TENS of thousands of school children, in more than 60 towns and cities across the UK, went on strike on Friday in protest at the lack of political action to address climate change.
Pupils taking part in the School Strike 4 Climate congregated at local city halls; thousands descended on Westminster, bringing the roads around Whitehall to a standstill. Holding placards bearing slogans including “Why learn facts when politicians won’t listen to them?”, the teenagers exchanged high-fives with one stranded white-van driver, while other drivers beeped their horns in support.
Despite the disruption the campaigners were given credit by the Government’s Climate Change Minister, Claire Perry, on Radio 4’s Today programme: “I suspect if this was happening 40 years ago, I would be out there too. I’m incredibly proud of the young people in the UK who are highly educated about this issue and feel very strongly — quite rightly — that we do need to take action because it’s their generation that will bear the consequences.”
The Church’s Chief Education Officer, Nigel Genders, gave a guarded welcome to the spirit of the protest: “It is admirable that young people are passionately aware of issues facing their global community, including climate change, however, we would urge young people to find ways to take a stand which do not jeopardise their education, as this will ultimately give them the best means to change the world.
“We have partnered with Christian Aid and the Global Neighbours school accreditation scheme which recognises the excellent work that many schools are doing to engage in courageous advocacy and challenge injustice.
“Pupils should only take term-time leave in exceptional circumstances, where this leave has been authorised by the head teacher.”
The National Headteachers Union initially supported the pupils actions with a spokesperson saying: “Society makes leaps forward when people are prepared to take action. Schools encourage students to develop a wider understanding of the world around them. A day of activity like this could be an important and valuable life experience.”
PAThe demostration outside Shire Hall, Cambridge
But after a backlash from newspapers, including the Daily Mail, the Union said that it did not condone children missing school. Nevertheless, more than 200 academics, mainly working in fields related to climate change, wrote a letter to the Guardian offering their support.
They wrote: “Nelson Mandela once said: ‘Our children are our greatest treasure. They are our future. Those who abuse them tear at the fabric of our society and weaken our nation.’ Human planetary abuse is, in a very real sense, child neglect.”
The sentiment was echoed by the environmental campaigner George Monbiot who tweeted that the protest was “the most hopeful thing I’ve seen in 30 years of campaigning. My generation has betrayed today’s children and betrayed those yet to be born. Now is the time to make amends. Now is the time to support those striking against our neglect. Thank you to all the brilliant children on the #schoolstrike4climate today. One of the most moving and inspiring events I’ve ever witnessed. I feel hope now that I have not felt for years.”
The campaign was started by a 15-year-old from Sweden, Greta Thunberg, who last summer began sitting outside the Swedish Parliament every Friday to call for more to be done to prevent a climate crisis that will disproportionally affect today’s children. Her protest has since spread to more than a dozen countries, including Germany, Australia and Japan. In Belgium, one of the government’s environment ministers, Joke Schauvliege, resigned after claiming that she had been told by state security services that the 35,000-strong protests were a “set-up” and “more than spontaneous actions of solidarity”.
Thunberg was invited to speak at the World Economic Forum at Davos last month where she delivered a stark message: “Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular, have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. And I think many of you here today belong to that group of people.”
Inspired by Thunberg, a 13-year-old from Scotland, Holly Gillibrand, has spent every Friday on strike at her school in Ben Nevis.
Most of the leaders of the movement are teenage girls, something noted by Hillary Clinton on Twitter: “Something extraordinary is happening in Europe — and perhaps soon in America. Teen girls are leading a movement to stop climate change.”
PAPupils from Methodist College, Belfast
Among them is Lottie Tellyn, 17, who outlined the movement’s four campaign asks, on the eve of Friday’s strike: “We demand the government declares a climate emergency, taking active steps towards climate justice; we demand reform of our education system so it teaches all young people about the extent of the climate emergency; we demand the government warns the public about the peril that we face and the urgency that is required to act; and finally, we demand the government recognises that we have the biggest stake in our future, and so lowers the voting age to sixteen.”
Other politicians that backed the campaign included the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and the Green MP Caroline Lucas. Christian Aid’s Youth and Campaign Manager, Richard Baker, said that the children were sparking a national debate: “They are forcing teachers, parents and politicians to re-evaluate the issue of climate breakdown and what is most important, while lifting our gaze beyond just immediate short term national concerns.
“As Jesus said, ‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?’ Sadly today’s children have been given a hostile climate by their parents’ generation.”
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