Students strike to spur adults into climate action | Science News for Students

Students strike to spur adults into climate action

Kids across the globe are protesting a failure of governments to cut greenhouse-gas emissions
Mar 11, 2019 — 5:30 am EST
A photo of a student climate change strike in London on February 15. In the middle of the image is a student holding a sign that reads I'd be in school if the Earth was cool.

Thousands of students protested in support of climate change action in London, England, on February 15. A global strike is planned for March 15.

Socialist Appeal/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

For the past several months, growing numbers of students around the world have been cutting class — not to play but to protest. The topic driving them is the same: Earth’s changing climate. Increasing wildfires and droughts, rising seas and more extreme weather are among the events being tied to elevated emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. As students see it, governments have not done enough to cut those emissions or to plan ways to adapt to the impacts of climate change. So students have been going on strike. And on March 15, many plan to participate in a coordinated strike that will take place across the globe.

a photo of Milou Albrecht on the left with Bill Shorten on the right
Milou Albrecht is one of the young co-leaders of school strikes in Australia. Here she is meeting with Bill Shorten, who is currently leader of her nation’s labor party.
Sally Ingleton

As of March 6, there were 596 planned events across 64 countries, according to a list kept by the group Fridays For Future.

Milou Albrecht, 14, of Castlemaine, Australia, is a co-leader of strikes in her country. What motivates her, she says, is worry about wildfires. When she was little, a fire quickly approached the bush country where she was playing at a friend’s house.

Smoke quickly filled the air, she recalls. Everyone had to evacuate. “You didn’t know what to take, so we didn’t take anything.” She remembers feeling terror while waiting in an underground bunker for the fire to pass. The scare spurred her to find out more about bushfires. To her dismay, she learned that climate change is making such wildfires more frequent in Australia and elsewhere.

Wildfires aren’t the only thing that will worsen as global temperatures rise. There are a wide range of changes that will cause — and sometimes are already causing — people and animals to suffer. Many people could even lose their homes. Some may have to move far away.

Human activities have caused a warming of 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above temps typical of pre-industrial times. That’s according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. Human-induced global warming already has caused multiple changes in Earth’s climate, the IPCC noted in a 2018 report. Those impacts include more heat waves, more and heavier rains or snow events and a greater risk of drought. These changes are already stressing people, animals and ecosystems across the planet.

At the current rate, the increase in average global temperatures will hit 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) sometime between 2030 and 2052, the IPCC says. Beyond that point, impacts will be even more severe.

And the longer people wait to cut back releases of greenhouse gases, the more difficult it may be. This is true for the U.S. auto and energy companies, for instance. And the longer they wait, the higher the costs for any action will be. That’s according to a 2017 study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Such data, many students now argue, mean the time to act is now.

A worldwide movement

Haven Coleman sits on the steps of a government building with a sign that reads "School Strike for Climate"
Even before the large strikes planned for March 15, Haven Coleman has been striking on Fridays since the start of this year. Here she is bundled up on a frigid Friday in February.
Nicole Coleman

Many young protesters have drawn inspiration from Greta Thunberg. The 16-year old Swedish teen has Asperger’s syndrome. This mild form of autism can leave people uncomfortable in social situations. Yet Greta began regularly protesting outside Sweden’s Parliament last summer. She also has encouraged kids to strike in other countries. She even spoke to delegates at the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNCCC). It was held in December in Katowice, Poland.

“You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes,” Greta told attendees at the UNCCC. There is still time to limit the worst impacts, she noted — but only if governments act now. “Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible,” she said, “there is no hope.”

Haven Coleman, who turns 13 this month, is one of the co-leaders of the U.S. school strikes. She, too, has been inspired to act by changes she’s seen in her part of the world. “We’re affected by floods and fires, and we’ve been in a 19-year drought,” says this student in Denver, Colo. Climate change will make such events more common and worsen air pollution, especially from wildfires. Breathing dirty air already causes problems for Haven, who has asthma.

