By Gabriella Borter, Fabrizio Bensch and Patpicha Tanakasempipat
Sept 20 (Reuters) - Millions of young people flooded the streets of cities around the world on Friday to demand political leaders take urgent steps to stop climate change, uniting in a worldwide protest inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.
Alarmed by images of the Greenland ice sheets melting and the Amazon rain forests burning, students and workers abandoned schools, shops and offices in nearly every corner of the globe, aiming to stop what they see as a looming environmental catastrophe.
The protests started in the Pacific islands, where rising sea levels threaten a way of life, and followed the rising sun across Australia, Japan, Southeast Asia and on to Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas. The coordinated student "strike" culminated in New York's Wall Street, where some investors have embraced the fossil fuel industry.
Massive crowds overwhelmed the streets of lower Manhattan, letting out roars of "Save our planet!" while anticipating an address by Thunberg, who soared to prominence after sailing across the Atlantic in an emissions-free yacht ahead of next week's climate summit at the United Nations.
"Right now we are the ones who are making a difference. If no one else will take action, then we will," Thunberg told demonstrators in New York.
"We demand a safe future. Is that really too much to ask?" she said.
Demonstrators in Paris raised a painting of Thunberg as the Virgin Mary, a halo around her head reading, "Our house is on fire.
"She's like the icon of our generation," New York protester Fiamma Cochrane, 17, said of Thunberg, highlighting the leadership role of young people in the international cry to reduce consumption of fossil fuels.
For Jane Willis, a 62-year-old high school English teacher and playwright, the students offered a ray of hope even as the recreational area of her own youth, Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey, was polluted by pesticides.
"My heart feels two ways," Willis said, surveying the crowd. "Half of it is breaking, and half of it just feels really buoyed up, I feel hopeful."
Worldwide concern has escalated since U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned the international Paris Accord on climate change and took a series of steps to dismantle environmental protections, including moving on Thursday to block stricter vehicle emissions standards in California.
Demonstrators in Thailand stormed into the environment ministry and feigned death, while activists in Berlin and Munich re-enacted gallows, standing on melting blocks of ice with nooses around their necks to symbolize the death that awaits them when the polar ice caps melt.
Others in Warsaw staged a performance of people drowning in a sea of plastic waste.
"The planet is getting hotter than my imaginary boyfriend," read a poster held by a teenager in Thailand.
"Make love, not CO2" signs were spotted in Berlin and Vienna.
Three million people had participated worldwide as of midday in New York, organizers with the anti-fossil fuels group 350 said.
While Europeans filled the streets, students in the Solomon Islands gathered at the rising ocean water's edge wearing traditional grass skirts. The issue is vital to low-lying Pacific islands, which have repeatedly asked wealthier nations to do more to prevent rising sea levels.
'THERE IS NO PLANET B'
Global warming caused by heat-trapping greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels has already led to droughts and heat waves, melting glaciers, rising sea levels and floods, according to scientists.
"There is no Planet B," read a sign hoisted by a young woman in London.
In Kenya, around 500 activists marched to demand that the government cancel plans for a controversial coal plant and investigate corruption in hydropower dams.
"In Samburu there is a lot of heat, the grass has dried up, there is little water," said Francis Lentel, a young herdsman in traditional beads, holding a picture of the Earth weeping.
The protest movement is putting increasing pressure on both governments and companies to respond.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel unveiled a major new climate protection package thrashed out by parties in her coalition during all-night talks.
Private industry has also responded. Amazon.com Inc Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos on Thursday pledged to make the largest U.S. e-commerce company net carbon neutral by 2040.
Hundreds of workers from Google, Amazon and other technology companies on Friday criticized their industry for being slow to tackle climate change and joined marches in San Francisco and Seattle calling for action.
"Tech is having an awakening," said Google business analyst Marie Collins.
The U.N. summit next week brings together world leaders to discuss climate change mitigation strategies, such as transitioning to renewable energy sources.
Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, among the world's only national leaders who publicly question climate science, are not due to take part, their representatives said.
(Reporting by Hans Lee in Sydney, Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Fabrizio Bensch in Berlin and Ilze Filks in Stockholm Hans Lee in Sydney; Additional reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat in Bangkok, Byron Kaye in Sydney, Sonali Paul in Melbourne, Katharine Houreld in Nairobi, Gabriella Borter in New York, Liz Hampton in Houston, Lindsey Wasson in Seattle and Kate Munsch in San Francisco; Writing by Jonathan Barrett, Stephen Coates, Alex Richardson and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Will Dunham, Lincoln Feast, Janet Lawrence, Mike Collett-White and Daniel Wallis)
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