The kids are not all right. They’re afraid of climate change – their entire lives have been filled with news of melting glaciers and devastating weather. They’re also angry, at adults who ignore or minimize the evidence that things are going to get worse. And so, they’re acting out.
Last August, 15-year-old Greta Thunberg skipped school one Friday, for the first time, to sit alone outside the Swedish Parliament, calling it a strike against climate change. Since then, tens of thousands of students, including some in Canada, have joined her, ditching class to attend a Fridays for Future strike in their own hometowns. They want immediate action on what they consider the biggest problem in the world.
“We are all doing this because we are terrified,” 18-year-old Katie Beijer said in an e-mail last week. Since January, she and her sister Mia, 15, have been spending their Friday lunch hours sitting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. They might be missing class, but they’re not exactly having fun.
“It is important to recognize that none of us began an org or group in our city because it was something we WANTED to do,” Ms. Beijer wrote. “We all began because it is something we NEEDED to do.”
The sisters are often alone, sometimes joined by friends and occasionally part of a bigger rally. This week, Ottawa’s strike and others around the world could see the biggest turnouts yet. Friday’s date is March 15, which climate activists are seizing on as a chance to emphasize the 1.5-degree-Celsius warming cap that Canada and 194 other countries promised to work toward in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
A Google map tracking planned youth marches and rallies had 967 pins as of press time, including in Japan, Ghana and Chile. Here in Canada, I’ve talked to students taking part in 26 different places from Nanaimo, B.C., to St. John’s. March Break is happening in much of Ontario, but students elsewhere are ready to be marked absent.
Oil country will be represented – events are planned in Edmonton, Calgary, Regina and Saskatoon. There will be rallies in Rimouski, Que., population 50,000, and Bridgewater, N.S., population 8,500. Sophia Mathur of Sudbury, Ont., has been striking monthly since November. She needs adults to make climate an issue in the federal election, she wrote to me, because “I’m only 11-years-old and I cannot vote.”
If youth determination is global, so is adult condescension. The prime ministers of Australia and Britain warned against what one British MP called “truancy” in the lead-up to strikes there. Both were ignored by thousands.
In Hamburg, Germany, after 3,000 students walked out of class on March 1, the Education Secretary said on Twitter that “No one makes the world better by skipping school.” Students in Halifax have heard that, too.
“Our school principal is kind of against it,” said Willa Fisher, part of a group of Grade 11 and 12 students organizing the city’s first strike. When she asked if she could put up posters about the walkout, her principal replied that “strikes don’t accomplish anything.”
“I just told him how the strikes around the world have already accomplished a lot of things,” she said during a video chat. In February, Greta Thunberg led 16,000 students through Brussels, then spoke at a European Union conference. In response, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker proposed that a full quarter of the EU’s €1-trillion ($1.5-trillion) budget from 2021 to 2027 be marked to mitigate climate change.
Canadian youth know exactly what they’re striking for. As coastal citizens, Ms. Fisher and her friends are afraid of rising sea levels and losing ocean wildlife. Antonia Paquin from Vancouver Island e-mailed that she wants an end to industrial logging, since the forests have “a global role as critical carbon sinks.”
Shared goals include banning single-use plastics and transitioning away from fossil fuels in a way that is fair to oil and gas workers. Many mentioned the Paris agreement, and last October’s United Nations report giving a 12-year deadline to avert a climate change catastrophe. And both Indigenous and non-Indigenous strikers mentioned the need for ecological reconciliation.
“I find it very interesting that every pipeline in Canada is through Indigenous territory,” said Miyawata Stout, a Cree 12-year-old in Winnipeg, where she’s already been to two strikes. “Reserves take up such a small amount of land, yet every one goes through that land. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Miyawata too, has had adults suggest she stay at her desk and get good grades, but she’s not planning on listening. “We’re not going to stop," she said. This week’s Winnipeg strike will include a mock funeral for the Earth. "The message we’re trying to get across is, why go to school if we have no future?”