Since 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg started her school strike for climate outside the Swedish parliament in August of 2018, young students across all continents have joined her to demand action to safeguard the planet.
On 15 March over 1.6 million students from over 300 cities all over the world took to the streets on the first ever global climate strike. Students called on world leaders to act now to address the climate crisis and save their future.
The Social Change Agency spoke to 15-year-old climate striker Rebekah from London about the climate movement, inter-generational fairness, power structures and more. You can listen to the full podcast below.
Can you tell us a bit about why you decided to join it, and what you’ve done so far?
Well, about in mid-February I was scrolling through Instagram, and I saw that one of my friends had posted that there was going to be a strike in London. My school didn’t authorize students to go, but some of us decided it was something that we had to do and went anyway. I participated in the one in February for the first time, and then I went to the one in March.
So, tell me about your interest in climate change. Is this the first time that you’ve come across it as a cause, or is this something that really speaks to you that you’ve been thinking about and talking about before?
I’m quite involved at my school with the feminist society. I’m also involved with the Labour Party, and so it’s always been something in the back of my mind. But seeing Greta striking, and that getting so global, I think it really brought everyone’s attention to it. And it got me researching more about the issue and seeing how we are headed for global devastation if we don’t act really quickly.
You mentioned two other movements, the feminist movement and labour movement. How is this movement different for you?
I think because it’s so youth-led and global. The feminist movement and the labour movement have existed for hundreds of years before me, but it feels with the climate strike it’s something that I’ve seen grow from the beginning. And I think that that is really important and interesting. And it’s like we are all, as a generation, learning and growing together.
Do you think your path is ever going to cross with other young strikers from other countries? And if it did, what do you think the reaction would be?
I think it would be amazing. I know that a UK group of strikers went a couple of weeks ago to Belgium. They met up with Greta and other strikers from Germany and Belgium. I think that the social media aspect of it is really important, because it allows people of my generation to connect in a way that we haven’t really been able to connect in other social movements. And also for it to spread so globally so quickly.
It’s an incredibly organic movement. We know there’s a few networks in there. How do you classify yourself, what do you call it first of all?
It’s sort of a mismatch of everything, and I think that what’s so fun about it is that you haven’t necessarily got a specific label. Everyone has different names for it, it’s very fluid, it’s very much what you want it to be. And you can get out of it what you want to get out of it.
And what do you want to get out of it?
I want to see real change in our parliament, and see adults taking it seriously. We have specific demands and we want you to meet them. One of them is the right to vote for 16-year-olds, which I think is so important for youth engagement. Another one is declaring a national emergency around climate change. Finally, more climate education in schools, because a lot of the time people are not educated about it. And I think if everyone in the world was educated about it, there’d be global panic going on right now, and that’s what we need.
Do you think you’re putting pressure on one particular person? Or just as a general shout out to the universe to get their act together?
So I think it’s partially a general shout out to the universe and bringing the general public’s attention to it. But I think the main focus is on politicians and on parliament, at least in the UK, to take action and to start putting more regulations on things, to start investing in more green energy, and to really take it as a serious thing rather than something that makes them look good. Something that they really need to do for the health and safety of their country.
George Monbiot, the Guardian columnist said “my generation, and the generations that went before have failed you”. Do you feel that the generations that have gone before you let you down?
Yeah, I think so. It just feels like there’s just complete inaction or that the action that people are taking is more symbolic than practical. And it feels like everything is being left to my generation. What’s quite annoying is also that a lot of adults, including politicians, when you tell them that you’re striking they say “Oh well you should go to school, you should get an education. And then you should become an environmental scientist and research about it.” And there are two things that are really wrong with that. Firstly, by the time that we’re old enough to get a PhD in environmental science, it’s going to be too late and the consequences will already have happened. And secondly, we already have the research, it’s not like we don’t know how to stop climate change. It’s very clear, people have done lots and lots of research on it. It’s just the fact that people need to take it seriously, and actually take action on it. So, it feels like older generations, have sort of dismissed it. Because the major consequences are going to happen in the future. It feels like if they’re not going to be alive then, then it doesn’t matter. There’s a quote that says “You’re not given the Earth by your parents, you’re lent it by your children”. It’s not fair to just destroy it right now for short-term personal gain.
We’re talking about a split between young people and old people, wherever that divide is. Do you not think that it’s going to take both in order to solve the problem? Or do you think actually the people over 18 should just get out of the way?
I think at the moment it’s essential for short-term change, because obviously people under 18 can’t make those changes right now. Older generations are the ones who have the systematic power to change things. I mean, people under 18 can take showers instead of baths or go vegetarian, but the real issues come around big corporations and things that we have no control over right now. So I think it’s really important to have the inter-generational aspect right now, but I think in the future the youth will be leading the way.
Speaking of resistance from adults, what happens do you think for members of the movement once you hit 18?
I think you still have the same fire and passion in you. And I don’t think anyone’s going to turn around and say “You’re 18, you’re not a part of this anymore”. And as long as you want to help, then we’re not going to push anyone out. But I think at the same time this is going to be led by the youth and by young people. On some of the strikes, there are parents in solidarity with their children. And it’s not like “You can’t be here.” It’s like “You’re here, but be aware you’re in our space, and we are at the forefront of this and we’re not going to let you take over and suddenly say ‘I’m president of this society’.”
Do you have a sense of how it’s organized or how you could get involved in the decision making around it?
There are a couple of people who are at the top organizing things and overseeing things. But at the same time it’s very much an-everyone-in-it-together thing. It’s mainly being run by the UK Youth Climate Coalition, who are obviously taking a lot of the logistical decisions. But then, also I think it’s really branching out into whoever can make things happen. So it’s just one of those people reaching out to the Instagram account or the Facebook account and saying “Hey, we’re going to have a strike here. We’d love if you could put it on the page so that people can see that it’s happening.”
Have you found any resistance from your parents?
My parents were really good about it. It was actually my mom who convinced me to go. My mom was very much sort of “This is your future you’ve got to take a hold of it”. At the same time a lot of my friends had a lot of backlash from their parents. One of my friends, she went out to school in the morning with a school uniform on, and then we had a backpack of clothes for her, and she changed and came on the march. I think that in 50 years’ time you want to be on the right side of history. You want to be able to tell your grandchildren that you were there at the forefront of that fight. And you were making real change to preserve their future and make life better for everyone who’s going to come.
What would your future-self tell you now, do you think?
Keep doing what you’re doing. And don’t be afraid for short-term consequences or if you’re going to get in trouble. Because in the long-term what’s going to matter is the impact that you make on the future of society. And the more people that are willing to take up the fight, the better. It’s not a I-don’t-care-about-my-education thing. It’s a I-want-to-make-the-world-a-better-place sort of thing.