“All ages are welcome for the climate strikes,” notes Nakate Vanessa. “Not being a teen does not stop you from striking for climate,” says the 22-year old. She lives in Uganda, a nation in east-central Africa. The first two months of this year in her area have already been unusually hot and dry, she observes. So on March 15, she plans to join student protests in the capital city of Kampala. Ugandan students also will go on strike in Jinja, a town on the shore of Lake Victoria, she notes.

The impacts of Earth’s changing climate will hit developing countries, like hers, especially hard. Many people there have limited electricity, few government services and low incomes. And residents are more likely to work outside, where they’re subject to extreme heat or other problems. These people also tend to have less money to pay for steps to adapt, such as buying and running air conditioners.

“Climate denialism is like suicide,” Vanessa says of the people who argue climate change is not happening. “We cannot let ourselves perish as we look on without doing anything,” she says. “Not taking climate action is like locking yourself up in a house on fire.”

Demanding change

If adults are the ones who need to act, why are kids protesting? “It is our generation which has the highest stake in this,” explains Scarlet Possnett, 15. The Suffolk, England, teen is an organizer of YouthStrike4Climate. A big first step is for governments to recognize climate change as a crisis, she says. And many, seemingly, do not yet see the urgency, she adds.

a student in Brussels holding a sign that reads "There is no planet B"
Students marched in Brussels, Belgium, on February 21.
greensefa/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Just 100 companies across the globe are responsible for 70 percent of the greenhouse gases driving climate change, Scarlet notes. She cites figures from a 2017 report from CDP. That’s a British group that gathers data on pollution. Those big companies won’t reduce emissions on their own, the teen believes. To prompt them to act, she argues, “there needs to be a policy change.”

Policies are strategies that governments or other groups can put into action. The right policies might lower, or even eliminate, releases of greenhouse gases.

One March 2019 study finds that policies to encourage greater reliance on renewable energy helped drop greenhouse-gas emissions in 18 industrial countries. They included Sweden, the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. Policies on energy efficiency and conservation (not wasting energy) also helped lower emissions for those and other countries, the study found.

But these cuts so far “fall a long way short” of achieving the goals of a 2015 treaty, the study points out. Known as the Paris Accord, that treaty pledged to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Doing that will require cutting emissions a lot. How much? By roughly 25 percent over the next 10 years. Key to that will be huge moves “to phase out the use of fossil fuels,” the report says. Corinne Le Quéré in England at the University of East Anglia and her colleagues outlined what would be needed in Nature Climate Change.

Dealing with dread

Many young people can hardly remember a time when Earth’s changing climate did not threaten them, says Lilah Williamson. And going forward, “we’re not going to know a time without [its] impending doom,” says this 14-year old from Burnaby, British Columbia in Canada. The region where she lives has suffered from storms that have been dumping heavier rains than in the past. There also have been more droughts and wildfires. “I just can’t imagine what it’s going to be like in the future,” she says.

Such students can feel burdened by a type of dread, points out Susie Burke. She’s a psychologist in Australia and Milou’s mom. Imagining how climate change will affect them leaves many kids anxious. They also feel empathy for others who suffer serious impacts. Burke and her colleagues wrote about that and other psychological impacts of climate change in the May 2018 Current Psychiatry Reports.

Burke supports her daughter’s protests. School strikes are a “problem-focused” way of coping with climate’s impacts. “You try to do something about the problem that is causing you stress,” she explains. The protests can reassure children and teens that they’re not alone: “Your concerns are shared by a whole bunch of people.”

students at a climate strike in Lausanne, Switzerland, a girl carries a sign that reads "Raise your voice, not the sea level"

a student carrying a sign that reads "You are stealing our future" at a climate strike in London

a photo of students carrying signs in English and French at a climate protest in Brussels

a photo of a student climate strike in Australia, a sign in the center of the picture reads "We'll do our maths when you do your job". All of the Os in the message are planet Earths.

