This week IEN re-posts a blog from the team at the GEM report that looks at the leading role that youth continue to play addressing the global climate emergency. The post provides a follow-up to IEN’s roundup of the decade from 2010-2020 that highlighted a series of stories on youth activism
In the middle of the pandemic, the world’s youth has not lost its focus on the planet’s biggest challenge. School children in Germany are setting up a political party, Klimaliste, standing in local elections. The party has policies aimed at ensuring the Paris agreement climate pledges are not breached. It’s also born out of annoyance at support that the Green party is giving to the local car industry rather than to renewable energy. After years of environmental activism and little change, it seems children’s anger may be the most important and effective campaign for climate action.
As many of the communities most affected by climate change are in low- and middle-income countries, it is unsurprising that climate justice activism by children emerged there. In Latin America, Belizean Madison Pearl Edwards and Ecuadorian Nina Gualinga have stood against threats to biodiversity from climate change and fossil fuel industries since ages 9 and 8. Established in 2006, the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change links the issue with sustainable development, including poverty reduction, and allows youth activists across the continent to share ideas, strategies and lessons.
Government failure to curb carbon emissions, long after the damaging impact on future generations has been established, is the basis of constitutional lawsuits by youth in Europe and in countries elsewhere, including Canada, Colombia, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Uganda and the United States.
Although the recent spotlight on Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg arguably reflects media bias towards Western stories, there is a compelling logic to climate activism in the form of school strikes. One week in September 2019 saw the largest climate mobilization in history, with some 7.6 million taking to the streets. Greta reached her 131st week of school strikes this month. Her strikes inspired the birth of a youth movement, Fridays For Future, whose next day of action is on March 18th, entitled #NoMoreEmptyPromises. Their website details an impressive database of school strikes per country per month. No region is left untouched.
Even though school closures have put a dampener on some of these organised movements this past year, youth activists have found alternative movements. When the COP-20 was postponed, for instance, youth organisations set up their own “Mock COP“, a two-week virtual meeting with dozens of delegates from 140 countries, to show what they would do if they were in charge.
While built on scientific consensus, schoolchildren’s leading role on climate is justified. Younger generations will be more exposed than political decision makers to climate change’s long-term impact. Behind the school strikes is the fact that today’s schooling, devised and provided by adults, will be irrelevant if tomorrow’s planet is uninhabitable. “What will we do with all this development if we are not going to have a future?” asked Ridhima Pandey, who, aged nine, filed a lawsuit against the Indian government in 2017 for failing to take action against climate change.
Education has immediate benefits, but from a capability perspective, which values individual agency, it can also deliver on the promise of greater future capability. Older generations undermine this promise by claiming a bright future through education while destroying its very possibility.
What is certain is that students are more likely to engage in politics with well-designed civics education and an open learning environment that supports discussion of controversial topics and allows students to hear and express differing opinions. A study of 35 countries showed that openness in classroom discussion led to an increase in the intention to participate in politics. Note the peaceful nature of protests by school children as well. The 2016 GEM Report showed that, across 106 countries, people with higher levels of education were more likely to engage in non-violent protests.
It should not be surprising, therefore, that teachers have supported school boycotts. An Education International resolution encouraged affiliates to ‘stand in full solidarity with all students striking or protesting against climate change’ and schools ‘not to take action against students’. Schools for Climate Action argues that schools and educators have legal child protection mandates, and inaction on climate change amounts to child neglect. Academics have set up petitions as well, each signed by well over 1000 in support of school strikes for climate.
It is a shame that children are being forced to miss days of school in order to wake adults up to their wrongdoings. But a wake up call is certainly needed. We stand with teachers and academics in saying that this is a peaceful, and justified movement we should support.