By Adam Vaughan
THOUSANDS of children across the world will leave their schools for a strike over climate change this Friday. Organisers expect the protest to dwarf last month’s demonstrations.
The roots of this phenomenon run back to Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old from Sweden. She has missed school to sit outside the Swedish parliament almost every Friday since last August, demanding politicians bring the country into line with the Paris climate agreement.
Between Greta’s studies, she has berated delegates at last year’s UN climate talks, spent up to two days a week speaking to journalists and generated a viral social media wave under the #FridaysForFuture banner.
Greta had no expectations that her protest would snowball. “The idea was to sit outside the Swedish parliament for three weeks. I think the timing and the concept must have been right,” she told New Scientist.
“I think we have reached a tipping point where enough scientists are telling it like it is”
Being the strikes’ de facto spokesperson isn’t something she particularly enjoys and she doesn’t care about fame, she says. “But I don’t mind it either as long as it is for a good cause.” After learning about climate change when she was 8, Greta later developed depression when she was 11, which she links partly to the issue.
The success of the strikes is to some extent driven by climate science becoming more candid and increasingly dire, says Greta. “I think we have reached a tipping point where enough scientists are telling it like it is and not being so afraid of being alarmist.”
But she is disappointed that a lot of the discussion resulting from the strikes isn’t about ramping up climate action, but about the children themselves. “They talk about our age, our looks and so on. The emissions are still rising and that is all that matters. Nothing has happened, that is crucial to remember.”
More than 10,000 children went on strike across the UK in February, packing London’s Parliament Square and eliciting messages of support from ministers and members of parliament.
Campaigners believe that more than 1000 towns and cities in nearly 100 countries will take part in a strike this Friday as the movement jumps from a largely European one to a global level.
“The use of social media is helping it move very fast, that’s really powerful,” says Beth Irving, 17, who is studying near Cardiff, UK, and organising a demonstration there. Facebook and WhatsApp have helped her connect like-minded pupils and students who have never met.
In the UK, events are expected in more than 100 towns and cities. Some schools have organised their own marches and are allowing young children to attend bigger protests with their parents.
Sophie Sleeman, a 17-year-old at Exeter College, UK, says part of the power of the strikes is that they subvert the idea of unruly teenagers always being told off, turning the spotlight on teachers, parents and politicians instead. “I feel like it’s making adults a bit guilty,” she says.
Beth and Sophie both say they are driven by a desire to do more than just raise awareness: they are demanding action.
“The focus of these protests is ‘do something’,” says Brian Doherty of Keele University, UK, who has studied the history of environmental activism.
The school strikes, along with the rise of the Extinction Rebellion civil disobedience movement, are different from previous climate campaigning, which focused around summits and their build-up, he says.
It is hard to tease out how much the protests were driven by Greta’s leadership, says Doherty, and how much by a drumbeat of stark science, such as the UN climate science panel’s report last year on the drastic action required if we are to limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
“My sense is the bad news was quite a significant catalyst and that begins to explain why you get this type of protest,” says Doherty. What is striking, he says, is how many children on social media make direct references to the science, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 1.5°C report.
Graeme Hayes of Aston University, UK, says that although the country’s children have protested before, such as over the Iraq war, the current wave of climate strikes involves younger children, not just older teenagers.
Greta’s strike movement is an enormous achievement, says Hayes. “Children have this capacity to say things adults don’t, we see this in [the tale of] The Emperor’s New Clothes. This is what’s happening here,” says Hayes.
But he isn’t sure how long the movement can continue at this pace. Greta says she doesn’t know how long she will keep going. “We will have to go for a very, very long time, I think,” she says.
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