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15 March 2019

“I could end up living on a hellish planet“: the kids striking for action on climate change

Today, in 1,659 towns and cities across more than 100 countries on every continent except Antarctica, children are protesting.

By Indra Warnes

On Wednesday, Scarlett celebrated her 12th birthday. It was, by her own accord, a happy time. Underpinning the day, however, were her worries for the next 12 years. Not just the typical fearing for the future experienced by every adolescent throughout history; Scarlett is fearing for her life, and for the lives of her entire generation.

“The adults have failed us,” she says, “our world leaders, our politicians, our parents have totally failed to take the required action on the climate crisis. The ones you expect to do something have failed. They have failed to secure my safe future.”

With this, it is hard to argue. Late last year the United Nations warned that failing to act on climate change will mean the Earth reaches temperatures of 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, by 2030. This, experts say, will result in extreme floods, wildfires, loss of coral reefs and food shortages.

We have just 12 years left to stop this. If that scares me, I can’t even comprehend how it must sound to a 12-year-old. Imagine being told that, thanks to the actions of people much older, richer, more powerful, and supposedly smarter than you, we have only the short length of time that you have been on the planet left to save it. 

This is why today, in 1,659 towns and cities across more than 100 countries on every continent except Antarctica, children like Scarlett are striking.

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Last August, Greta Thunberg, then 15, started a solo protest outside the Swedish parliament, asking why she should bother going to school: “Facts don’t matter anymore,” she told the Guardian at the time, “politicians aren’t listening to the scientists, so why should I learn?”

The politicians may not be listening, but the kids sure as hell are. The movement started by Thunberg – yesterday it was announced she is nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize – has snowballed from one teenager skipping school to hand out leaflets reading “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future”, to 70,000 children protesting each Friday on streets across the globe.

Scarlett, too, urges people to think of her future, which she says will “fall apart without urgent actions”. In a letter to the New Statesman, she wrote“My quality of life won’t be as good as yours, or your parents’ before you.”

Many of those striking around the world are already being directly affected by climate change, or have family or friends who are. Sixteen-year-old Mya-Rose Craig says that for her, it is not a dystopian future, but a harsh reality.

“My maternal family is Bangladeshi and live in a country already facing some of the worst effects of climate breakdown,” she explains, “I hear constant news about the 3.5 million climate change refugees that have already fled to the capital, Dhaka, and the increasing numbers of typhoons destroying coastal communities and their livelihoods.”

The village where Mya-Rose’s grandfather lives has had storms that have caused flooding and wiped out rice crops, their food supply for the next five months. She says “as a family we able to help to support them, but most families are not so lucky. Countries like Bangladesh are starting to demand that the West take responsibility and take climate breakdown refugees. By 2060 it is predicted there will be up to one billion of them worldwide.”

Both Scarlett and Mya-Rose agree that schools should not be condemning the strikes, but educating more young people on the realities of climate change.

“I don’t even get taught about the danger of the climate crisis at school,” says Scarlett, who says she learns about it only from her dad. “We need climate collapse and our potential extinction to be at the heart of every lesson and every action the school makes. At the moment it’s almost nowhere, and I’m learning more at the school strikes than I am from my lessons and teachers.”

At Mya-Rose’s school however, the teachers are at least be supportive of the movement. When she asked her head of sixth form about the consequences of striking, she says he replied “‘I can’t endorse it’ with a smile, suggesting that anyone striking would not be punished”. Elsewhere she has heard of teachers helping students to make banners, and even offering lifts into nearby Bristol to attend the protest.

But while those working with future generations may listen to their concerns for the future, those in power are all too often failing. Today, the average life expectancy in the United States is 78 years old. President Donald Trump is 72. And yet two years ago, Trump, statistically unlikely to ever be affected by climate change, withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement, an international accord attempting to tackle it.  

“People born today might not make it past 40 or 50,” Scarlett points out, “I’m incredibly concerned that I may not be able to live to the end of my natural life – this worries me daily. My quality of life will only get worse; I could end up living on a hellish planet.”

The world is today seeing an incredible demonstration of kids across the globe standing up for their future. To me, these school strikes are awe inspiring. But to the children participating in them, they’re more than that: they could be the difference between life and death.