A photo of a climate strike march in London.  A sign held over the protesting throng reads "Act now for the future."

student marchers in Berlin Germany showing a variety of signs. In front is a row of students holding a banner with black paint handprints.

a photo of a climate strike in Australia, a row of students holds a long blue banner with red lettering that reads "Kid's Strike 4 A Safe Climate"

A photo of a student strike in London showing two green banners. One reads "One World Once Chance", and the other reads "When Leaders Act Like Kids The Kids Become Leaders"

Learning about climate change and its impacts can seem overwhelming, her daughter says. But taking part in climate protests has “felt empowering,” Milou says. It’s also inspiring, she says, and fun to work with other young people on the protests.

“These kids speak with a moral clarity and poignancy that none but the most jaded of ears can fail to hear,” says Michael Mann. He’s a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University in State College. What’s more, he believes the school-strike movement will help. “I do believe it is part of why we will soon see a tipping point on climate action here in the U.S. and around the rest of the world.”

But the first step, Haven says, is speaking out.

“Even though I didn’t start the snowball of climate change, I am still going to be affected by it,” she says. Already, she has been protesting at different locations near her Denver home each Friday. Many passers-by give her a thumbs-up or honk as they drive past. But then there’s the occasional person who tells her she should be in school. What good is that, she wonders, if the world is facing ruin?

As Greta Thunberg told the United Nations meeting, “We have run out of excuses, and we are running out of time.”

Greta Thunberg spoke at a United Nations climate conference in December 2018.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

accord     A formal agreement between two or more groups, usually nations.

anxious     (n. anxiety) A feeling of dread over some potential or upcoming situation, usually one over which someone feels he has little control.

Asperger’s syndrome     A specific kind of autism spectrum disorder that is often called high-functioning autism. Although this form of autism does not affect a intelligence or speech, a person with it may still struggle to interact and communicate with other people.

asthma     A disease affecting the body’s airways, which are the tubes through which animals breathe. Asthma obstructs these airways through swelling, the production of too much mucus or a tightening of the tubes. As a result, the body can expand to breathe in air, but loses the ability to exhale appropriately. The most common cause of asthma is an allergy. Asthma is a leading cause of hospitalization and the top chronic disease responsible for kids missing school.

autism     (also known as autism spectrum disorders ) A set of developmental disorders that interfere with how certain parts of the brain develop. Affected regions of the brain control how people behave, interact and communicate with others and the world around them. Autism disorders can range from very mild to very severe. And even a fairly mild form can limit an individual’s ability to interact socially or communicate effectively.

average     (in science) A term for the arithmetic mean, which is the sum of a group of numbers that is then divided by the size of the group.

bush     (in landscape descriptions) The name for wild lands in certain countries, especially parts of Africa and Australia.

carbon     The chemical element having the atomic number 6. It is the physical basis of all life on Earth. Carbon exists freely as graphite and diamond. It is an important part of coal, limestone and petroleum, and is capable of self-bonding, chemically, to form an enormous number of chemically, biologically and commercially important molecules.

carbon dioxide     (abbr. CO2) A colorless, odorless gas produced by all animals when the oxygen they inhale reacts with the carbon-rich foods that they’ve eaten. Carbon dioxide also is released when organic matter burns (including fossil fuels like oil or gas). Carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. Plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen during photosynthesis, the process they use to make their own food.

climate     The weather conditions that typically exist in one area, in general, or over a long period.

climate change     Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.

colleague     Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.

developing country     A relatively poor nation with little industry and a lower standard of living than industrial countries, such as the United States, Germany and Japan.

drought     An extended period of abnormally low rainfall; a shortage of water resulting from this.

ecosystem     A group of interacting living organisms — including microorganisms, plants and animals — and their physical environment within a particular climate. Examples include tropical reefs, rainforests, alpine meadows and polar tundra. The term can also be applied to elements that make up some an artificial environment, such as a company, classroom or the internet.

empathy     The ability to recognize the emotions that someone else is experiencing.

fossil fuels     Any fuels — such as coal, petroleum (crude oil) or natural gas — that have developed within the Earth over millions of years from the decayed remains of bacteria, plants or animals

generation     A group of individuals (in any species) born at about the same time or that are regarded as a single group. Your parents belong to one generation of your family, for example, and your grandparents to another. Similarly, you and everyone within a few years of your age across the planet are referred to as belonging to a particular generation of humans. 

global warming     The gradual increase in the overall temperature of Earth’s atmosphere due to the greenhouse effect. This effect is caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons and other gases in the air, many of them released by human activity.

greenhouse gas     A gas that contributes to the greenhouse effect by absorbing heat. Carbon dioxide is one example of a greenhouse gas.

moral     A code of behavior that aspires to do what’s right (not wrong) and to treat others as you would hope they would treat you.

