Young people take to the streets in Perth to demand climate action (Photo credit: WWF/Paul Gamblin)
The world’s youth has run out of patience. Across the planet, young people are organising online, walking out of school, taking to the streets, even going to the courts to try and force their elders to take seriously the growing climate change emergency.
Youth march for climate action
On Friday 15 March, we saw the largest mobilisation yet of children boycotting school to protest about our collective failure to address climate change. At more than 1,000 schools, across almost 100 countries, students inspired by the School Strike 4 Climate, Fridays For Future, and the Climate Strike campaigns got up from their desks to call for action
Their motivation is heart breaking. As Fridays For Future, the movement started last year by the then 15-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg, argues on its website, why study for a future that may not exist? Why expend effort getting an education, when governments are not listening to the educated?
The movement is decentralised, eschewing the disciplined messaging and clear agenda of professionally-run campaigns. Thunberg talks in terms of raising awareness and of a simple solution: “Stopping the emissions of greenhouse gases”.
Some groups have specific policy demands: the UK Student Climate Network is calling for the government to declare a climate emergency, require teaching in schools about the ecological crisis, communicate to the public the severity of the crisis and the necessity to act now, and bring down the voting age to 16.
Other groups are pursuing legal avenues to action. In the US, 21 young people filed a lawsuit in 2015 that argues that the failure of the US government to address climate change violates their constitutional rights. Both this US administration and its predecessor have attempted to block it.
Other young activists argue that there is little point putting demands to politicians: “Adult climate campaigners have actually been trying that strategy for over a decade, and sadly with very poor results to show, as our carbon emissions are still rising year by year,” says the Centre for Climate Safety, in a briefing paper for school strikers.
We share the frustration
We share their frustration. At WWF, we have been working tirelessly to drive action on climate change. We can point to successes, considerable progress in raising awareness, and even, in the Paris Agreement, a framework on which, potentially, an appropriate international policy response could be built.
But we would be the first to admit that our efforts, alongside those of thousands of other civil society groups around the world, have not been sufficient to safeguard the climate. And we fear for the future that the world’s youth will inherit if we are not, collectively, able to avert dangerous climate change.
Activism matters – and can make a difference
It is, however, enormously encouraging to see the commitment and passion that young people are bringing to the fight against global warming. Their activism matters, and it can make a difference. Throughout recent history, whether the in fight for the vote, against unjust wars, for civil rights, or to bring down Apartheid, mass mobilisation has changed the course of history. Even on climate change, people taking to the streets has created change: the People’s Climate March in New York in 2014, which drew more than 300,000 participants, built vital momentum for the following year’s Paris talks.
As we continue our work, to push politicians to commit to greater climate ambition –ambition that is commensurate with the scale of the emergency we face – mass mobilisation represents a key pillar on which our success will be built. The youth climate movement is an inspiration to us all and should shame our leaders into doing what is right to protect the planet for the next generation.
Manuel Pulgar-Vidal is hte leader of WWF’s global climate and energy programme. He is based in Lima.