GRETA THUNBERG is an unlikely figurehead. In August the then 15-year-old high-school student walked out of her classroom and took up position outside Sweden’s parliament with a hand-painted sign that read “skolstrejk för klimatet” (school strike for climate change). Sitting alone on the cobblestones, she provoked puzzled looks from passers-by. Seven months later Ms Thunberg finds herself at the helm of a global movement. On March 15th tens of thousands of school children around the world are expected to join Ms Thunberg by leaving their classrooms in order to protest against climate change. Organisers say that children are planning strikes in some 1,700 towns and cities in 106 countries, from Canada, to Tanzania to Australia. It could be one of the biggest climate protests ever. So what are the school climate strikes?
Ms Thunberg decided to act following last summer’s record European heatwaves, which led to wildfires across Sweden. Politicians are her main target. Frustrated by their inaction over climate change, she has skipped school every Friday since August and plans to keep going on strike until Swedish government policies are in-line with the Paris climate targets, which aim to keep the global rise in temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Her protest snowballed into a global movement. In February thousands of British pupils held a nationwide walk-out; young green activists have become a regular sight in city centres across Germany. Ms Thunberg’s activism has been applauded at the UN and she was invited to Davos in January, where she blasted bigwigs for not facing up to the realities of climate change. On March 14th she was nominated for the Nobel peace prize.
Tomorrow’s school strike is the first globally co-ordinated walk-out. The demands of the strikers differ from country to country. In Australia students are calling for Adani, an Indian energy company, to stop digging a huge new coal mine in Queensland and for a full transition to renewable energy by 2030. The demands of British students include lowering the voting age to 16, whereas American school children are striking in support, among others things, of the Green New Deal, an environmental programme espoused most vociferously by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a new member of Congress. Broadly, though, the goals of the strikes are the same: to persuade politicians to stop dragging their feet over climate change and to make efforts to prevent irreversible temperature rises.
The strikes signal a shift in green activism, with those who will be particularly affected by climate change taking the lead. The protests take place amid a lawsuit that has been filed by a group of American children against the federal government, arguing that it was violating their constitutional right to life, liberty and property by allowing activities that contribute to climate change. Although some politicians have criticised the school strikes as disruptive, others, including Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, back them. This could be because children’s fears for the future carry a certain moral weight; last month Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic senator, was roundly criticised after a video of her lecturing a group of young climate activists went viral. For many, Greta Thunberg has become a beacon of hope. But as she told the Davos crowd in January, that was never her plan. “I don’t want you to be hopeful,” she said. “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”