Paris Accord      The language for a United Nations treaty that was negotiated in Paris, France, on Dec. 12, 2015. Its key, stated aim was to strengthen the response of nations around the world to the threat of climate change by keeping the average global rise in temperature by 2100 under 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), as compared to pre-industrial levels. It would also work toward (if possible) holding the temperature rise to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

planet     A celestial object that orbits a star, is big enough for gravity to have squashed it into a roundish ball and has cleared other objects out of the way in its orbital neighborhood.

policy     A plan, stated guidelines or agreed-upon rules of action to apply in certain specific circumstances. For instance, a school could have a policy on when to permit snow days or how many excused absences it would allow a student in a given year.

psychologist     A scientist or mental-health professional who studies the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behaviors. 

range     The full extent or distribution of something. For instance, a plant or animal’s range is the area over which it naturally exists. 

renewable energy     Energy from a source that is not depleted by use, such as hydropower (water), wind power or solar power.

resident     Some member of a community of organisms that lives in a particular place. (Antonym: visitor)

sea     An ocean (or region that is part of an ocean). Unlike lakes and streams, seawater — or ocean water — is salty.

social     (adj.) Relating to gatherings of people; a term for animals (or people) that prefer to exist in groups. (noun) A gathering of people, for instance those who belong to a club or other organization, for the purpose of enjoying each other’s company.

stress     (in biology) A factor — such as unusual temperatures, movements, moisture or pollution — that affects the health of a species or ecosystem. (in psychology) A mental, physical, emotional or behavioral reaction to an event or circumstance (stressor) that disturbs a person or animal’s usual state of being or places increased demands on a person or animal; psychological stress can be either positive or negative.

treaty     A formal agreement that two or more sovereign powers (usually countries or tribal nations) have adopted, giving its provisions the force of law.

United Kingdom     Land encompassing the four “countries” of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. More than 80 percent of the United Kingdom’s inhabitants live in England. Many people — including U.K. residents — argue whether the United Kingdom is a country or instead a confederation of four separate countries. The United Nations and most foreign governments treat the United Kingdom as a single nation.

weather     Conditions in the atmosphere at a localized place and a particular time. It is usually described in terms of particular features, such as air pressure, humidity, moisture, any precipitation (rain, snow or ice), temperature and wind speed. Weather constitutes the actual conditions that occur at any time and place. It’s different from climate, which is a description of the conditions that tend to occur in some general region during a particular month or season.


Journal: C. Le Quéré. Drivers of declining CO2 emissions in 18 developed economies. Nature Climate Change. Vol. 9, March 2019, p. 213. doi: 10.1038/s41558-019-0419-7.

Meeting: United Nations. Katowice Climate Change Conference – December 2018. Katowice, Poland, December 2 to 14, 2018.

Report: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC special report on global warming of 1.5º C. 48th Session of the IPCC, Incheon, South Korea, published online October 8, 2018.

Journal: S. Burke et al. The psychological effects of climate change on children. Current Psychiatry Reports. Vol. 20, May 2018. doi: 10.1007/s11920-018-0896-9.

Journal: S. Supekar and S. Skleros. Analysis of costs and time frame for reducing CO2 emissions by 70% in the U.S. auto and energy sectors by 2050. Environmental Science & Technology. Vol. 51, October 3, 2017, p. 10932. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.7b01295.

Report: CDP. The Carbon Majors Database: CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017. Published July 2017, 15 pp.

Website: Paris Agreement (also known as Paris Climate Accord).

Further Reading