Last Friday, thousands of students across the UK walked out of their classrooms and onto the streets. In Manchester, school and university students alike gathered in St Peter’s Square. Their message was to the government: to declare a state of climate emergency and take active steps to tackle the problem.
The movement was part of a wider one that has been growing globally since the 20th August 2018, when Greta Thunberg, who was 15 at the time, gave up her school hours to sit on the steps of parliament in Stockholm with a sign reading “Skolstrejk för klimatet” (“school strike for climate”). Her message was to Swedish politicians, accusing them of failing to meet the terms of the Paris Agreement. Sweden saw its worst drought in 74 years last summer, leading to wildfires and the death of livestock. Greta stayed on the steps, forgoing her lessons, until the 9th September 2018 during the Swedish general election. Since then, Greta, now 16, continues her strike every Friday and will continue to do so until Sweden aligns with the Paris Agreement.
Inspired by this, thousands of Australian students went on strike in November. By 2019, strikes were taking place in much of Europe as well as Canada, Japan, the USA, Colombia, New Zealand, and Uganda. The ‘school strike for climate’ campaign, ‘Fridays for Future’, ‘Youth for Climate’, or ‘Youth Strike 4 Climate’ has many different names but one clear goal: to call governments to act on climate change before it is too late.
The demonstrations have been praised by academics. In early February, 350 Dutch scientists signed an open letter supporting the students. Then, in the UK, 224 academics did the same. The 2015 Paris Agreement, which has since been signed by 194 countries in a pledge to keep global temperature rise in this century below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, was a response to predictions that failure to do so in the next 12 years would leave us in a position a lot harder to get out of than the one we’re in now. For many, this decade is seen as the final chance to act.
Youth Strike 4 Action, a body which helped organise Friday’s UK strike, says students from over 60 towns and cities skipped classes across the nation. London, Brighton, Oxford, and Exeter were home to some of the biggest demonstrations, but Manchester saw its own swathes of school children, university students, and parents.
The UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN) stated some further demands. In addition to taking active steps to tackle climate change, the group called for the government to reform the national curriculum to address the climate crisis, communicate the severity of the crisis to the public, and lower the voting age to 16 to give young people more control over their future.
The National Association of Head Teachers said it, “supports the right of young people to express themselves” but “does not condone children and young people missing school as a consequence of supporting action.” Meanwhile, Downing Street criticised the disruption to education and teachers’ workloads caused by absence.
However, the Minister of State for Energy and Clean Growth, Claire Perry, took to Twitter to praise the students, “I’m incredibly proud of young people who feel strongly that we need to take action.” She also highlighted the government’s plan to “cut 80% of carbon emissions by 2050.”
In addition, several party leaders tweeted their support. Nicola Sturgeon called the strike “a cause for optimism,” while Jeremy Corbyn said that “climate change is the greatest threat that we all face” and young people “are right to feel let down by the generation before them.” Green’s Caroline Lucas said the protests were “the most hopeful thing that’s happened in years.”
Greta, along with students around the world, continues to strike every Friday. A further mass strike will happen globally on the 15th of March, with an expected record attendance involving students in more than two dozen countries.