10 Mar 2019, 15:22

Students demand climate action with “Fridays for Future” school strikes

Students around the world are walking out of school on Fridays to demand faster action on climate change. The protests were inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who began skipping school last August. In Germany, thousands of students have walked out of class in cities from Hamburg to Munich. Organisers are calling for a global strike on March 15, and German activists say their protests will focus on transforming the country's transportation sector. [UPDATE: Scientists support students' strikes]

What are the school strikes?

Students across Europe and around the world are walking out of school on Fridays to demand greater action on climate change. The protesters argue that governments everywhere are failing to adopt policies ambitious enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change. They say today’s policymakers will be gone by the time the most serious climate impacts emerge, while their generation will have to deal with the consequences. 

In Germany, thousands of students have taken part in protests since at least December, with some of the biggest demonstrations on January 18, when organisers estimated some 30,000 students took part in more than 50 cities. Many of the protests have been organised under the name “Fridays for Future”.

What do the students want?

"I'm striking for climate, I'm striking for my future," Jakob Blasel, an 18-year-old student in Kiel and one of the organisers in Germany, told Clean Energy Wire. Blasel said he's demanding climate action from "every single person in power." 

"I'm really mad at how politicians are threatening my future" by not acting on the climate crisis, Blasel said.

The protests have prompted widespread media attention, especially on the students’ argument that older generations are failing them.

Youth researcher Mathias Albert of the University of Bielefeld told the magazine Spiegel that in Germany, “For the first time in quite some time, we are seeing something like youth protests. And for the first time we see a protest about a generational conflict."

The protesters are demanding that governments commit to rapidly decarbonizing the world economy in time to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.

Many point to last year’s IPCC report, which concluded that allowing temperatures to rise beyond 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels would be courting catastrophe. To meet that goal, the IPCC said world emissions would have to be cut by 45 percent in little more than a decade, requiring “unprecedented” transformations in nearly every aspect of the economy.

The students argue that governments are not on track to meet their commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aimed to keep warming below 2°C, let alone the more ambitious 1.5 °C  threshold. Germany has admitted that it will likely miss its 2020 climate targets by a wide margin. 

In Germany, protesters are also demanding a rapid exit from coal. On January 25, thousands of students from across Germany gathered in Berlin to protest outside the final meeting of the country’s coal commission, demanding a rapid coal exit.

Student organiser Blasel says the commission's goal of phasing out coal by 2038 is too late. "The commission just threw away our future," he told CLEW. "We won't accept that result."

How did it start?

The school strikes were inspired by a 16-year-old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg. Thunberg began skipping school last August to protest in front of the Swedish parliament - at first every day, and then only on Fridays. 

In December, Thunberg delivered a scathing speech at the COP24 UN Climate Conference in Katowice, Poland, which gained worldwide attention. She argued that delegates were leaving her generation an unfair burden.

“You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes,” Thunberg told the delegates. 

Thunberg followed that up more recently with speeches to the World Economic Forum in Davos and the European Commission in Brussels.

She has also criticized Germany’s coal exit plan, calling it “absurd”, and saying a phase-out by 2038 is too slow.

Thunberg’s school strike inspired students around the world, with word spreading on social media under the hashtag #FridaysForFuture. In November, thousands of students participated in a walk-out in AustraliaIn December, students in many places walked out on the last scheduled day of the UN climate conference to encourage the delegates to set ambitious targets. In Germany, Der Spiegel reported protests that day in Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg, Munich, Aachen, Karlsruhe and Osnabrück.  

The strikes spread throughout January and February. 

On March 1, Thunberg visited Germany for the first time, joining thousands of protesters in Hamburg.

Where have school strikes taken place?

Strikes have taken place around the world. Students have walked out in countries across Europe — including the UK, Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland — and in the US, Canada, Australia and Japan, among others.

On January 18, protests were held in more than 50 cities in Germany. On February 15, activists organised a nationwide strike in the UK. The following week, hundreds of students joined Thunberg to march in Paris.

What’s been the reaction in Germany?

The strikes have prompted a fierce debate in Germany over whether students should be punished for missing school. School attendance in Germany is compulsory.

In early March, Chancellor Angela Merkel said she "strongly welcomes" the protests, adding that the government needs public support to pursue strong climate policies. Her comments angered some in her own party, the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU).  Alexander Mitsch of the party's conservative wing called it "irresponsible" to encourage students to skip school. 

Surveys have found the German public divided over the protests. 

A survey from WDR released in late February found respondents evenly split (49% to 49%), over whether it was acceptable for students to skip classes for the climate demonstrations. The responses varied widely by party, with strong majorities of Left, Green and Social Democratic voters supporting the protests, while majorities of the far-right AfD and business-friendly FDP opposed them. The strongest opposition (66% opposing) came from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU).

An online survey by the magazine Spiegel found less opposition: a slight majority of respondents (51%) said they supported the protests, while 42 percent said they were against. Spiegel reported that younger respondents were far more likely to be in favor: 64% of those under 30 supported the protests. Spiegel also found more support in West Germany (54% support) than in the states of the former East (41% support).

Officials across the political spectrum have also weighed in. Most stressed that they support young peoples’ engagement in the political process, but they differed on whether students should be allowed to skip school. 

Katja Kipping, chairwoman of Left Party, told the tabloid Bild on Sunday that she supported the protests, saying “That is not truancy, it's lived democracy.”

In late January, the newspaper Die Welt pulled together a round up of reactions from lawmakers in the different political parties.

Albert Rupprecht, the education policy spokesman for the conservative CDU/CSU bloc in parliament, told the newspaper that while he welcomed young people’s involvement in politics, it is “completely unacceptable” for students to miss school.

Katja Dörner, Vice-Chairwoman of the Green parliamentary group told Die Welt, "I think this commitment is great and I hope that the schools will be lenient.”

Students say the school strikes are necessary. “Of course, many kids in the world would be glad if they had our school and if they were allowed to learn as we do,” Felix Quartier, a 16-year-old student in Freiburg and one of the Fridays for Future organisers, told CLEW.  “But we have no time left and we have to protest now.”

"There have been so many protests on weekends, so many protests on Saturdays. We have to do something different,” Quartier said.

More than 700 scientists from German-speaking countries signed a petition that explicitly backs students’ strikes demanding rapid climate action by the government. The pending petition under the title Scientists for Future will be published on 12 March.

Is it having an impact?

The protests come as Germany’s political class is already preoccupied with the issue of climate change. Lawmakers face several major decisions this year, and the governing coalition is struggling to articulate a way forward.

The government must decide how to implement the recommendations of its coal commission, which proposed that Germany end the use of coal by 2038. 

Meanwhile, the governing coalition is supposed to introduce its signature climate policy, the Climate Action Law. But Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc (CDU/CSU) is at odds with its governing partners, the Social Democrats.

What impact will it have? In an interview with klimafakten.de*, sociologist and protest researcher Dieter Rucht of the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) said so far the protests have succeeded in raising the issue of climate change; but sustaining a longterm movement with an impact on national policy, he says, will be harder.

What happens next?

Organisers have called for a global strike on March 15.

In Germany, activists are hoping for protests in 200 cities, and  say they will focus their protest on the country’s transportation sector, which has not managed to cut overall emissions.

Asked how long the protests might go on, Quartier said, "I would strike forever."

*Like Clean Energy Wire, klimafakten.de is a project funded by Stiftung Mercator and the European Climate Foundation. 

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