For school strikers, this general election is all about the climate

Young people have been calling for action on the environment all year. With the UK voting this week, they urge politicians – and the electorate – to listen to them.

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Protest has been a feature of 2019, and one of the most enduring symbols has been the youth climate striker. Over the past year, young people across the world have skipped school to urge the adults in the room to act on the climate crisis. The UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN) says it has coordinated eight strikes throughout 2019. In the fourth global strike, which took place last month, demonstrators took to the streets in 100 UK towns and cities, as world leaders were set to arrive in Madrid for the COP25 UN climate change summit.

“Striking is not a choice we relish; we do it because we see no other options,” wrote climate activists Luisa Neubauer, Angela Valenzuela, and Greta Thunberg, the globally famous Swedish striker who needs little introduction. Thunberg kicked off a global movement in August 2018 with her maiden one-girl "Fridays for Future" strike outside the Swedish parliament. “The science is crying out for urgent action, and still our leaders dare to ignore it. So we continue to fight,” they wrote for Project Syndicate announcing the 29th November strike. 

Polling indicates that the climate is on people’s minds. An eight-country survey published a day before a global climate strike in September found that at least three-quarters of people believe the world is facing a “climate emergency.”  With an election looming in the UK, polls indicate that climate change is one of the top priorities for voters. The hundreds of thousands of young people who skipped school to protest over the past year kept the issue in the headlines, which contributed to that shift.  In November, Collins Dictionary declared the term “climate strike” its word of the year. The term was defined as “a form of protest in which people absent themselves from education or work in order to join demonstrations demanding action to counter climate change.”

Eighteen-year-old Noga Levy-Rapoport has been involved since the first UK-wide strike in February, where she ended up leading protesters on the march in London. One of the youngest people on the 2019 Evening Standard Progress 1,000 list, the Londoner says her leadership in the movement “definitely feels like an accident. It’s such a surprise because, as young people, you are never told that it's possible for you to take action in the way that we are.”

The momentum has come from a combination of politics and climate science, as well as the sheer numbers that have taken to the streets over the past year, says Levy-Rapoport, a member of the UKSCN. In October 2018, a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report warned that the world has only 12 years left to limit global warming to 1.5°C. At the same time, the apparent popularity of US Democrat Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal policy enabled UK activists to campaign for something similar. Both the Green Party and Labour propose versions of a Green New Deal in their 2019 election manifestos. “I think it's a measure of hugely effective campaigning that Labour voted for our version of a Green New Deal” at its party conference in September, she says of the UKSCN’s lobbying for the policy.

Spending much of her free time organising, Levy-Rapoport says she is so committed to the cause that she has put her long-cherished dream of being an opera singer on ice. In her last year of A-Levels, she has applied to study history when she leaves school because “it means that I'll be able to continue campaigning while at university, because for me that has to be what's at the forefront of everything right now.”

Fifteen-year-old Jess Malone from Horwich, Bolton has missed two days of school because of the strikes this year. Seven months ago she became a vegetarian because she believes it is better for the planet. “I think they don't understand how intense and how big of a deal it is,” Malone says of an older generation she thinks has dropped the ball on the environment. “Sometimes people think that we are just making a deal out of nothing but it really will affect my generation particularly, and all the other ones to come, because people are already losing their homes due to climate change. And if that's not a big warning sign I don't know what is.”

This election has seen the main parties emphasise their climate crisis-fighting credentials. Channel Four dedicated one of its election debates to the issue. But while politicians wrangle over emissions reduction targets and who will invest more in green jobs, youth climate strikers think the government – and indeed whoever wins the election on 12 December – should be doing more.

“The current government is not doing nearly enough, 2050 is not soon enough,” says Scarlett Westbrook of the current UK target for cutting carbon emissions, enshrined in law in June this year. Westbrook went to her first climate strike in her home city of Birmingham in February, and joined the UKSCN later that month. In July, the day after her 15th birthday, she was a delegate at the second parliamentary roundtable organised by the network. The Conservative Party has been notably absent from those, she says, though Jeremy Corbyn, Caroline Lucas, Ian Blackford, Vince Cable and Liz Saville Roberts attended. “They listened and agreed to implement.”

Westbrook is studying for 10 GCSEs but already has an A-level in government and politics, which she completed aged 13. Were she prime minister, Westbrook would implement a Green New Deal. People say it’s expensive, she says, “but we spent £100m on a Brexit we didn’t do.” Climate change doesn’t discriminate, she argues. “Massive inequality and climate crisis” need to be seen as part of the same issue. Perhaps more importantly, she says, politicians need to start listening to young people.

For Levy-Rapoport and her fellow protesters, it is clear that the key issue of the 2019 election is not “Leave or Remain”, but saving or not saving the planet. “The fear and tense fury felt by protestors at the government's utter failure to act on the climate crisis and its servility to the corporate elite will not be left behind at the ballot box next week,” Levy-Rapoport said via email after the global strike at the end of November. “Voters are scrutinising manifestos and we are ready to vote for a sustainable and equitable future in what needs to be a climate, rather than a Brexit, election.”

Alona Ferber is Special Projects Editor at the New Statesman.