The first day of COP21 launched a new wing of the global student movement against climate change: the Climate Strike. In countries around the world, students organized walk-outs, film screenings and art performances. They have three simple demands: keep fossil fuels in the ground, transition to 100% clean energy, and support the victims of climate change.
A group of young students from five continents came up with the idea last year at the Global Youth Summit in Germany. Their grievance was simple: ‘The adult generations have promised to stop the climate crisis, but they have skipped their homework year after year.’
They have no illusions over the sell-out that awaits us in Paris. They know that even if the politicians keep their utterly inadequate promises, the world will burn through the 2 degree red line in just 15 years. So these students are committed to organizing globally to bring change from below with an escalating campaign of global strikes.
As the politicians were circling for the opening of COP21 in Paris, youth activists from Climate Strike hosted a lively participatory forum in the city. Even though 10am-9pm might have been a bit too ambitious a day for some of us, there wasn’t a dull moment. We heard voices from China to Bolivia, skyped with school-age activists in Mexico and had the pleasure of meeting Kisilu, first on screen and then in person.
Kisilu is a father, farmer and climate activist from Kenya, and the protagonist of an evocative new film screened at the forum called ‘The Climate Diaries’. As droughts and destructive floods brought him face to face with the brutal realities of climate change, Kisilu took on a leading role in his community, and a journey that began with planting trees and led him all the way to Paris, where he has been invited to speak at COP21.
‘Fighting climate change is my faith,’ he said. ‘I am a preacher. And what I am determined to tell the leaders is that they must come together now. It has taken a long time, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. There are farmers who say, don’t bother to plant mango trees, they take ten years to fruit. But if we listened to them we wouldn’t have any mangoes.’
After lunch, frontline activists from across the world shared some of their experiences and led a strategy session. Small groups discussed how to engage children and young people, particularly in industrialized nations of the global North where the climate crisis still retains the illusion of being something that’s happening to other people, in places far away.
Much of this ‘gap’ between the actual and felt immediacy of the climate crisis is down to the political pollution in our mainstream media and education systems. Overcoming it is one of the main challenges for the next generation if we are to build a truly international climate movement. So, many proposals focused on how to cultivate a sense of connection with frontline communities elsewhere, from field trips and drama to connecting schools the world over with pen-pal programmes.
Paulina Sanchez, a youth activist from Mexico and one of the main organizers of the forum, explained that the strategy session was more than just a talking shop. In the coming months, organizers will be looking to develop new ways of raising awareness amongst school children and mobilizing more young people for and beyond next year’s Climate Strike.
‘We really wanted to create a free space today that brings together age groups and issues that are too often separated in the movement,’ she told us. ‘So we tried to get together new ideas from new people with the experience of community activists from the frontline.’
Clarity was another point they encouraged campaigners to consider. ‘Activists really need to simplify the language they use, not just for kids, but for everyone,’ said one young participant. ‘The point isn’t to sound impressive, it’s to be understood.’
But what everything seemed to come back to was the power of individual creativity. We heard from Xiuhtezcatl who, aged just 15, is a hip-hop activist, Climate Strike organizer, and the youth director of Earth Guardians: an international ‘tribe’ of environmental activists, musicians and artists ‘stepping up as leaders’ in this spirit. ‘In the light of a collapsing world, what better time to be born than now?’ he asks. ‘Because our generation gets to rewrite history.’
But that means letting them be its authors. Self-directed, artistic expression by young people in the medium they’re passionate about achieves two vital goals: it can be one of the best ways to communicate a sense of connection; and it demands the degree of autonomy necessary to give young people a sense of ownership over what will, if it is to survive and succeed, be their movement.
The founding students’ goal was to mobilize at least a million students in walk-outs during the summit. Clearly, an undertaking of this scale will take many more summits and much hard-graft to achieve. But their ambition matches the enormity of the task ahead. And for that, the students deserve much respect; it is exactly what is needed. The forces of capital threaten the world they will inherit, and so they must take their place at the forefront of resistance. Climate Strike has only just begun, but it is a promising contribution to the climate justice movement.