Students around the world skip class to demand action on climate

Jewel Samad / AFP | Students display placards during a demonstration to protest against climate change in Bangkok on March 15, 2019.

Tens of thousands of students across the world skipped school on Friday to take to the streets in protest at their governments' failure to take sufficient action against global warming.


The coordinated "school strikes", held from the South Pacific to the edge of the Arctic Circle, were inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who began holding solitary demonstrations outside the Swedish parliament last year.

Since then, the weekly protests have snowballed from a handful of cities to hundreds, driven by social media-savvy students and dramatic headlines about the impact of climate change.

Thunberg, who was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, was cheered for her blunt message to leaders at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland this year, when she told them: "I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day."

Protests were staged in cities in more than 100 countries, including Hong Kong; New Delhi; Wellington, New Zealand; and Oulo, Finland.

A website used to coordinate the rallies listed events in over 2,000 cities.

Biggest turnout yet

In France, organisers said some 40,000 people attended the main event in central Paris, while police put the number at just under 30,000.

"This is by far the biggest turnout we've seen in France for these youth climate protests," said FRANCE 24's environment editor Mairead Dundas, reporting from the Pantheon square in central Paris.

They included 15-year-old student Darah McQuaid, who stressed the importance of collective action for youths who are not yet able take part in elections.

"As a group we can act more powerfully than with any vote," he told FRANCE 24. "My parents are very supportive of this strike; they say it is important that we do everyhting we can to save our planet."

"As Greta Thunberg pointed out, there's no point in learning [about global warming] in class if then we don't do anything," added 16-year-old Jacques. "Climate change is a global problem, but as a privileged country France has a duty to act."

In Berlin some 10,000 protesters, most of them young students, gathered in a downtown square, waving signs with slogans such as "There is no planet B" and "Climate Protection Report Card: F" before a march through the capital's government quarter.

Organiser Carla Reemtsma, a 20-year-old university student, said social media had been key in reaching people directly to coordinate the massive protests in so many different locations, noting that that she was in 50 WhatsApp groups and fielding some 30,000 messages a day.

"It's really important that people are getting together all over the world, because it's affecting us all," she said.

Scientists back 'brave' youths

Some politicians have criticised the students, suggesting they should be spending their time in school, not on the streets.

"One can't expect children and young people to see all of the global connections, what's technically reasonable and economically possible," said the head of Germany's pro-business Free Democratic Party, Christian Lindner. "That's a matter for professionals."

But scientists have backed the protests, with thousands signing petitions in support of the students in Britain, Finland and Germany.

"We are the professionals and we're saying the young generation is right," said Volker Quaschning, a professor of engineering at Berlin's University of Applied Sciences.

"We should be incredibly grateful and appreciative of their bravery," said Quaschning, one of more than 23,000 German-speaking scientists to sign a letter of support this week. "Because in a sense, it's incredibly brave not to go to school for once."

'Young people are asking political leaders to do what they promised,' says Paris climate agreement architect Laurence Tubiana.

Scientists have warned for decades that current levels of greenhouse gas emissions are unsustainable, so far with little effect. In 2015, world leaders agreed in Paris to a goal of keeping the Earth's global temperature rise by the end of the century well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

Yet at present, the world is on track for an increase of 4 degrees Celsius, which experts say would have far-reaching consequences for life on the planet.

"As a doctor, I can say it makes a big difference whether you've got a fever of 41 degrees Celsius (105.8 Fahrenheit) or 43 C (109.4 F)," said Eckart von Hirschhausen, a German scientist who signed the call supporting striking students. "One of those is compatible with life, the other isn't."

French lawsuit

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have publicly welcomed the student protests, even as their policies have been criticised as too limited by environmental activists.

In France, activist groups launched legal action this week for failing to do enough to fight climate change, citing a similar successful effort in the Netherlands.

>> Read more: French state faces landmark lawsuit over climate inaction

In Germany, environmental groups and experts have attacked government plans to continue using coal and natural gas for decades to come. Activists say that countries like Germany should fully "decarbonise" by 2040, giving less-advanced nations a bit more time to wean themselves off fossil fuels while still meeting the Paris goal globally.

Other changes needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions include ramping up renewable energy production, reining in the over-consumption culture now spreading beyond the industrialszed West, and changing diets, experts say.

"The fight against climate change is going to be uncomfortable, in parts, and we need to have a society-wide discussion about this," said Quaschning.

That conversation is likely to get louder, with several US presidential hopefuls planning to campaign on climate change.

Laurence Tubiana, a former French ambassador for climate change and architect of the Paris climate agreement, said politicians should take note of the young.

"We really lack political momentum and leadership at the moment," Tubiana told FRANCE 24 at the Paris rally. "And these young people are asking the leaders and decision-makers to be accountable and to do what they promised."

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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