This is the continuation of a two-part article on the Fridays for Future movement. To read the first part, about the origins and expansion of the movement, please head here.
The big strike of March 15th
Fridays for Future’s growth and expansion during the fall of 2018 and beginning of 2019 culminated in the Global Climate Strike of March 15th, which is currently the biggest environmental strike in human history and one of the largest environmental actions ever. More than 2,000 protests took place in over 125 countries, with a total of 1.4 million participants. Strikers also gathered in massive demonstrations around the world in order to make their voices heard.
During the weeks prior to the global strike, there was intense build-up towards the big day. Fridays for Future charters around the world relentlessly advertised the event, and several media outlets picked it up and wrote about it. On the 1st of March 2019, 150 students from the global coordination group of the youth-led movement, including Greta Thunberg, issued an open letter to The Guardian (the British newspaper) stating the following:
We, the young, are deeply concerned about our future. […] We are the voiceless future of humanity. We will no longer accept this injustice. […] We finally need to treat the climate crisis as a crisis. It is the biggest threat in human history and we will not accept the world’s decision-makers’ inaction that threatens our entire civilisation. […] Climate change is already happening. People did die, are dying and will die because of it, but we can and will stop this madness. […] United we will rise until we see climate justice. We demand the world’s decision-makers take responsibility and solve this crisis. You have failed us in the past. If you continue failing us in the future, we, the young people, will make change happen by ourselves. The youth of this world has started to move and we will not rest again.
The demonstrations accompanying the strike on March 15th were carried out peacefully throughout the day, at different times depending on the location. Contrary the other strikes and demonstrations that had taken place before, in which approximately 75% of the participants had been schoolchildren, the demonstrations on the 15th of March saw an increased presence of university students and even non-students.
What students are demanding
In general, Fridays for Future’s demands in relation to the climate strikes vary slightly from location to location, but mostly focus on the following points:
- That Governments declare a climate change emergency and establish policies towards decarbonization, restoring threatened habitats and eliminating environmental injustice.
- That school curriculums are reformed to address the ecological crisis as an educational priority.
- That Governments communicate the severity of the ecological crisis and the necessity to act now to the general public.
- That Governments recognize that young people have the biggest stake in our future, by incorporating youth views into policy making and bringing down the minimum voting age to 16.
Indeed, an important characteristic of the movement is the fact that it is led by youngsters (sometimes below adult age) and aimed at the student population. Never had Europe seen such a massive and youth-oriented movement as this one, and this is one of the reasons for its big impact amongst the adult population. The position of “blaming the parents” is a controversial one that has drawn negative criticism, but at the same time has succeeded in inspiring adults to join the cause. An American study analyzing how 10-to-14–year-olds’ exposure to climate change activism affects their parents’ views has concluded the following: that fathers and conservative parents show the biggest change in attitude, while daughters are more effective than sons in shifting their parents’ views.
Participation. The case of Spain and France
The following map showcases the number of people who went on strike around the world on the 15th of March 2019. The spread of the movement is clear and shows the internationality of the cause.
In Europe, Germany, Italy and France are the countries with a higher participation, with 300,000, 230,000 and 200,000 strikers, respectively. Australia and Canada, two of the early promoters of the movement outside Europe, had a participation of around 150,000 students each.
It is interesting to note the surprising low number of strikers both in Sweden, where the movement originated, and Spain, a country with generally big demonstrations and social activism. The number of people striking in these two countries amounted only to 16,000 and 20,000, respectively. The Swedish case can be partly attributed to the country’s low population, even though the percentage of citizens who went on strike is still significantly lower than in other countries. But the Spanish case is more complicated.
The mere 20,000 strikers in Spain pale in comparison to the 200,000 in France, for example. It is even more surprising when you look at the numbers of the Women’s March demonstration that took place on the 8th, exactly a week before: 350,000 and 200,000 people demonstrated on that day in Madrid and Barcelona, respectively, while the participation in Paris was more in the range of only a few thousands. This exchange of roles showcases how much social movements vary from country to country depending to different factors, such as politics and media attention.
While France has recently experienced several key developments in the environmental discussion (most importantly the resignation of environment minister Nicolas Hulot, after he claimed he was unable to establish meaningful climate policies in Macron’s government; and the negative public reaction to the so-called “yellow vests” movement, which a lot of people view as “anti-green”), Spain has not experienced any big climate crisis recently, neither in the political nor the mediatic sphere. This could be a possible explanation of whether the population in France is currently more environmentally engaged than in Spain.
