As pupils around the world follow Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg’s lead and organise school strikes for the climate, Chris Elliott finds out how the movement has gathered pace in the UK
Stephen Hawking spelled it out, just a few months before he died. Commenting on Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, he warned that denying the evidence for climate change would cause ‘avoidable environmental damage to our beautiful planet, endangering the natural world, for us…and our children.’
Less than a year later, those children whose future is imperilled by climate change have begun taking matters into their own hands. A wave of strikes by school pupils, who have abandoned their classrooms to stage public protest rallies, has gathered pace worldwide and shows no sign of slowing.
The school stoppages have been fuelled by the power of the internet – and by 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, who, last August, began a series of solitary, sit-down demonstrations outside the parliament building in Stockholm.
On 15 February, an estimated 50,000-plus pupils in 60 towns and cities around the UK left their lessons to join strike gatherings
She came up with a slogan, Fridays for Future, saying she was skipping her favourite lessons on the final day of the school week – gym and geography – to take action. Images of her on social media, a teenage girl defiantly brandishing a placard bearing the words ‘skolstrejk för klimatet’ – school strike for the climate – plucked at heartstrings worldwide.
A month later, youngsters in the Netherlands and Germany followed her example, skipping lessons to hold banner-waving mass meetings. In November, children in Australia and Canada did the same. Then, in December, there were school strikes in more than 250 cities around the globe, including London.
This year, the protests have continued. On 15 February, an estimated 50,000-plus pupils in 60 towns and cities around the UK left their lessons to join strike gatherings. In London, young people blocked roads near the Houses of Parliament, chanting ‘turn off your engines’ at passing motorists, and ‘we want the chance for change now’, before mounted police were drafted in to move them on.
In March, April, May and June, more walkouts have taken place, with numbers involved reportedly increasing each time. At each rally, the issues raised by the young protesters are familiar to all: the waste of the planet’s resources, the need for better recycling, and the impact on the environment of products such as single-use plastic.
It’s not the first time schoolchildren in Britain have vented their anger at the way the world is being run by adults. A century ago, in 1911, pupils downed their exercise books, demanding shorter hours, attendance payments – and free pencils.
The UK Student Climate Network, a collective of young people demanding ‘urgent and ambitious climate action’, has helped to coordinate the current demonstrations, using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other forms of social media.
A spokesman says: ‘We undertake civil disobedience to put pressure on government and those in positions of power to act with climate justice at the heart of their actions. So far, we’ve mobilised unprecedented numbers of young people, taking to the streets each month as part of our anchor campaign #YouthStrike4Climate.
‘The network came about around the turn of the year, when a small number of people decided students and young people needed to bring the Fridays for Future movement to the UK – but the movement is incredibly decentralised and there are huge numbers of people taking spontaneous action up and down the country. There have been protests in hundreds of towns and cities, with tens of thousands taking part each month. We’re witnessing young people from Cornwall to the Scottish Highlands taking positive climate action.’
One of the leading lights in the young people’s movement in the UK is Scottish schoolgirl Holly Gillibrand. Inspired by Thunberg, the 13-year-old has staged her own protests outside her school, Lochaber High School in Fort William. Earlier this year, she joined Thunberg at Westminster to lobby politicians to do more to tackle climate issues.
Gillibrand has garnered praise not only for her determination, but her eloquence – she writes her own column in her local paper, The Oban Times, and has around 8,000 followers, and counting, on Twitter.
Like other youngsters committed to taking action, she speaks angrily about how the powers-that-be appear to be doing very little. Scotland is in the top 20 countries worldwide for carbon emissions, and Gillibrand describes the state of her home nation as ‘a mess’.
She tells Circular: ‘I began school striking because my future is going to be defined by the actions that our leaders make today. The climate and ecological crisis are so important that I can’t afford not to strike.
‘I want the Scottish government to rapidly phase out fossil fuels, to aim for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and to protect and restore Scotland’s nature.
