The IPCC report warned that we only have 12 years left to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Wildfires blazed across the UK countryside last month, and just a couple of weeks ago, over 2000 cities and towns across the world were filled with young people protesting their governments’ inaction on climate change.
School Strike 4 Climate was sparked when Swedish 15 year old Swedish Greta Thunberg decided to strike school in August 2018. In a bid to urge her government to take tougher action on climate change, Thunberg skipped school every Friday to stand outside Swedish Parliament and demand climate action.
In just 4 weeks, one girl’s individual action has ignited an international youth strike movement, with multiple, simultaneous protests worldwide.
Words and actions
This movement has people really excited across the climate action world. It feels like the energy behind it has the potential to turn the tide on climate action.
It’s not the first time young people have publicly voiced their concerns over their future. In 1992, there were children as young as 12 and 13 pleading with government officials at the Earth Summit in Rio, to take action on the environmental degradation which threatened future generations.
13-year-old Severn Suzuki told those watching: “You grown ups say you love us, but please make your actions reflect your words”. That 13 year old turns 40 this year.
Almost 30 years later Greta Thunberg told the COP24 climate change conference: “You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children”. Both Suzuki and Thunberg asked the leaders of the world to prioritise the safeguarding of their children.
It's safe to say that Suzuki’s message wasn’t enough to flip government priorities, given that greenhouse gases are still being pumped into our atmosphere and global temperatures have continued to rise.
Children have never before decided to take this kind of direct action in the hope to inspire political change. So what’s changed?
The active risk that these children are taking shows a huge level of commitment, and highlights the level of radical change which is required but neglected by governments.
The speed and size of this movement has also led to incredible global momentum. In such a short time, this movement managed to galvanise over 1.5 million school strikers on 15 March and with every protest attracting more people, the next global strike is likely to be even larger.
Unlike previous climate activist movements, we are now witnessing climate effects across the world: the beginnings of climate breakdown are here for all to see.
What we are seeing from young people is unprecedented. Never before have we seen such a massive and coordinated mobilisation on climate change.
Unlike NGOs and politicians, children are unburdened by political and professional interests. Moreover, they are the ones who will feel the brunt of climate change. It makes sense that they are leading this fight.
Reasons for hope
I attended the protests in London to speak to some of the young people behind this movement, along with 10:10 Climate Action colleagues.
Standing in parliament square on 15 March, I could feel the size of this movement and was energised by the sea of over 15,000 young people demanding action on climate change.
I spoke with two teenagers, who - in spite of being warned of unauthorised absences by their school - still decided to make their voice heard at the protest. I listened to their frustration at their government's hypocrisy, allowing them to fight for their country at 16 years old but not to vote. I heard chants from groups of friends and families calling for “system change, not climate change!”.
The energy, diversity and power I saw from young people was truly inspiring. What’s more, this event took place in 123 countries, seeing children from across the socio-political and geographic spectrum, come together and stand up for their future.
The UK Youth Strike for Climate have four demands for the government. These include declaring a climate emergency, reforming the school curriculum to address the ecological crisis, communicating to the public the severity of the ecological crisis and bringing the voting age down to 16. Until these demands are met, they will continue to strike.
Already these school strikes helped to secure the first debate on climate change in the House of Commons for two years, with almost every single MP who attended congratulating the young people who took part.
This shows the power these children have to spark new conversations around the climate crisis, even though only a handful of MPs decided to turn up.
These young people have done what so many of us in the climate action field are striving to do; to create the space to talk about climate change.
But we cannot leave it all down to them. Leaders across the world now have a choice. On the one hand, immediate, transformational action on climate change. This would involve the immediate transition into a low carbon economy, stopping the extraction of fossil fuels and investing sufficiently in renewable energy.
In the UK this would mean lifting the block on onshore wind and investing in community energy projects. On the other hand, we can explain to young people why they don’t deserve a future.
The public has a choice about whether to step up and take joint responsibility for demanding change.
This could be anything from reducing how much you fly, emailing your MP or increasing the amount of plant based foods in your diet. Only then should we expect these young people to go back to school.
10:10 Climate Action are currently asking supporters to write to the headteachers of your local school to explain why you’re backing the protests, and to ask that any young people joining them are not punished.
Schools can choose to treat these absences as learning outside the classroom. Surely there can be few things more important that learning how to teach our politicians a lesson in climate leadership.
Sarah Barfield Marks is press and PR office at 10:10 Climate Action, a charity that runs positive, practical projects at the community level, and turns these local actions into a force for bigger changes.
This image: School Strike, Flickr.