Today, thousands of students across the UK have skipped school to go on strike over climate change. Ahead of the Youth Strike 4 Climate protest, a government spokesperson criticised the co-ordinated walk-out because it “wastes lesson time”; protesters in London responded by bringing the protest right to the gates of Downing Street.
The nationwide strike was inspired by the work of 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who has missed school to picket the Swedish parliament every Friday since August. Successful school strikes have already taken place in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Australia. “Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago,” Thunberg told the UN Climate Change Conference in December, shaming leaders decades older than her.
Friday's UK strike was jointly organised by three climate change pressure groups: Youth Strike 4 Climate, the UK Student Climate Network and the UK Youth Climate Coalition.
"I’m striking because the urgency of the climate crisis has not been addressed by the government," Anya Taylor, co-founder of the UK Student Climate Network, told VICE ahead of today’s strike. "The global movement has been fuelled by students educating other students on the reality of our future, and empowering each other with the knowledge that we stand together. The responsibility to protect the earth from climate change has fallen on us. Greta's role as a global figure has inspired millions of other students across the world by demonstrating that we do have a voice and together we must fight for our future."
The UK strike may be part of a growing global movement, but it’s definitely targeting the British government specifically. "We're demanding that the government declares a state of climate emergency and communicates the severity of the ecological crisis to the general public," explains Jake Woodier of Youth Strike 4 Climate. "Additionally, campaigners want the curriculum reformed to address climate change as an educational priority, alongside a request to include youth voices in policy-making and lower the voting age to 16."
By 12PM today, more than a thousand students ranging from primary school kids in uniforms to casually dressed sixth formers had gathered in central London's Parliament Square for a loud and lively peaceful protest. Strikers raised placards with slogans like “There’s no planet B” and “Make earth great again”. Another read: “Why the actual fuck are we studying for a future we won’t even have?”, which, fair enough. Chants of “Save our planet!” broke out.
“We’ve been warned that if we don’t act, we only have 12 years until we do irreversible damage [to the planet]”, 17-year-old Louis Johnson told VICE. “So I think it's our responsibility to skip school and be here.” His friend, 18-year-old Jennifer Anguul, said she thought many of their teachers quietly supported their decision to strike.
Some strikers climbed onto plinths supporting statues of Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi, whose likeness was left with a placard saying: “Global warming – a manmade warning.” One breakaway group marched across Westminster Bridge and back again, while another moved along Whitehall towards Trafalgar Square, where they displayed banners in front of Nelson’s Column. On the way back, they paused outside Downing Street to chant: "When do we want? Change! When do we want it? Now!"
“The government at the moment thinks it has more important things to think about other than climate change,” said 15-year-old Nyrie McMuff from west London. “But I think we're showing them just how important this is.”
By 2PM, thousands more had joined the London protest and TfL said the crowds had blocked Westminster Bridge and Whitehall, and caused queues on all approaches to Parliament Square. One group of protestors took over a tourist bus caught up in the hordes.
As mounted officers cleared the streets surrounding the square, two young protesters were arrested. While the protest broke up, black cab drivers brought the area to a standstill as part of their own protest against plans to ban cars from more key roads in the capital. Ironically enough, the plans – supported by TfL and London's Mayor Sadiq Khan – are designed to air quality.
A second nationwide strike is already being planned for Friday the 15th of March as part of a bigger global protest. “There's this stigma that young people and teenagers don't really care about politics or world issues, so they don't take us seriously,” said 17-year-old Paige Reardon from Slough. “But when this many of us turn out, they're not going to have a choice.”
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