School student climate strikes – what hope looks like

On Friday 15 February 2019, tens of thousands of school students from more than 60 towns and cities across Britain took part in the Youth Strike 4 Climate as part of a global day of action demanding action to stop climate change. The biggest protests in Britain took place in London, Brighton, Oxford and Exeter.  Charlie Wilson writes about this emerging movement and the next steps.

“Why are we studying GCSEs when we have no future?”

When the future is closing in like a trap, business as usual is increasingly perceived by anyone with eyes to see as a charade.

Students are becoming increasingly conscious that they are going into schools every day to be prepared to fit into a social order that holds out few promises for them – teaching them the skills needed to be resilient and compliant in a world of low paid insecure jobs with little prospect of finding somewhere to live – as just the foreground to a looming environmental catastrophe that- with collapsing insect populations, extreme weather events and once in a 100 year floods becoming routine, whales with guts full of plastic, California burning – is increasingly apparent.

But, the contrast between the urgency of the situation with the inadequacy of the political response – preoccupation with matters that don’t matter at all in comparison, targets set way too late with smug self-congratulation, fossil fuel companies insouciantly planning on an expansion of production up to 2040 – is finally breaking through in a raucous, angry hopefulness in the power of their own agency among the most sensitive, thoughtful and socially aware- in which the young people who will have to face civilisational collapse in their lifetimes, unless rapid change starts now, are telling their dithering elders to wake up and step up.

Some are already there. This is Jeremy Corbyn’s statement:

“Climate change is the greatest threat that we all face but it is the school kids of today whose futures are most on the line. They are right to feel let down by the generation before them and it’s inspiring to see them making their voice heard today.”

Labour’s Green Transformation Plan – and the regional conferences being planned to assess what can be done and needs to change in each part of the country between now and 2030 – underpins this statement and should be a basis for political consensus.

Sadly, it isn’t. This is the, rather finger wagging, response from the government:

“Everybody wants young people to be engaged in the issues that affect them most, so that we can build a brighter future for all of us. But it is important to emphasise that disruption increases teachers’ workloads and wastes lesson time that teachers have carefully prepared for. That time is crucial for young people, precisely so they can develop into the top scientists, engineers and advocates we need to help tackle this problem.”

This is precisely the kind of cloth eared, leaden routinism that the students were protesting against; and particularly ironic from a government – through the initiative of then education Minister and current minister for Greenwash Michael Gove – that has significantly cut the scope and scale of climate change content in the curriculum. There is a lobby of the DFE on Friday 22 Feb (assembles 12 noon in Old Palace Yard) calling for a drastic review of the curriculum so that the understanding and skills “we need to help tackle this problem” are put front and centre. This is nothing less than the government’s legal obligation under article 12 of the Paris Agreement – that require all governments that are part of it to do just that. This is a demand that is also being raised by resolutions to the NEU (teachers) and UCU (lecturers) union conferences this year.

This movement will grow in geographical scope and numbers. With increasing evidence of the climate change we have already caused coming out on a daily basis, the only alternative to collective action is individual despair. Greta Thunberg’s lone vigil outside the Swedish parliament that started last summer has sparked walkouts of 15 000 in Australia, 32 000 in Belgium tens of thousands more in other cities in Europe and the US but also in small towns too, where protesters have gathered outside town halls and made new links and found a new solidarity and purpose in life.  A global school students strike has been called for March 15th. Everyone should support it, make links with it, get speakers from the organisers to union and Labour meetings. This is the spark we need to build the fire.