians aren’t listening to the scientists, so why should I learn?”
After that fall’s general election, Thunberg switched from a daily protest to a weekly climate strike on Fridays — inspiring young people across the world to follow her example.
“Greta Thunberg changed the United States before she even arrived in a sailboat,” Massimo Biggers, one of the founders of the Iowa City Student Climate Strike, said during his remarks at the rally, referring to Thunberg sailing from Europe to the United States instead of flying.
Thunberg inspired Biggers and his fellow students to take action. Thunberg, in turn, told the Guardian last year that it was the example of American students protesting gun violence — especially the Parkland High School students who organized March for Our Lives — that helped inspire her to launch her strike.
Shoshie Hemley, another member of the Iowa City Student Climate Strike, listed the group’s major accomplishments through the strikes they hold every Friday.
“We have already [gotten] passed climate resolutions in Iowa City and the Iowa City Community School District,” Hemley said. “And we did that with only around 20 students.”
“Imagine what we could do if every person in this crowd starts showing up and making sacrifices.”
Two more climate strikers talked about the group’s current focus: persuading the University of Iowa to close its coal- and natural gas-burning power plant, and replace it with green energy sources.
Alex Howe and Esti Brady led the crowd in a chant directed towards UI President Bruce Harreld: “No more excuses.”
Thunberg told the crowd that she and other climate strikers around the world understood there was still years of work ahead of them, before real change would happen.
“But that will not stop us,” she said. “We have reached a tipping point, where enough people have had enough, and together, we are unstoppable.
“We will not beg world leaders to care and to act. They have ignored us in the past, and they will ignore us again. We will instead tell them that if they won’t do it, then we will.”
“Because the world is waking up, and we are the change,” Thunberg concluded. “And change is coming, whether they like it or not.”