Economics Scotland's Energy Resources

Pupil’s climate change strikes offer a beacon of hope for politics and sustainability

Written by Claire Elliott

On Friday 15th February, thousands of Scottish school students took part in an international movement of school strikes demanding action from elected leaders to legislate against global warming. School students going on strike has proved controversial but it has started to gain mainstream acceptance ahead of further strikes planned for March 15th. Edinburgh City Council has agreed that pupils absent in support of future global climate strike days will not be penalised as long as they have the permission of parents or carers.  

Inviting parallels with the American gun control school strikes these children and young adults are a beacon of hope in the context of the adversarial politics surrounding Brexit. They remind the establishment to think seriously about the environment. Ultimately, the Brexit withdrawal agreement and subsequent trade deals negotiated will matter little if politicians do not simultaneously take serious action against climate change. 

Scottish schoolchildren have been at the forefront of UK school strikes, with those in rural Scotland among the most active. One group from Ullapool have been striking for an hour every Friday for ten weeks. Around 60 planned protests went ahead in the UK, organised by Youth Strike 4 Climate Change, with strikes in Edinburgh, Forres, Fort William, Glasgow and Ullapool.

The protests have been inspired by Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old student from Sweden.  Greta began striking last September yet she became well-known after her speech to the World Economic Forum where she told a conference full of millionaire business leaders that their financial success had “come with an unthinkable price tag” for the planet.

From here, these protests have spread across the world. Around 75,000 students across 270 towns and cities have taken place so far. In a time where the politics of Europe are increasingly nationalistic and isolationist, young people are building a global, international movement.

These strikes have blossomed alongside a new environmental justice movement, formed in response to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which warned that the world only has 12 years to make drastic changes to the global economy in order to prevent an ecological disaster.

The school strikes have received significant criticism from a range of establishment figures, attacking the integrity of a 16-year old girl, elected officials trying to discredit participants as truants and the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, accusing the students of time wasting and disruption.

Yet, these school strikes reveal a fundamental failure of adults to act, to protect these children who are deemed too young to speak for themselves. They show that our political system has failed to rise to the real challenges of global warming and instead has focused years of attention on political chaos over Brexit. Nothing highlights this more than the shockingly low turnout to Westminister’s first debate on climate change for over two years: only 40 MPs turned up.

Despite being those who will be most affected by a climate crisis, young people have no voice in our democratic system. This highlights the myopic nature of our current political system at Westminster, which favours the short term at the expense of sustainable, long term goals and sustainable growth.

However, as the UN IPCC report shows, global warming is not just a problem for the future. It is a problem now. We need to change our political system so that it gives real power to those whose life chances will be most damaged by climate change and who can offer a fresh perspective, uncorrupted by our flawed political system.

The first step is allowing young people to vote in all elections. Scotland leads the way in this regard, with record numbers of 16 and 17-year-olds voting in Scottish Parliamentary and local elections. The next step is investing in the renewables sector, encouraging sustainable economic growth through a green new deal and continuing to exert pressure on the establishment. It is essential that our politicians understand the interconnectivity of the environment and the economy. Investment in the environment creates sustainable jobs in high-tech industries whilst drawing on our natural resources. Around 21,000 jobs are supported by the renewables sector in Scotland.

Holly Gillibrand, a 13-year-old student from Fort William has a positive vision of the long-term effects of these strikes: “I think that as long as the strikes get bigger and keep going, our leaders will have to take notice. We are their future voters and they cannot continue to ignore something that is causing thousands of students all over the world to miss school.”

Extinction Rebellion (XR) marchers

Holly believes that these school strikes will lead to other types of activism: “I am not only striking, I am also getting involved with Extinction Rebellion…doing some campaigning for OneKind and I am a young ambassador for Scotland: The Big Picture.” Groups like XR host daily events, such as lunchtime protests at Glasgow City Chambers, and exist in smaller towns as well as the cities.

The next global day of action will take place on Friday, 15th March, involving 50 nations. Many students have faced disciplinary action from schools or unauthorised absences as a result of taking part. This time, the City of Edinburgh Council is leading the way in backing climate strikers. The council’s education committee backed a Green councillor proposal, which says that young people taking part in the day of action on 15 March will be accepted as absent as long as parents or carers have given them permission to take part. This has been hailed for upholding the Curriculum for Excellence objective of responsible citizenship and many hope other councils will follow.

These strikes have been inspiring, their participants are more eloquent than many highly educated older adults. Students are learning about the destruction of the planet and feel they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by calling for a better future. The old guard of political leaders who are attempting to discredit them should watch, listen and learn and legislate to tackle climate change. Young people have put the political old guard on the danger of extinction list.

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About the author

Claire Elliott

Claire is a political science graduate of the Central European University with a particular interest in EU politics and environmental issues. She is an economics and policy research executive with Business for Scotland.

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