On March 15th, more than 1,400,000 students around the world took to the streets to protest government inaction on climate change, in what was considered the biggest global climate action in history. More than 2,000 protests took place in over 125 countries, with Europe being the leading region in terms of organization and participation. These so-called “climate strikes” are part of a student-led movement called Fridays for Future, which originated last year thanks to the actions of 14-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.
In this two-part article we analyze the reasons for the movement’s origin, its quick expansion, the impact it has had in different societies around the world and its future.
The origins: The mythification of Greta Thunberg
On August 28th 2018, 14-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg decided to not attend school until the 2018 Sweden general election on 9th of September, after severe heat waves and wildfires ravaged the country during the summer. She sat outside the Swedish Parliament every day during school hours in protest of her government’s inaction in face of climate change, and demanding that Sweden align its climate policies with the Paris Agreement goals. Two days before the elections, she announced that she would continue to strike every Friday until things changed.
Thunberg revealed that her actions where inspired by the teen activists at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida (US), who organized a country-wide anti-gun movement after a shooting in their school on 14th February 2018 left 17 dead. This particular movement, though it has recently faded, resulted in a student-led demonstration called March of our Lives on March 24th 2018, which had a turnout of between 1.2 and 2 million people and succeeded in putting the topic of gun control in the political spotlight.
Soon after her first strike, Thunberg’s classmates and many other students around the country joined her protest. The local and international media started picking up on the young student’s actions and found themselves with a story that resonated with people and attracted new readers. Thunberg’s young age, her eloquence and the fact that she has Asperger’s were all factors that made for an emotional and impressive story about self-empowerment. She started giving interviews to several international media outlets; newspapers wrote profiles about her; scientists and community experts gave her awards; and, throughout all of this, she continued demonstrating every Friday.
The emotional yet calculated framing of her story by the media coincided with the people’s real preoccupation in regards to climate change, which was greatly amplified when on October 7th the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) published an alarming report. The report, which reviewed more than 6,000 scientific studies, revealed that the consequences of a 1.5oC global warming by 2100 are worse than expected, with unprecedented storms, forest fires, droughts, coral bleaching, heat waves, and floods taking place around the world. As a reference: countries who signed the Paris Agreement agreed on maintaining the temperature increase below 2oC. Current CO2 emission objectives (which are far from the real policies in place) will push global warming by at least 3oC.
This IPCC report, coupled with several other key developments that have taken place during the end of 2018 (such as new comments on the “Warning to Humanity” letter signed by 15,000 scientists from around the world; or the absence of real game-changing climate policies resulting from the COP 24 celebrated in Poland in December) has rapidly raised people’s awareness on the subject matter. Young people, who are by defect more technology-savvy than adults and therefore increasingly more exposed to this type of news, have been inspired by Greta Thunberg’s actions and have decided to react.
Its expansion: social media, decentralization and interculturality
Climate strikes began to be organized around the world in November 2018 under the “Fridays for Future” banner. The first massive strike is considered to be the one that took place in Australia on 30th November, which had 15,000 participants and appealed directly to the Australian Parliament for meaningful action. Thunberg’s emotional and sober speech during the COP 24 (which you can see in its entirety here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFkQSGyeCWg) was the trigger for other continued strikes throughout December in at least 270 cities, in countries such as Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Finland.
In the weeks of 2019 leading to the big strike on March 15th, the movement reached many other European countries such as the Netherlands, Italy, the UK, France, Denmark and Norway, sometimes with a participation in the range of tenths of thousands. Strikes were also held in some non-European countries such as Canada, the United States and Japan.
The quick spread of the movement, precisely amongst young people, was largely amplified thanks to the use of social media. All these strikes were organized, announced and shared through different platforms (mainly Facebook) in a way that made it easy for potential participants to engage and become involved. At the end of the day, the widespread use of social media by young students meant that this movement was tailor-made for them. Soon, the hashtag #FridaysForFuture became easily recognizable and many international associations of activists and scientists used it to support the movement.
At the same time, the lack of a centralized organizational hub made it easy for teenagers to take the lead and arrange actions in their own towns and cities. New “Fridays for Future” pages were being created every day in a different location, from where they started organizing their own strikes and engaging students in their area. A quick search in Facebook of Twitter yields dozens of different profiles or pages related to the movement, all managed by different people and organizations. Most interestingly, the figure of Greta Thunberg has inspired a new wave of girls and young women activists, who are now the leaders of most of these local movements.
Another relevant characteristic of the Fridays for Future movement is the lack of ties to any particular religion, culture, sex or (arguably) politics. Much like the anti-war protests that took place on the 15th February 2003 opposing the imminent Iraq War (and which is nowadays considered the largest protest in human history, with a participation of 6 to 11 million people), the fight against climate change is an issue that every adequately-informed individual can identify with. This particularity is what has helped the movement reach so many people outside of Europe, as opposed to other social movements existing nowadays.
Check back next week with the second and final part of this article! We’ll talk about the March 15th strike in detail, what it achieved and what was the reaction from some world leaders. We will also look at the future of the movement, including some words on the recently-celebrated strike of May 24th.
- Fridays for Future: The #Climatestrike movement comes of age – 15h march 2019, Jefferson Chase (Berlin), DW.
- Why I strike: Fridays for Future Barcelona – 13th march 2019, Lisa Goldapple (Barcelona), Atlas of the Future.
- 9 reasons why the school strike for climate works and why we must listen – 30th march 2019, Will Morley (Amsterdam), Conservation Guide.
- Kids striking against climate change: ‘We’re fighting for our lives’ – 15th March 2019, Alejandra Borunda (Washington DC), National Geographic.
- School strikes for climate – Wikipedia.
- Climate strike: Why are students striking and will it have an impact? – 15th February 2019, Matt McGrath (UK), BBC.
- ‘It’s Literally Our Future.’ Here’s What Youth Climate Strikers Around the World Are Planning Next – 20th March 2019, Suyin Haynes (US), Time Magazine.
- Climate change impacts worse than expected, global report warns – 7th October 2018, Stephen Leahy (US), National Geographic.
- Greta Thunberg, schoolgirl climate change warrior: ‘Some people can let things go. I can’t’ – 11th March 2019, Jonathan Watts (UK), The Guardian.
- Thousands of scientists are backing the kids striking for climate change – 14th March 2019, Matthew Warren, Nature International Journal.
Written by: Eloi Bigas (www.linkedin.com/in/eloibigas/)