FREEDOM AND SAFETY
There’s nothing new about children skipping school. But when they do it in their thousands, and all for the same cause, then it’s time to pay attention.
On 31 January, tens of thousands of children marched in Belgium, the fourth such protest in what has become a weekly routine, demanding urgent action on climate change. The biggest demonstration, in Liège, drew 15,000 people - parents and grandparents joining students as they marched to the city hall with chants of “to arms”.
There were further protests in Brussels and Leuven. The young marchers had the backing of a coalition of 3,450 Belgian scientists who wrote an open letter warning that current policies will lead to a disastrous 3 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures.
Similar school strikes have taken place in Switzerland and Germany, attracting thousands of students. And the movement is spreading. Under the banner #FridaysForFuture children in Scotland, the US and the Netherlands are among those taking action of their own.
The inspiration for all of this is a 16-year-old girl from Sweden, Greta Thunberg.
In August 2018, during Sweden’s hottest summer on record, she refused to go to school. Instead she began a lonely protest on the cobblestones outside the parliament in Stockholm, with a simple message: adults were failing to deal effectively with climate change, so the next generation had to make its voice heard.
It’s a message that she has now delivered in person to world leaders and the most influential figures in business. As she addressed the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos,Greta was frank.
“I don’t want your hope,” she told some of the most powerful people in the world. “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I do. Every day. And I want you to act. I want you to behave like our house is on fire. Because it is.”
Greta has faced criticism for her stance - she has been accused of encouraging truancy, and even her parents think she ought to go to school. But she is unbowed, and makes a compelling argument: either action is taken immediately to reduce emissions and limit global warming, or the very survival of human civilisation is at risk.
“Either we prevent temperatures from rising above 1.5C, or we don’t. Either we avoid chain reaction of unravelling ecosystems, or we don’t. That’s as black or white as it gets. Now we all have a choice: we can either create transformational action or continue with business as usual and fail.”
Her uncompromising message has struck a chord with young people who don’t yet have the power to vote. She has 141,000 followers on Twitter, and many of those are answering the call to action.
They are among a growing throng of young activists who are bringing fresh enthusiasm and vigour to efforts to deal with the world’s most pressing and intractable problems. The Global Shapers Community is harnessing this energy, with the Voice for the Planet mobilising mass support behind the aims of the Forum’s Climate Initiative.
Meanwhile, the children of Belgium, Germany and other nations say they will keep up the pressure on the grown-ups, demanding actions rather than words.