For the past several months, growing numbers of students around the world have been cutting class — not to play but to protest.
The topic driving them is the same: Earth’s changing climate, as evidenced by increasing wildfires and droughts, rising seas and more extreme weather. As the students see it, governments have not done enough to cut the emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, to limit global warming or to plan ways to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
On March 15, this student-led protest will crescendo with a coordinated strike set to take place across the globe. More than 1,300 events are planned in 98 countries from Argentina to Vanuatu, according to a list kept by the group Fridays For Future.
“These kids speak with a moral clarity and poignancy that none but the most jaded of ears can fail to hear,” says Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State. He says he believes the school-strike movement “is part of why we will soon see a tipping point on climate action here in the U.S. and around the rest of the world.”
What motivates Milou Albrecht, 14, of Castlemaine, Australia, who is a coleader of strikes in her country, is worry about wildfires. When she was little, a fire quickly approached the bush country where she was playing at a friend’s house. Smoke filled the air, she recalls, and everyone had to evacuate. “You didn’t know what to take, so we didn’t take anything.”
If emissions continue at the current rate, the increase in average global temperatures will hit 1.5 degrees C sometime between 2030 and 2052, the IPCC says. Beyond that point, impacts will be even more severe.
And the longer people wait to cut back releases of greenhouse gases, the more difficult it may be. For instance, the longer U.S. auto and energy companies wait, the higher the costs for any action would be, according to an October 2017 study in Environmental Science & Technology.
Such data, many students now argue, means the time to act is now.
A worldwide movement
Many young protesters have drawn inspiration from Greta Thunberg, a 16-year old Swedish teen with Asperger’s syndrome. Although this mild form of autism can leave people uncomfortable in social situations, Greta began regularly protesting outside Sweden’s Parliament during the summer of 2018. Her protests inspired the Fridays for Future movement.
Greta also has encouraged kids to strike in other countries and spoke to delegates at the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNCCC), held in December in Katowice, Poland.
“You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes,” Greta testified. There is still time to limit the worst impacts, she noted — but only if governments act now. “Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible,” she said, “there is no hope.”
Greta’s message has spread like wildfire. Twelve-year-old Haven Coleman from Denver, a coleader of the U.S. school strikes, was inspired to act by changes she’s seen in her part of the world. “We’re affected by floods and fires, and we’ve been in a 19-year drought,” she says. Climate change will make such events more common and worsen air pollution, especially from wildfires. And that makes it even more personal for Haven: She has asthma, so breathing dirty air already causes her problems.
Dealing with dread
Many young people can hardly remember a time when Earth’s changing climate did not threaten them, says Lilah Williamson. And going forward, “we’re not going to know a time without [its] impending doom,” says this 14-year old from Burnaby, Canada. The region where she lives has suffered from storms that have been dumping heavier rains than in the past. There also have been more droughts and wildfires. “I just can’t imagine what it’s going to be like in the future,” she says.
Such students can feel burdened by a type of dread, points out Susie Burke, a psychologist in Castlemaine, Australia, and Milou’s mom. Imagining how climate change will affect them leaves many kids anxious, as well as empathetic toward others suffering from these severe events, she and her colleagues reported May 2018 in Current Psychiatry Reports in a study about the psychological impacts of climate change.
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