A perfect storm

5th April 2019

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Jennifer Jennings

Derided as 'snowflakes', young people are forming a blizzard of opposition to climate change, as David Burrows reports

“I feel betrayed by the government, past governments and present. They haven't recognised the severity of the crisis“

February 28 marked the first time in two years that climate change had been debated in the main chamber of the House of Commons. Think about that for a minute, because two years is a very long time – especially in a country where most of the population absolutely loves talking about the weather, and the ruling party's manifesto includes a commitment to 'leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it'. Still, for all the chatter, some have lost patience with the political patter.

“I feel let down. I feel betrayed by the government, past governments and present. I feel they haven't recognised the severity of the crisis enough and I think a lot of young people my age are starting to get angry about that.“ That was Anna Taylor, speaking live on CNN, in mid-February. For days, the 17-year-old A-level student had been jumping from one studio to the next – BBC's Newsnight and BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine show included – to explain why she was leading a mass 'school strike' in the UK on Friday February 15. “We feel this is the only way to make our voices heard.“

It was the youth strike that encouraged Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran and Green MP Caroline Lucas to (finally) force through a debate on climate change in the House. Unfortunately, only a handful of MPs turned up. Brexit – as has been the case since June 2016 – is taking precedent over anything else (or at least is providing a handy excuse for any perceived lack of engagement). At the time of writing there are 28 days to deliver a deal. An impossible task? Maybe. But consider this: we probably have until 2030 to bring global carbon emissions under control, or we risk shooting through the carbon budget and the 1.5°C warming scenario. That is still “within the laws of chemistry and physics“ according to the IPCC, but would require “unprecedented changes“.

Headlines suggesting there are 12 years left to save the world from climate catastrophe are on the dramatic side. (The neat cut-off comes from the IPCC's special report on global warming published in October, which warned that global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching 'net zero' around 2050). Still, as Lucas noted in the debate, time is running out. “We face a climate emergency... it calls for unprecedented boldness of vision and a new way of thinking.“

Mobilising young people

“Young people are not by nature lazy and apathetic; they are in tune with politics and the world around them“

This is where Taylor, and thousands like her the world over, come in. Speaking to her on the phone as the UK experienced its hottest winter day ever, she details how the group she spearheads – the UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN) – was born in a caf√© in south London just a couple of months ago. “It was December, and I was talking to someone about the students on strike in Australia [one of the first countries in which thousands of students mobilised into strikes and protests to demand action on climate change]. Other countries were involved too. And I thought: why aren't we doing it?“

Two months later, she had helped coordinate 16,000 students (organisers are still trying to finalise the figures, but this is their latest estimate) to skip school and join protests all around the UK. There are too many stories from that day of unprecedented action to retell, but one stuck with me. It came from Bristol, where the 14-year-old organising the local strike arrived expecting around 30 or 40 to turn up, but was swamped with somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000. This is happening all over the world – and at speed. “It throws the generational challenge of global warming into its sharpest relief,“ noted Bill McKibben, environmentalist, founder of 350.org and author of The End of Nature (written 30 years ago and recognised as one of the first books on climate change for a general audience).

How far can this all go? What can these young people – so often branded 'snowflakes' (a term that apparently emerged on American campuses to criticise hypersensitivity among the younger generation) or 'apathetic' (in the wake of low turnout among younger voters in general elections) – succeed where experienced (and well-funded) campaigners have arguably failed? “I've been in campaigning for a while, and this is definitely extremely different to anything I've seen before,“ explains Jake Woodier from the UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC), which has worked closely with UKSCN on the Youth Strike for Climate campaign. “Young people are not by nature lazy and apathetic; they are in tune with politics and the world around them, but there hasn't been that outlet for them to speak up.“

Curriculum reform

Woodier is 26, and as such represents the elder end of the youth activist spectrum. Like Taylor, he has an excellent understanding of the subject area and speaks with a striking balance of intelligence, passion and optimism. Bubbling underneath there is also a touch of frustration and anger, mostly towards politicians – and the promises they have made. Claire Perry, minister for energy and clean growth, tweeted how “incredibly proud“ she was of “young people who feel strongly that we need to take action“ on climate change. And yet she won't meet UKYCC to discuss fracking. It's hardly surprising: this is a politician who, in the space of 24 hours last September, visited Newcastle to hail the success of offshore wind power (“we are witnessing an unprecedented global transformation to a low-carbon economy“), and then gave Cuadrilla the green light to start fracking in Lancashire.

The prime minister seemed less keen on the idea of children skipping school. Theresa May's official spokesperson said: “It is important to emphasise that disruption increases teacher's workloads and wastes lesson time that teachers have carefully prepared for. That time is crucial for young people precisely so that they can develop into the top scientists, engineers and advocates that we need to help tackle this problem.“ And yet climate change is conspicuous by its absence on the national curriculum. A week after the kids protested, teachers lobbied outside the Department for Education, claiming that the education system was failing to offer students the chance to discuss and debate complex issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss. Taylor is doing A-level geography and there has been “barely anything“ on climate change; it was the same during her GCSEs.

Reform of the national curriculum is one of the UKSCN's four demands. The group also wants the government to: declare a “climate emergency ... taking active steps to achieve climate justice“; better communicate to the general public the severity of the ecological crisis and the importance of acting now; and recognise that young people have the biggest stake in our future, by incorporating youth views into policymaking and bringing the voting age down to 16.

New routes to change

Big asks, which means there will be more action to come. “We will keep striking, and the strikes will keep growing until our demands are met,“ says Taylor. Naturally, she can't say much about what's planned, but she does promise that they will “up the intensity, frequency and variation“. Is she feeling the weight of expectation from the 16,000 others following her lead in the UK? If so, she doesn't show it in interviews. “I do feel pressure,“ she tells me, admitting there has also been “quite a bit of hate“ on social media. “But no matter how much hate I get, I know I am doing something really important – standing up for thousands of children.“

And it won't be long before it's millions. This movement, which was inspired by Greta Thunberg – the Swedish teenager who has been skipping school every Friday for more than half a year to protest outside her own parliament – has become a global phenomenon. One thing is clear: their collective voice will be increasingly hard for governments (and businesses) to ignore. “Civil society and campaigners have exhausted the avenues where they can create change and contextualise this issue in the public and media arena,“ says Woodier. “This movement has smashed open the door of what's possible.“

David Burrows is a freelance journalist

Image credit: Shutterstock/Alamy/Getty


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