Greta Thunberg began her ‘skolstrejk för klimatet’ when she started skipping school on Fridays in August 2018, sitting outside the Swedish parliament. From there, she grabbed the attention of the world and ‘Fridays for the future’ was born—with thousands of young people skipping school to call for more radical and decisive action by their governments on the climate and ecological crisis. The most recent international ‘intergenerational’ climate strike, on 20th September, drew over four million people to demonstrations all around the world.
This was arguably all inspired by this one young teenager taking a stand, but the rapid snowballing of the movement itself points to something wider—it seems Greta has tapped into a global consensus amongst young people. They are recognizing the dangers of the ecological crisis we are heading towards, confronting the realization that the older generation is failing to protect them from an uncertain and unsafe future. A common sign held up at the strikes reflects this: ‘you die from old age, I die from climate change’.
During this report, I want to reflect on the movement so far, what it has achieved and how Thunberg has—perhaps unintentionally—become the unlikely leader of a global movement. It seems that real hope is emerging as to the potential of effective climate action when looking towards this new burst of climate activism, and whilst this must be stressed, it will not be without its struggles. I will draw upon how the hostility towards Greta and the School Strikes from the political Right reflects the challenges we face in securing effective climate action.
Exploring the growth of the movement, in the context of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) damning report on climate breakdown and the growing scientific consensus of the severe urgency of our ecological crises, continuously warning us of the extreme and life-threatening effects of climate change—Greta began to protest. Since August 2018, each Friday she has skipped school and handed out leaflets outside of Swedish parliament that read ‘I am doing this because you are shitting on my future’. She began to give speeches, and word about her actions spread across the globe, seemingly tapping into a shared understanding between young people across the world: In just six months, around one and a half million children were joining her in school striking for action on climate change. From the 20th September until the 27th, the newest wave of climate strikes is occurring. This time attracting people from 150 countries and also including ‘work strikers’, whereby adults don’t go into work in support of the young climate strikers. 1.4 million people were striking in Germany alone.
Arguably, the frankness of Thunberg’s speeches is one of her strengths. Perhaps a characteristic born from her young age or autism, the emotion and anger that fuels her speeches clearly inspires others. Feeling a sense of desperation and fear in her words makes us realize perhaps it’s time to panic. In a recent speech to the UN, Thunberg said:
“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to me for hope? How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!
…You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”
Reflecting on the impact the strikes, Greta and the emotive message she presents have already had, we can see that public opinion is perhaps beginning to shift. one-third of Germans said in a recent poll that Greta Thunberg had changed their view on the climate, whilst 81% of 18 to 34-year-olds in Australia said that climate change worried them. Greta stresses that we must remember the real power belongs to the people. Each and every person striking represents another person telling their government that business, as usual, cannot continue, and perhaps finally the tide is turning and peoples power is being recognized: The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) recently claimed that Thunberg and other young climate activists are the ‘greatest threat’ to the fossil fuel industry.
Recognizing the threat both Greta and the wider movement has become to industry and leaders such as the OPEC, it is unsurprising that they are not without their critics. A majority of right-wing politicians argue that children belong in school rather than out on climate strikes, whilst personal attacks on Thunberg are becoming commonplace. An Australian journalist called her a ‘deeply disturbed messiah of the global warming movement,’ whilst British Businessman and friend of Trumps, Arron Banks, joked that ‘Freak yachting accidents do happen’ in response to her travelling from the U.K. to New York via boat.
Understanding where these attacks are coming from is vital in understanding the power behind these dark statements. Many of those commenting have links to the fossil fuel industry and funders of climate science denial, both groups centred on prioritising economic growth before the environmental—living in denial or ignorance of the terrifying reality of climate change heading towards us. These people see climate change activism as a threat to the modern industrial society they have built up, their wealth and power wrapped up within this. Hence, they will attempt to their power to fight against environmental policies, as rather frankly illustrated in the Trump administrations removal of one-fourth of climate change references from federal government websites.
And so, moving forward: we must recognize the power of those that criticize and seek to demean this new environmentally movement, working to uncover and constantly question the agenda behind their hostility—in most cases directed towards a 16 year old child. Hopefully, as the strikes continue and Greta continues to deliver her impassioned message, more and more people will confront the reality of climate change and call upon our governments to enact effective change, becoming too large a group to ignore. In the words of Greta Thunberg: ‘I want you to panic’, and optimistically, if this panic motivates action, we might be able to overcome perhaps the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced.
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