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UK Climate Strike
Photography Peter Yeung

Young people across the UK skipped school to protest for climate action

100,000 students want the government to declare an environmental emergency

TextPeter YeungPhotographyPeter Yeung

Thousands of students took to the streets of the UK at more than 60 events in towns and cities as part of the Youth Strike 4 Climate protests.

In one of the largest events of its kind in recent times, huge numbers of teenagers and children as young as five expressed their anger at the British government’s failure to adequately respond to threats posed by global warming.

At London’s Parliament Square, where the main protest was held, there was a carnival atmosphere, with dancing, bubble-blowing and the waving of witty, sustainable placards under the warm winter sun. Some brought textbooks and wore their school uniform, a nod to the fact that they had skipped school to attend.

Parts of central London were gridlocked for hours as protestors sat in the middle of the road shouting “Turn your engines off!” at an ever-growing queue of cars, buses and lorries. A helicopter was soon dispatched to monitor the crowds from above.

Groups chanted energetically “This is what democracy looks like”, “CO2, no thank you” and “Don’t be a knob turn off the hob”. One protestor went with the more nihilistic and simple ditty: “We’re all gonna die”. Meanwhile, signs made some pertinent points: “Why the actual fuck are we studying for a future we won’t even have!” read one.

Strikers had a number of key demands, including to reduce the voting age to 16, that the UK government should declare a climate emergency in the UK, and to make it mandatory for the severity of global warming to be taught on school curriculums. Organisers said that 3,000 had gathered in London, 2,000 in Oxford, 1,000 in Leeds and Exeter and 600 in Brighton. Others were held in Belfast, Cardiff and the Scottish Highlands.

Jake Woodier of UK Youth Climate Coalition, one of the protest’s main organisers, told Dazed: “The number of students that have taken action around the country today demonstrates how passionate young people are about climate change. This was never an excuse to just skip school, but was always about fighting for our very future.”

Scarlet, one of the organisers the UK Student Climate Network, said: “It was fantastic today and really good to see so many young people come out – it was a lot more than we expected. There’s no way that we can make this much noise without the government listening to us. We won’t stop until they do.”

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, tweeted his support: “Climate change is the greatest threat that we all face, but it is the school kids of today whose futures are most on the line. They are right to feel let down by the generation before them, and it’s inspiring to see them making their voice heard today.”

“There’s no way that we can make this much noise without the government listening to us. We won’t stop until they do” – Scarlet, UK Student Climate Network

This was not exactly akin to the violent student riots in Paris 1968, or the UK’s anti-tuition fee protests of 2011 – but this movement is led by a younger, and highly organised group. A coalition including YouthStrike4Climate, the UK Student Climate Network and the UK Youth Climate Coalition, worked together by providing legal advice on truancy for protestors, premade WhatsApp messages to spread the word, and media advice to amplify the message.

It is the latest iteration of a global movement that has swept across Europe in recent months, and one that was initially inspired by the 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who protests every Friday outside Sweden’s parliament. She has since spoken to world leaders at the COP24 United Nations climate change summit and the World Economic Forum. As many as 100,000 school children are taking part in hundreds of towns and cities worldwide each week.

A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that even if emissions are halved with 12 years, the temperature will still rise by 1.5°C – even then, putting the planet at great risk. Greenland’s ice is also reportedly melting four times faster than previously thought.

Many protestors squared the blame at older generations for what was selfish, short-sighted behaviour. “If no one else is going to, we have to do it,” said Kemy, 16, a student from Woodhouse College in north London. “We’ve been neglected and ignored by older people – they’re not doing anything about climate change. The Paris climate agreement is not working.”

Her classmate Mary, also 16, agreed. “We have to take it upon ourselves to make a difference,” she added. “If they’re not going to listen to us then we’re not going to give them a choice.”

Fears over the future of the planet were clear. “I’m here because you read all the time that another animal has become extinct, another amount of rainforest the size of the UK has been cut down,” said Taiko Bennett, 17, who came up from Southampton. “We’re beyond the point of tired of hearing it. Everyone here is no longer tired and apathetic – we’re angry.”

“Our parents will die of old age, our children will die of climate change. We need to do this for future generations,” said Dorothy Brock, a 15-year-old student from Camden.

“We want them to recognise the state of emergency,” added Ruby, 16, also from Camden. “They’re not treating it as a priority, but it’s the single most important thing.”

Others had very relatable concerns. Owen, a six-year-old from south east London, who was accompanied by his mother, said: “I want a pet dog, but if this keeps on going there won’t be any dogs left and then how will I have a pet?”

A second protest will be held in the UK on March 15, to coincide with a wider day of global events.