Former UN climate chief says it is time to ‘heed voice of youth’ as thousands join protest
First published on Fri 15 Feb 2019
Thousands of schoolchildren and young people have walked out of classes to join a UK-wide climate strike amid growing anger at the failure of politicians to tackle the escalating ecological crisis.
Organisers said more than 10,000 young people in at least 60 towns and cities from the Scottish Highlands to Cornwall joined the strike, defying threats of detention to voice their frustration at the older generation’s inaction on the environmental impact of climate change.
Anna Taylor, 17, one of the most prominent voices to emerge from the new movement, said the turnout had been overwhelming. “It goes some way to proving that young people aren’t apathetic, we’re passionate, articulate and we’re ready to continue demonstrating the need for urgent and radical climate action.”
Organisers estimated around 3,000 schoolchildren and young people gathered in London, with 2,000 in Oxford, 1,000 each in Exeter and Leeds and several hundred in Brighton, Bristol, Sheffield and Glasgow.
In London, the protesters held banners and chanted as police and onlookers watched. They blocked the roads outside parliament chanting “Turn off your engines” at passing cars, and “We want the chance for change now” before mounted police moved them away.
In Manchester, hundreds gathered outside the Central Library before marching to the Royal Northern College of Music with signs reading “Climate over capitalism” and chanting “Whose future? Our future.”
Matt Sourby, 18, said his journey from Queen Elizabeth school in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, was worth it: “This is our future and this is making a difference. The government has to listen. I feel incredibly powerful just being here.”
The protests won the backing of a former UN climate chief, who said it was “time to heed the deeply moving voice of youth”.
Christiana Figueres, who led the historic 2015 Paris agreement, said the fact that children were so worried about their future they were prepared to strike should make adults sit up and take notice.
“It is a sign that we are failing in our responsibility to protect them from the worsening impacts of climate change,” she said.
The school strike movement started in August when Greta Thunberg, then 15, held a solo protest outside the Swedish parliament. Now, up to 70,000 schoolchildren each week hold protests in 270 towns and cities worldwide.
On Friday, tens of thousands marched again, some for the sixth week in succession, through towns and cities across Europe.
For the first time up to 1,000 pupils demonstrated in Paris chanting “Don’t go breaking my earth” and “One, two, three degrees – a crime against humanity”.
In Berlin, a large crowd gathered for the sixth week in a row. “We’re here now because we want to be able to be here in 50 years’ time,” read one banner.
Individual protests have previously been held in the UK, but the nationwide action on Friday was the first coordinated walkout.
Organisers in the UK said that two weeks ago they would have been happy if hundreds of young people had taken part. But they said the huge turnout – in the face of threats of recriminations from some schools and criticism in sections of the media – showed the strength of feeling among young people about the climate crisis.
Jake Woodier, of the UK Youth Climate Coalition, said: “What we’ve witnessed today is thousands upon thousands of students and young people descend on their towns and cities to demonstrate the urgent need for radical climate action.”
He said a new generation of young leaders was emerging – many of them young women – who had spread the message about the climate crisis and the strike through social media, radio, television and newspapers over the past two weeks.
“The size of the Youth Strike 4 Climate is testament to the passion and awareness among young people that we need to fight for a future that simply doesn’t exist because we’ve been betrayed by the inaction of those in positions of power.”
The strike was supported by the Green MP Caroline Lucas and several frontbench Labour MPs. Their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, tweeted that climate change was the greatest threat people faced and young people were “right to feel let down by the generation before them and it’s inspiring to see them making their voice heard today”.
There was also support from some Tory MPs – including the energy minister Claire Perry – although others criticised the protests. Downing Street said that while it was important for young people to engage with issues such as climate change, the disruption to planned lesson time was damaging for pupils.
“It is important to emphasise that disruption increases teachers’ workloads and wastes lesson time that teachers have carefully prepared for,” a spokesperson for No 10 said. “That time is crucial for young people, precisely so that they can develop into the top scientists, engineers and advocates we need to help tackle this problem.”
However Thunberg hit back at the Conservative government, saying on Twitter that political leaders had wasted 30 years by not taking action against climate change.
Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg)
British PM says that the children on school strike are “wasting lesson time”. That may well be the case. But then again, political leaders have wasted 30 yrs of inaction. And
that is slightly worse.#schoolstrike4climate #FridaysForFuture #ClimateStrike https://t.co/PoSCXin3VN
In the last week alone scientists have warned of a catastrophic collapse of insect population with devastating consequences for humanity, and a separate report said human-caused threats to climate, nature and the economy posed a danger of systemic economic collapse unless radical action is taken.
The young people taking part in Friday’s strike called on the government to declare a climate emergency, communicate the severity of the ecological crisis and change the curriculum to make the state of the environment an educational priority.
They also want recognition that since young people have the biggest stake in the future they should be involved in policymaking, and are demanding that the voting age be lowered to 16.
Earlier this week, more than 200 academics, including almost 100 professors, backed the strike, saying the “tragic and desperate facts” of the unfolding climate emergency and the lack of meaningful action by politicians left young people with little option but to take matters into their own hands.