At the same time, Spain has recently suffered a series of very public rape and gender violence cases that have riled up its population and strengthened the feminist movement in the country. This, coupled with the rise of the far-right and the reopening of debates that had previously been laid to rest, such as the abortion law or the gender violence law, explains why participation in the Women’s March was far larger in Spain that in other European countries like France.
Nonetheless, many other reasons might exist for these differences, especially when it comes to the logistics of the strikes. The particularities of how the strike was announced and where the demonstrations took place, for example, might have something to do with it.
In general, this comparison illustrates that the spread of a social movement in a country depends on many different factors, and this is why Fridays for Future has not put down roots in the same way all around Europe.
The impact achieved until now: reactions and key accomplishments
The unprecedentedly large participation in the May 15th strikes and demonstrations was undoubtedly a resounding success. The movement has put the climate issue in the political agenda and has “forced all political parties to take a stand on the climate issue”, as Belgian socialist politician Conner Rousseau puts it. “If the government is serious about winning over the next generation of voters, then they need to heed their most pressing concerns”, comments UK political observer Richard Baker.
But, most importantly, the massive engagement of the youth has sparked an international debate and has forced not only politicians, but also teachers and parents, to re-evaluate how we treat the issue of climate. It has made different people in different sectors and levels of society understand that we have to look beyond just immediate short-term solutions.
But, obviously, not all reactions to the movement have been positive. While world leaders such as Angela Merkel and U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres have welcomed the strikes, others have tried to undermine them or outright silence them. Here are the reactions from some of the main European national leaders to the Fridays for Future strikes:
Despite some of the negative reactions or indifference from politicians, a group of representatives for Fridays for Future from all over Europe succeeded in meeting with several national leaders during the European Union summit on May 9th. There, they handed them an open letter signed by over 16,000 European climate strikers, demanding direct climate action. The letter can be read on its entirety here.
The Second Global Strike of May 24th and the future of the movement
A second wave of global climate strikes took place on 24 May 2019. Hundreds of thousands of students took to the streets in 4,000 events across 150 countries in what was the second day of the four-day European Parliament election, in order to affect it. The exact total number of participants is currently undetermined, but in countries like Germany participation increased from the March 15th strike (from 300,000 to 320,000, in the German case). Indeed, organizers had said that they were expecting to surpass the 1.4 billion mark from the first global strike. However, in most countries the participation is considered to have been significantly lower.
Nonetheless, the effects from that particular action (and the movement in general) could be felt in the results of the European elections. Polls around Europe showed that climate change was an important issue for voters, and in Germany it was the most important issue. On three main European cities (Brussels, Berlin and Dublin) the green parties won the highest number of votes in an unprecedented surge. And, in general all around Europe, green parties won more seats than ever before. Just a couple of years ago, polling suggested the Greens were likely to lose around half their seats; instead they grew by nearly a half.
Now a new Global Strike has been called for September 20th 2019, which is to expand beyond schoolchildren and is to be followed by a week of global action.
“We’re asking adults to step up alongside us. Let’s all join together, with your neighbours, co-workers, friends, family and go out on to the streets to make your voices heard and make this a turning point in our history. We must act. This won’t be the last day we need to take to the streets, but it will be a new beginning. We’re counting on you.”– Greta Thunberg and 46 youth activists.
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- Climate strike: Why are students striking and will it have an impact? – 15th February 2019, Matt McGrath (UK), BBC.
- Massive marches in Spain display the strength of the feminist movement – 9th March 2019, Jaime Villanueva (Madrid), El Pais.
- Theresa May criticises pupils missing school to protest over climate change – 15th February 2019, Alan McGuinness (UK), Sky News.
- Germany’s Angela Merkel backs student ‘Friday for Future’ climate protests – 2nd March 2019, DW (Germany).
- Pedro Sánchez destaca la “solidaridad intergeneracional” ante la huelga estudiantil contra el cambio climático de mañana – 14th March 2019, Oscar Barroso (Madrid), EuropaPress.
- A quiet revolution sweeps Europe as Greens become a political force – 2nd June 2019, Emma Graham-Harrison (UK), The Guardian.
- Young people have led the climate strikes. Now we need adults to join us too – 23rd May, 2019, Greta Thunberg et al, The Guardian (UK).
Written by: Eloi Bigas (www.linkedin.com/in/eloibigas/)
Big thanks to Bénédicte G. from Women’s March Paris for her insight on the different social movements in France and the differences with their counterparts in Spain. And to Albert Luna and Carolina Temprano for the pictures!