Last Friday wasn’t like any other in many parts of the world.
From the edge of the Arctic Circle to the South Pacific, from Sydney to Hong Kong and to London, and across the United States, schoolchildren took to the streets in one of the largest global efforts yet to demand more action on climate change.
Mobilized thru social media and word of mouth, the new wave of international youth activism – now sweeping across 100 countries where weekly protests take place – is inspired by Swedish climate activist and high school student Greta Thunberg who was recently nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
Should the 16-year-old Thunberg win the Nobel, she would be the youngest recipient since Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani schoolgirl who was 17 when she won in 2014 “for the struggle… for the right of all children to education.” Malala survived a Taliban assassination attempt in 2012.
Thunberg’s environmental activism has ignited a movement that has gained momentum worldwide as hundreds of thousands of students skip classes to gather on the streets to protest against government inaction and inadequate policies of world leaders to effectively tackle adverse effects of climate change.
“The oceans are rising, so are we,” read one placard in a Sydney protest action.
“Why should we go and study for a future that may not exist anymore?” Thunberg said in a TV interview, even as she expressed delight over the global response of the youth to her advocacy. “More people are starting to become aware of the situation and that we are facing a crisis… It’s amazing to see that hundreds of thousands of children from all around the world are realizing this and are making their voices heard.”
But students skipping school in UK prompted criticism from British Prime Minister Theresa May whose spokesperson said that “disruption increases teachers’ workloads and wastes lesson time that teachers have carefully prepared for.”
Responding on Twitter to the criticism, Thunberg said: “That may well be the case. But then again, political leaders have wasted 30 years of inaction. And that is slightly worse.”
Thunberg’s activism began on September 2018 during the parliamentary elections in Sweden. Just 15 years old then, she skipped school for three weeks and sat outside the Parliament building, holding a sign demanding radical action from her government to combat climate change. Her protests continued even after the elections. She eventually got the attention of world leaders when she delivered a blistering speech last December at the UN climate conference.
Her efforts bore fruit last Friday amid various news reports on widespread protest actions. In Berlin, for instance, some 10,000 young students gathered in a downtown square, waving signs with slogans such as “March now or swim later” and “Climate Protection Report Card: F.”
Other news reports include: Student protests in Wellington; Melbourne, Australia; and Sydney drew tens of thousands of people. In Europe, students packed streets and squares in cities including Copenhagen, Denmark; Rome; Vienna; and Lisbon, Portugal. Protests were also underway in Hong Kong; New Delhi; Wellington, New Zealand; and Finland.
In Poland, thousands marched in rainy Warsaw and other cities to demand a ban on the burning of coal. Some wore face masks as they carried banners that read “Today’s Air Smells Like the Planet’s Last Days” and “Make Love Not CO2.” In India’s capital of New Delhi, schoolchildren protested rising air pollution levels.
About 50 students protested in South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, chanting “There’s No Planet B.” With its population of more than a billion people, Africa is expected to be hardest hit by global warming even though it contributes least to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause it. CNN also reported that student strikes were set “in more than 1,700 cities in at least 100 different countries, including many cities in the United States.”
With all these efforts, there’s no doubt the schoolchildren of the world acting in unison can indeed become a force to reckon with. And it would certainly be foolhardy for the adults in power not to respond positively to calls to action.