Schools’ climate strike pupils turn up the political heat

Hundreds of Yorkshire schoolchildren who walked out of lessons to join global protests over climate change on Friday are already making a political difference. Chris Burn reports.

A student protesting in Sheffield on Friday. Picture: Steve Ellis

On a usual weekday morning, nine-year-old friends Ivy Webb and Martha Rye would be in the classroom together at St Matthew’s Church of England Primary School in the Chapel Allerton area of Leeds. But last Friday, they were instead at the front of a march of hundreds of chanting and singing schoolchildren and students through Leeds city centre as part of a growing global youth movement demanding more effective political action over climate change.

Clutching homemade cardboard signs reading ‘Stop Climate Change’ and ‘There is no Planet B’ outside Leeds Town Hall, the girls said they had been allowed to attend after giving a speech at school about their reasons for going. Ivy said it was very simple – “because of the climate”.

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The two young friends are part of a rapidly-growing worldwide youth movement which has been inspired by teenager Greta Thunberg, who protests every Friday outside Sweden’s parliament to urge leaders to tackle climate change and has just been nominated for the Nobel peace prize.

Ivy Webb and Martha Rye at the Leeds demonstration with their mothers.

School strike protests took place in more than 120 countries, with hundreds of children and young people from Yorkshire joining in at events in Sheffield, Bradford, York and Hebden Bridge, as well as Leeds.

The demonstrations come in the wake of a UN report last year which warned that limiting global temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels requires unprecedented action.

That includes cutting global carbon dioxide emissions by almost half within 12 years, and to zero by mid-century. If temperatures were to rise at 2C, virtually all corals will die and almost a third of the world’s population would be regularly exposed to extreme heatwaves, with the risk of floods increasing by 170 per cent.

Last week, a United Nations report produced by 250 scientists warned humanity “now stands at a crossroads” between “a challenging but navigable path towards a new golden age of sustainable development” or continuing with current practices “which will lead to a losing struggle against environmental disruptions, which threaten to overwhelm large parts of the world”. The report warned that without urgent action to reduce fossil fuel usage and food waste, there may be millions of premature deaths in Asia, the Middle East and Africa by the mid-century.

Hundreds of children and young people attended the march in Leeds. Picture: Gary Longbottom

It was in this context that Ivy and Martha were accompanied at the Leeds event by their mothers, children’s bookshop owner Hannah Limming and education solicitor Lucia Rye. Hannah has volunteered for the Brownies for around 15 years and said today’s children are increasingly aware of environmental issues. “They definitely know more – it is about maybe ten years ago I would have talked about and the children would listen but now they all have an opinion and say ‘we should be doing more’. It is the same at school.”

While the first UK climate strike in February was criticised by Theresa May and Downing Street on the grounds that disruption was increasing teachers’ workloads and wasting lesson time, politicians were already changing their tune by the time of the second protest on Friday. In a video released ahead of Friday’s strikes, Environment Secretary Michael Gove said: “Dear school climate strikers, we agree. Collective action of the kind you’re championing can make a difference, and a profound one.”

Things have also started changing on a local level. Prior to Friday’s march, Leeds City Council announced plans to become the biggest local authority in the country to declare a ‘climate emergency’ in the city, with the intention of eliminating carbon emissions by 2030. It will follow in the footsteps of Sheffield Council, who made a similar announcement in January.

At the Leeds demonstration, Shannon Jackson told the cheering crowd that the council’s announcement was a direct result of their last demonstration. The 23-year-old masters student at the University of Leeds said she had been in talks with the council’s Labour group earlier in the week prior to the climate emergency announcement.

Hundreds of children and young people attended the march in Leeds. Picture: Gary Longbottom

“People have been telling us coming out onto the streets for one day can’t really change anything. But on March 27, Leeds City Council is set to declare a climate emergency. They said it is the youth strike movement that has pushed this issue back onto the political agenda,” she said. “We heard last time that Leeds was the second largest in the UK after London. This time it is even bigger. This is just a glimpse of what we can do. We had one strike and they have declared a climate emergency. This is just the beginning.”

Also at the demonstration with his 11-year-old son Jakob was Leeds North West MP Alex Sobel, who said further strikes are going to be needed to push for more decisive action from the Government after the House of Commons recently holding his first debate on climate change for two years. “We need to be here every month until we have won this battle,” the MP said.

But in addition to the Labour MP, there were less mainstream political voices in attendance. At the Leeds event, a bearded man wearing a beret who appeared to be in his 30s carried a large Communist flag with a hammer and sickle. Meanwhile in Sheffield, three young men were photographed at the demonstration parading a Sheffield Marxist Society banner.

The protest was happening just two days after Chancellor Philip Hammond announced a series of measures to tackle climate change in his Spring Statement, with the most notable being a plan to stop fossil-fuel heating systems such as gas boilers being built in new houses from 2025.

Hundreds of children and young people attended the march in Leeds. Picture: Gary Longbottom

He said the Government also intends to help small businesses to cut their carbon emissions, while proposals will be published to require an increased proportion of environmentally-friendly ‘green gas’ in the national grid.

Among those in attendance in Leeds was 11-year-old Rudee Curtis, with around 15 fellow pupils from Shire Oak Primary School in Headingley, as well as his mother Polly, 30, and one-year-old brother Che. He said he and his classmates had been asked to write an essay about why they have attended. Polly, who works for the ambulance service, said she was proud to have taken Rudee to the event. “It is his future and he cares so much about the world. It is awful to think about what his future and his children and grandchildren’s might be.”

Leeds University student Talia Ellis, 20, said: “Everyone feels it is difficult to make a difference on your own. But as collective, we can have a lot of power. It is scary how close we are, a few degrees, from changes that will stop us having enough food and could lead to extinction, and that isn’t at the top of the political agenda.”

But far from everyone is in favour of the strikes. Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, labelled the protests as “fruitless” as he spoke in Birmingham on Friday to warn schools allowing children to attend such marches may set a difficult precedent.

“The more we say climate change is such an important issue that young people can go and protest about it, well the more you open up other issues,” he said.

“What about fracking, what about homelessness for example, what about knife crime? What if children wanted to go to a political demonstration?

Hundreds of children and young people attended the march in Leeds. Picture: Gary Longbottom

“It seems to me that we patronise children ultimately by saying ‘yes, well done’. It is a sentimental response.

“They should be learning in school about why climate change matters and learning how political processes work.”

But the Leeds demonstration was also attended by researchers from the University of Leeds’s Priestley International Centre for Climate, who had a different view of proceedings.

Dr Lina Brand Correa said working on climate issues can often be a draining experience.

“It is very worrying when you have this amount of information and it is quite difficult on a personal level – you can go home feeling very depressed up to a certain point. But these kids are a force of hope.”

Dr Miklos Antal said climate change is already impacting society in many ways. “I have fears that climate-induced migration will create conflicts in the future. We can almost be sure that climate issues have been in the background of migrations that have already happened.”

But he said while more needs to be done, he is hopeful change can occur, thanks in part to events such as the Leeds demonstration. “Change is non-linear, it is like the fall of the Berlin Wall. You are pushing and nothing seems to happen, then at one point things change.”