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The kids are alright – what do the climate strikes tell us about the future of environmental activism?

The informality of the protests and the mix of old- and new-style organising gives hope, though there are challenges and a backlash to be navigated.

Harry Holmes
15 March 2019
Students take part in a global school strike for climate change in Canterbury, Kent, March 15 2019
Students take part in a global school strike for climate change in Canterbury, Kent, March 15 2019
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Gareth Fuller/PA Images

This February saw the first ever UK youth climate strikes. Thousands of schoolchildren left classes to protest government inaction on the climate crisis. They will continue to do so this month at the global strike on March 15th. What is unique about these protests, and what can they tell us about the future of environmental activism?

“I just had to organise it”

Strikes are planned in over 60 locations today, March 15th. But how are such actions organised? The UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN) issues online callouts asking if anyone wants to organise in a particular city. Young people from different schools step forward to co-ordinate the strike for their city.

One of Oxford’s strike organisers Ella Mann, a year 13 student, explains, “When I found out there wasn’t going to be a strike in Oxford, I just had to organise it.” When it comes to this movement, leadership is found in the community, and comes from young people.

Jake Woodier, a member of the YouthStrike4Climate movement, suggests that the major methods of organisation are social media apps like WhatsApp and Instagram. Woodier believes this “allows young people to organise in a way that suits them rather than the age-old boring meetings and committees.”

Alongside social media and twitter hashtags, a lot of the recruitment and advertising of the strikes occurs in schools themselves, and on the demonstrations, via flyers, posters and playground word of mouth.

“16-year-olds are perfectly able to make informed decisions”

At the February strike the informality of the marches was notable. In cities such as Oxford the microphone remained open for any young person to make impassioned speeches, and to allow students to express support for each other as equals. For example, when asked what she was proud of on the day, Mann noted an autistic young person who had built the confidence to speak to the crowd.

Despite the informality of the strike activities, the strikers have a clear set of demands before they will end their monthly actions. These include a declaration of climate emergency from the government, reform of the national curriculum in line with the ecological crisis and greater communication from the government on the severity of the ecological crisis.

But the demands of the UKSCN also include an extension of the vote to 16-year-olds. As Mann explains, “We want to be able to vote, and I think 16-year-olds are perfectly able to make informed decisions about things.”

These strikes should be understood as a demand for democracy from politically and scientifically literate young people who are unhappy with the current state of affairs. To young activists like Mann the climate strikes are “a manifestation of us just being sick of being ignored.”

Support – and backlash

Mann notes that in Oxford “teachers and staff have been very supportive”. MPs such as Layla Moran and Caroline Lucas both spoke at their city’s respective strikes.

But there’s also been a backlash. The government issued a statement noting that “disruption increases teachers' workloads and wastes lesson time that teachers have carefully prepared for.”

Schools have, so far, mostly not attempted drastic responses against striking students. One notable exception was Blachington Mill School in Hove, where teachers attempted to lock and block all exits. This led to a number of children attempting to force past and sneak out in chaotic scenes.

It remains to be seen if there’s to be increased backlash from schools – but students so far have shown considerable resolve in overcoming these challenges.

Another future challenge to the success of these strikes is the upcoming exam season. Woodier estimates that many of the organisers are 15-17, meaning they are currently facing GCSE or A-level exams. Will this affect attendance of the monthly strikes? It remains to be seen.

Fire and passion

It’s clear the UK climate strikes have built a nationwide network of young climate activists. When asked why youth are best equipped to protest environmental inaction Mann states simply “We have a lot of passion, we have a lot of fire.” Such fire has not been present in the UK environmental movement for a number of years.

If these young climate activists continue to organise beyond the strike, they represent a new and distinct voice for the environmental movement. As the recent striker letter written in the Guardian states “the youth of this world has started to move and we will not rest again.”

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