I definitely hope the strikes and other actions I’m taking will be successful. Already, we’ve seen positive actions happening in the UK and beyond, but we need to see more radical and unprecedented changes
‘I definitely hope the strikes and other actions I’m taking will be successful. Already, we’ve seen positive actions happening in the UK and beyond, but we need to see more radical and unprecedented changes.’
There are signs that, in the UK at least, the grown-ups are listening to the kids. In May, the UK Parliament declared a climate emergency. Outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May then announced an ambition to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, upping the earlier target of an 80 per cent reduction agreed by MPs under the Climate Change Act in 2008. The new goal means that emissions from homes, transport, farming and industry will have to be avoided completely, or offset by other measures, such as planting trees.
The Green Party, however, insists that setting a new target does not equate to taking action. Jonathan Bartley, the party’s co-leader, says measures such as switching money earmarked for roads to public transport, and halting fracking, could be – and should be – taken now.
Speaking to Circular, he praised the steps being taken by children. ‘I’m so inspired by the young people calling for action to address the climate emergency, and striking because they know we cannot carry on with business as usual,’ he says.
‘They’re watching as droughts, floods and storms devastate communities across the globe. They’re watching as thousands of species become extinct – and they’re watching the adults who run the world continue as normal. Action on climate change cannot wait. Those in government must follow the leadership shown by the youth strikers.’
One of the speakers at a recent school strike in Cambridge was Professor Bhaskar Vira, director at the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute. He told his young audience they were going to inherit a much more difficult world than the one their parents and grandparents inherited, ‘a world of strange paradoxes of under-consumption and over-consumption, where, every night, 800 million people go to bed hungry, while there are 800 million people suffering from problems connected to obesity’.
‘In my home village in India, children still can’t study at home in the evenings because they lack access to electricity,’ Vira says. ‘This affects their school grades, and their chances of getting a job. So these children need more access to energy, while some of us forget to turn out the lights.
‘The carbon budget available to the current generation, born in 2017, is one-eighth that of their grandparents, someone born in 1950. This is why young people are right to be concerned.’
Taking a stand
One big problem the strikes have thrown up is truancy, and it’s causing a headache for many schools. Children have to attend school by law and, if headteachers grant them permission to take time off, it could set a dangerous precedent and pose issues around safeguarding, for instance.
On the other hand, heads who take a hard line and clamp down may end up facing a breakdown in discipline and outright rebellion. Parents may also get into trouble – if they take their child out of school without permission they can be fined.
The complexity of the situation is summed up by one local authority, Cambridgeshire County Council. A spokesperson says: ‘Ultimately, this is a matter for the headteacher of each school, but – when they have come to us for guidance on this issue – our educational welfare officers advise that, in the first instance, the child or young person requires parental permission to attend the strike.
Kids nowadays are often accused of not being interested in anything except their phones, computer games and social media, but it’s obvious they are as concerned about the environment as most adults are
‘Secondly, the school should be approached and asked to consider the individual’s personal motivation to strike beforehand. The school will then make a decision on an individual basis whether to authorise the absence as an exceptional circumstance, or not.
‘In cases where the school isn’t informed – or, indeed, where the motivation is suspect – then the absence would be unauthorised.’
Many teachers, however, just like parents, are supportive of the youngsters.
One teacher, who asked not to be named, says: ‘What’s been so moving about everything that has happened is how young some of the children taking part are – and how committed they are.
‘Kids nowadays are often accused of not being interested in anything except their phones, computer games and social media, but it’s obvious they are as concerned about the environment as most adults are.
‘In my school, we had a classroom debate scheduled about politics, but it was the day after the final episode of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, and the students asked if we could, instead, discuss how we could stop plastics polluting the oceans and killing wildlife. They were very angry about the situation and it was an excellent session.
‘Personally, I fully support them skipping a few lessons to make sure their voices are heard – and I’m sure many colleagues around the UK do too.’