After years of political gridlock surrounding climate change legislation, students emerge as a force for change.
Thousands of students across Europe left school on Friday, February 15 to protest the lack of action on climate issues in their countries. In what the New York Times called a “coordinated walk out for action on climate issues,” elementary, middle, high school, and undergraduate students came together to demand a greener future. In London, protestors held signs reading “The ocean is rising and so are we” and “Act now or swim later.”
The student-led movement for climate action that is currently taking Europe by storm began with 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. In September, Thunberg started skipping class to stage sit-ins at the Swedish parliament, demanding that her government seriously address climate change. Thunberg’s action inspired teens worldwide, some of whom created the global movement Youth Strike 4 Climate and began organizing protests and walkouts, using social media to coordinate efforts. According to the New York Times, demonstrations have been held in Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, and Switzerland, among others.
The New York Times writes that the new organization gained even more energy in October of 2018 when a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change disclosed that the world has only twelve years to change its climate policy before the consequences of inaction such as food shortages, rising sea levels, floods and forest fires manifest themselves.
Thunberg remains a notable voice in the movement she inspired, and went on to speak at the global climate-change conference in Poland last December. “You say you love your children above all else — and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes,” she told politicians at the conference. “Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.”
In British schools, protesters received mixed reactions from teachers and staff. While some encouraged students, others threatened to punish them for skipping class. “My school was not supportive at the start. They said I would get detention for unauthorized absence,” Anna Taylor, the seventeen-year-old co-founder of the UK Student Climate Network told the New York Times.
Sixteen-year-old Bonnie Morely, who was attending the strike with friends from school, told the New York Times that a head teacher had taken down posters advertising the strike in her school’s common areas. “They’re treating us like we are doing something really wrong,” Morley said. “The future of our planet is looking really bleak, and all the politicians are asleep at the wheel. We have to wake them up, and I think thousands of kids on the streets will do just that.”
Like the teachers, European politicians displayed mixed reactions, with some supporting the students and others going so far as to suggest that the strikes were the product of a secret governmental organization.
According to the New York Times, a spokesperson for British Prime Minister Theresa May said that, “everybody wants young people to be engaged in the issues that affect them most so that we can build a brighter future for all of us. But it is important to emphasize that disruption increases teachers’ workloads and wastes lesson time that teachers have carefully prepared for.”
Thunberg tweeted in response: “British PM says that the children on school strike are ‘wasting lesson time.’ That may well be the case, but then again, political leaders have wasted 30 years of inaction. And that is slightly worse.”
“We don’t miss school because we’re lazy or because we don’t want to go to school,” Jakob Blasel, a high school student who assisted with the organization of an earlier protest in Berlin told the Washington Post. “We can’t go to school, because we have to strike. We have to deliver an uncomfortable message to our leaders that it can’t go on this way.”
Youth for climate is currently planning another round of protests and another global youth strike for March 15. The movement is growing and more students from nations across the world are expected to join.
EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her.