The potential of the Youth Strike for Climate movement
“Young people make up more than half of the global population. Our generation grew up with the climate crisis and we will have to deal with it for the rest of our lives. Despite that fact, most of us are not included in the local and global decision-making process. We are the voiceless future of humanity.” (Open letter, the Global coordination group of the youth-led climate strike)
The Youth Strike for Climate movement has exploded over the past few months. Now the Global coordination group of the youth-led climate strike has published an open letter pledging to continue campaigning for better, world-wide environmental decision-making. On Friday the 15th of March, students are due to strike in countries across five continents to demand urgent climate action. With this context, it is worth taking a good look at the movement to evaluate its potential to drive radical change.
The movement began in August when the then 15-year-old Greta Thunberg’s called for action on climate change. Following record-high summertime temperatures, she refused to go back to school and started her climate strike outside the Swedish parliament instead. Since then, Thunberg has spoken at the UN climate change summit and the World Economic Forum, telling decision-makers off for failing to take sufficient measures against global warming. “You are not mature enough to tell it like it is – even that burden you leave to us children,” she told a room full of world leaders. Meanwhile, her solitary protest has transformed into a transnational social movement, uniting tens of thousands of youth around the world as they striking against the climate crisis.
The devotion and relentlessness of students and school children has thoroughly shaken the realm of climate discourse. They demand decision-makers to take urgent and concrete action everywhere; promises are not enough to satisfy the demands and anxiety of the youth. With every strike and every piece of media coverage, the pressure is growing for our democratically elected politicians to listen and act accordingly to protect the future of the younger generations. The fervour has impressed veteran environmental activist George Monbiot who as gone on record describing the movement as “the most hopeful thing [he has] seen in 30 years of campaigning.”
In many ways, the spirit of the Youth Strike for Climate movement can almost be seen to rival the counterculture phenomenon of the 1960s. Similarly to those who were students some 50 years ago, the students of today are rejecting the “adult” way of life and envisioning a different kind of a future, based on a new set of social norms and values. Much as the anti-authoritarianism of youth in the 1960s preceded a new era of liberty and experimentation, the environmentalism of today’s youth has the potential to usher in a new value system, one founded on sustainability and environmental responsibility. In that sense, we might be looking at history in the making. One may hope, at least.
The greatest obstacle holding back the students is, at this point, the issue of legitimacy. While also being a basis of power for the movement, the lack of suffrage of underage youth like Thunberg ironically renders them subject to the mercy of older generations, the very thing the protests are aimed at. And, sadly, the decision-making adults of our societies might very well be living up to their reputation in failing to listen to the concerns of the youth.
In November, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison commented that while climate change is a pressing issue, “what we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools,” and similar patronizing sentiments have been voiced from other governments as well.
More recently in the United Kingdom, only a handful MPs attended the debate on climate change in Parliament, which was inspired by the school strikes in February.
The strikes planned for March 15th will provide MPs with another opportunity to engage with the existential threat facing the planet at large. Indeed, the final sentence of the open letter echoes ever more loudly and hopefully: “The youth of this world has started to move and we will not rest again.”
- The global coordination group of the youth-led climate strike (2019). Climate crisis and a betrayed generation, The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/01/youth-climate-change-strikers-open-letter-to-world-leaders
- Damian Carrington (2019). Youth climate strikers: ‘We are going to change the fate of humanity’, The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/01/youth-climate-strikers-we-are-going-to-change-the-fate-of-humanity
- Kate Aronoff (2019). How Greta Thunberg’s Lone Strike Against Climate Change Became a Global Movement, Rolling Stone. https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/greta-thunberg-fridays-for-future-climate-change-800675/
- Damian Carrington (2018). ‘Our leaders are like children,’ school strike founder tells climate summit, The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/dec/04/leaders-like-children-school-strike-founder-greta-thunberg-tells-un-climate-summit
- Greta Thunberg (2019). ‘Our house is on fire’: Greta Thunberg, 16, urges leaders to act on climate, The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/25/our-house-is-on-fire-greta-thunberg16-urges-leaders-to-act-on-climate
- India Bourke (2019). Greta Thunberg: the teenage climate warrior leading a new global movement, New Statesman. https://www.newstatesman.com/2019/02/greta-thunberg-teenage-climate-warrior-leading-new-global-movement
- George Monbiot, Tweet, 14 Feb 2019. https://twitter.com/GeorgeMonbiot/status/1096307037426790400
- John Savage (2015). 1966: the year youth culture exploded, The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/nov/15/1966-trip-good-vibrations-pop-revolution
- Australian Associated Press (2018). Scott Morrison tells students striking over climate change to be ‘less activist’, The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/26/scott-morrison-tells-students-striking-over-climate-change-to-be-less-activist
- Jonathan Watts (2019). ‘The beginning of great change’: Greta Thunberg hails school climate strikes, The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/15/the-beginning-of-great-change-greta-thunberg-hails-school-climate-strikes