Photo: Michal Nachmany

At 11 o’clock this morning thousands of school students in the UK walked out of their lessons to demand increased action on climate change.

My 14-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter are joining them with their friends to attend one of more than 60 events that have been organised across the country. I did not suggest that they go – the idea came from them, after details of the ‘climate strike’ were shared by other students on Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp.

When I asked my kids and their friends why they will be walking out, they told me that climate change is the single most important issue jeopardising their future, and they believe that not nearly enough is being done to combat it.

They said that as they cannot vote, it is their way to make their voice heard and bring on change. So they are calling on politicians to do more as they are the ones who will be living with the worsening consequences of climate change the longest.

And they are making their voices heard. What began last year as a solo protest in Sweden by Greta Thunberg, now 16 years old, has inspired mass walkouts from school on Fridays by tens of thousands of young people from Australia to Belgium, demonstrating under the slogan ‘Fridays for Future’. Students have been calling on politicians to declare a climate emergency and escalate policy responses imminently.

Their voices are clear. From Greta telling world business leaders in Davos that she wants them to panic and feel the fear, and then use it to act, to Lottie Tellyn, a 17-year-old activist from Surrey, writing in The Independent that “our anger is not inarticulate and misdirected. It’s organised, coordinated and passionate, and we’re using it to ask for change.” They know that something is horribly wrong and needs fixing, quickly.

They are right. Climate change is already here, and creating a threat to lives and livelihoods

We are currently moving along a path of global temperature rise driven by emissions of greenhouse gases, which will require systemic change in our economies and societies in order to be halted.

The UK is becoming hotter and wetter – six of the seven wettest and the 10 hottest years on record have all occurred since 2000. Over the past five years we have experienced severe flooding during the two wettest winters on record, and last summer was the hottest for England, with a heatwave that killed hundreds of people. The increasing chance of floods, droughts and heatwaves poses a growing risk to vulnerable populations, including young people.

The latest assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is that global annual emissions should drop to net zero by the middle of the century if the world is to have a reasonable chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. But the global average temperature has already risen by about 1°C and governments are not doing nearly enough to tackle climate change.

Current commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions are inadequate to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Furthermore, many of the pledges to reduce emissions have not been translated into domestic action: fewer than 60 countries have economy-wide emissions reduction targets in their laws and policies. Countries’ commitments and actions fall short of the transformations needed to reduce emissions from all sectors of our economies. Scientists estimate that existing climate action means we are currently on a path to global warming of more than 3°C by the end of this century.

The UK is also staggering behind. The 2008 Climate Change Act sets targets to reduce emissions and requires the Government to devise policies to meet these targets – for example on energy, transport and agriculture. It also requires government to develop plans to adapt to those direct and indirect impacts we have already locked ourselves into, including more floods, droughts and heatwaves. However, policy reversals, hesitations and compromise mean that the targets are not being met. The UK is currently likely to miss the targets of its fourth and fifth carbon budgets.

How should British politicians respond to the ‘climate strike’ by school students?

They could start by setting an ambitious target for the UK to reduce its emissions to zero. The current target in the Climate Change Act is a reduction in annual emissions of at least 80% by 2050, compared with a 1990 baseline. But that target is not aligned strongly enough with the Paris Agreement, which seeks net-zero global annual emissions during the second half of the century to hold global warming to well below 2°C.

In May 2019 the UK’s Climate Change Committee will publish its report on the UK’s long-term emissions targets – aiming to offer a definitive view on net-zero emissions and how the UK should comply with its obligations under the Paris Agreement. British politicians should respond to the ‘climate strike’ by acting urgently and ambitiously on the Committee’s advice.

Wide-ranging support

The ‘climate strike’ has the support of climate scientists worldwide and of UK researchers, as well as being endorsed on social media by some politicians. While mixed messages have been issued by schools, the original statement issued by the National Association of Head Teachers stated: “When you get older pupils making an informed decision, that kind of thing needs to be applauded. Society makes leaps forward when people are prepared to take action. Schools encourage students to develop a wider understanding of the world around them, a day of activity like this could be an important and valuable life experience.”

I hope that the experience of walking out of school with their peers to demonstrate on something they hold close to heart proves to be uplifting and uniting for the students, and injects an even greater sense of purpose. Our recent research on participation in climate networks highlights the importance of getting involved in events for creating camaraderie and sparking inspiration.

My children and their friends will be arriving in London’s Parliament Square (I am lucky to be able to take my lunch break to cheer them on), where they will hold their home-made placards. Then they will go home and make up for the classes they have missed. I am very proud of them. This is what growing up and shaping yourself as a person is all about: being able to identify a cause worth fighting for, being willing to stand up to it. Choosing to be active, not passive – leaders, not followers. Choosing to act like responsible adults, because they are the ones who will have to live with the consequences of climate change the longest – long after my generation is gone.

Today’s protesters are old enough to understand the issues at stake and young enough to speak truth to power with no fear. I am grateful to them for using their loud, clear, determined voices to do what we should have done a very long time ago.

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