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The power of the global school strike movement: breaking the ‘us and them’ distinction around climate activism

By Adam Corner on March 14, 2019

If this was the synopsis on the back of a Young Adult novel, it might be considered a little far-fetched.

Young people participating in a climate strike in Berlin, Germany in 2019.

A 15 year old student embarks on a series of ‘strikes’ from school on her own, calling out her government’s inadequate climate policies. In the process she sparks an international wave of protests, with young people in their thousands taking to the streets – angry, upset and excluded from decision-making on a changing climate that will define their futures.

Visibly stunned by the plain-talking, radical, yet seemingly common-sense rhetoric the young protagonist brings to the stale and stately domain of global climate policy negotiations, she is invited to address the UN climate change conference and the World Economic Forum, is profiled by the world’s most prestigious media, and becomes the figurehead of a youth-led movement that is utterly different to most of the coordinated climate policy protests that have come before it.

But this is exactly what has happened over the past 6 months, as the ‘School Strike’ movement has emerged in the wake of Greta Thunberg’s individual feats of advocacy. The next chapter is a global school strike in over 100 countries taking place on Friday 15 March.

Authentic messengers

With an energy and authenticity that come from youthful conviction, but a heartbreaking seriousness that reflects the appalling legacy about to bequeathed to the youngest members of society unless things rapidly change direction, school children from Australia to Sweden, from the UK to Switzerland, have adopted a strategy refined by workers over many centuries, and often the only recourse available to them: withdrawing their ‘labour’ (in this case foregoing their own education) in order to convince those in power to listen to their demands.

Their ‘demands’ are, of course, familiar to climate justice campaigners, and include rapid and complete decarbonisation, and for governments around the world to declare a ‘climate emergency’ (and act accordingly). But the fact that the arguments originated with – and are being articulated by – school students, rather than through the machinery of multi-national campaign groups, appears to mark the school strikes as something new.

It certainly seems – from the evidence available – that the school strikes might receive a warmer reception than other, more traditional protests have done in the past, which is critical if this wave of anger and energy is to be sustained, rather than fizzling out.

The fact that these are crowds of children and young people – the least responsible for the changes to our climate, and with the most to lose – rather than crowds of ‘typical environmentalists’ is likely to work in their favour.

Our own Climate Visuals research found that images of more traditional activist crowds produced pretty negative reactions amongst members of the public in the UK, Germany and the US. To the extent that the school strikers are not the ‘usual suspects’, this is an important step forward for breaking the ‘us and them’ distinction that many people hold around climate activism.

For the parents of the children involved – and their networks – there is an important shifting of social norms at play, and an opportunity to reflect on their own role in supporting and enabling their children on an issue that is so important to them they are prepared to miss class time and risk disciplinary actions at school.

New survey research from Switzerland

In some new, not-yet-published, survey evidence from Switzerland – where as many as 65,000 young people and supportive parents/friends took part in a school strike in February – there are hints that the strikes are popular not only among those who took part in them, but also those who didn’t.

Dr. Adrian Brügger and Moritz Gubler, at the University of Bern, Switzerland, surveyed nearly 900 young people aged 14-25, presenting them with a list of possible reasons for participating (or not participating) in the school strikes. The list was based on prior discussions with young people about strikes but also included additional possible reasons mentioned in the media (e.g., using the strikes as an opportunity to miss school/play truant). About half of the 900 people surveyed had participated in a strike.

When asked which of the reasons were most important for striking, almost all of those who had taken part in a strike indicated that it was important to them to make sure that climate change was recognized as a serious crisis (96%) and to encourage politicians to do more to protect the climate (97%). Concerns about the future of the environment (95%) and human beings (93%) were also almost universally endorsed as important reasons to strike. Reasons that were unrelated to climate change such as not wanting to go to work / school and encouragements from parents / teachers were deemed as the least important reasons by most strikers.

For non-strikers, popular reasons for not taking part included fear of negative consequences (e.g., missing and failing exams; absences from school/work; 54%). About one in three indicated that their parents or teachers advising against participating had been important.

But tellingly, even those young people who did not join a school strike were not opposed to the strikes themselves, or unconcerned about climate change. Very low numbers of the non-strikers surveyed agreed with statements such as ‘I’m not sufficiently interested in climate change’ (10%), ‘it’s already too late to act against climate change’ (15%), and ‘climate change strikes don’t have a noticeable impact’ (7%). Sceptical comments about the existence or relevance of climate change were extremely rare.

These initial insights into the reasons for striking in Switzerland – and the perceptions of those who did not participate themselves – suggest a level of support for the movement that is encouraging. The survey sample was self-selecting, rather than representative, so caution should be applied in extrapolating too far to the general population of Switzerland, or anywhere else. But the level of support for the strikes among those who felt unable or unwilling to take part themselves is an indication that these climate change protests may be carving out a new, more publicly accessible path, positioning climate protesters as ‘us’ rather than ‘them’.

By Dr Adam Corner

Adam Corner is a writer and independent researcher who specialises in climate change communication and climate/culture collaborations. Adam worked with Climate Outreach between 2010-2021, helping to build the research team, developing Climate Visuals and Britain Talks Climate, and establishing the centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). Adam has published widely on public engagement with climate change, from academic journals and reports for NGOs to media commentary (including for the Guardian and New Scientist). Currently Adam’s work is split between strategic climate communication projects (like the Local Storytelling Exchange), writing and contributing to reports, and developing the climate communication evidence base into music and cultural spaces.

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