Can School Strikes change government inaction on climate change?

Extinction Rebellion may be getting more headlines but another grassroots movement is challenging government and global inaction on climate change. The School Strike for Climate also known as Fridays for Future, Youth for Climate and Youth Strike for Climate is a growing movement of schoolchildren who go ‘on strike’ from school in protest against climate change.

They usually hold colourful demonstrations highlighting the impact that inaction over climate will have and ‘die ins’ when they pretend to be dead reflecting they argue the future of the human race without a radical change in our lifestyles including big reductions in fossil fuel usage.

Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg was the inspiration for the movement refusing to attend high school until the Swedish general election in September 2018 due to heat waves and forest fires across Sweden. Thunberg protested outside the Riksdag the Swedish Parliament claiming that she would return every Friday until Sweden ratified the Paris climate change agreement.

Inspired by this at the 2018 climate change conference in Katowice, climate strikes took place in 270 cities around the world in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, Switzerland and the UK. During the course of 2019, the protests have continued and spread to every continent except Antarctica which of course has no schools.

In the UK activists have received support from 224 academics giving their full support to the movement while they also received support from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Brighton Pavilion Green Party MP Caroline Lucas. However perhaps predictably Theresa May said that the protests “increases teachers’ workload” and “wastes lesson time”.

British activists have formed the UK Student Climate Network a student-run climate activist group have been arguing for the voting age to be reduced to 16 reflecting the frustration some teenagers feel in not just having their views ignored but also that previous generations have failed to address the challenge of climate change. They also argue that the government should reform the education system so it teaches young people about the climate change emergency and that it should warn the public about the dangerous climate situation we face.

These demands are perhaps different perhaps even less militant than their adult counterparts in Extinction Rebellion, who are proposing very radical carbon emissions targets and the establishment of a Citizen’s Assembly to discuss the climate crisis. However, despite some differences in strategy Extinction Rebellion are strong supporters of the school climate strike movement.

Cyrus Jarvis a UK Student Climate Network activist argued that reaching one of the key goals of the school climate change movement zero carbon emissions by 2025 or 2030 will be difficult.

He said: “ We’ll have to cut production of oil and gas bringing in renewables. We will have to bring in an aviation tax and packaging would have to be cut.  There would have to be a lot of legislation brought in to make sure that we are bringing our carbon emissions to the lowest possible level. We would also need to bring in a green new deal.”

Jarvis explained that he was inspired by the school climate protests across the world to get involved and outlined the ambitious plans for the global school climate change movement:

“ After seeing other countries going on strike and seeing thousands and thousands of people taking part in countries like Switzerland, Belgium and Australia we thought are futures are being destroyed right now and we have to do something about it.

“ The strikes are going to continue globally and then in September we’re going to strike on the 20th and seven days later there will be a general strike and we will strike again with everyone else globally. There are unions who are pledging to strike already and hopefully it will be big.”

However, with politicians particularly from the Conservative Party so adept at ignoring the views of young people can the strikes be effective? Arguably they along with the high profile activities of Extinction Rebellion have already had an impact as Parliament has become the first in the world to declare a ‘climate change emergency’. Politically the Green Party has achieved its best ever results in May in the local and European elections. These strikes have shifted the debate dramatically and achieved a level of education for the public via the media. While this is no legislative progress it is the first steps in solving the problem.

Arguably public opinion on climate change is shifting in favour of action and political support is emerging as well. This was something that was demonstrated during Greta Thunberg’s recent visit to the UK when she met not just Jeremy Corbyn and Caroline Lucas but also Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable and the Westminster leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru Ian Blackford and Liz Saville Roberts. Even Climate secretary Michael Gove and Energy minister gave their support. However, as climate activists argue time is running out and it may not be enough.


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