Skip to Content

Why Kids Are Skipping School to Fight Climate Change

From Swedish teens skipping school for a picket at parliament to a human pyramid of protesters in Seoul and high schoolers marching on City Hall in New York, a growing number of young people have put themselves at the forefront of the fight to limit climate change. A global movement of so-called Climate Strikes has spread to more than 130 countries and looks set to intensify. Participants, with the help of some adults, are demanding urgent action in a campaign inspired by the U.S. civil rights struggle and other efforts against South African apartheid, HIV/AIDS and demonstrations during the 2008 financial crisis.

1. What do the climate strikers want?

Above all, to get politicians to treat climate change as an “emergency.” They want countries to make a commitment to switching their power sources to 100% renewable energy as soon as possible, preferably by 2030. They want an immediate end to subsidies for fossil fuels, which the International Monetary Fund estimates draw in $4.7 trillion, or 6.3% of global GDP, worldwide. Their goal is to spur the vast changes scientists say are needed to keep the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Beyond that point, scientists say, the planet is at risk of irreversible events such as the melting of polar ice sheets and wholesale loss of coral reefs and other vital ecosystems.

2. How did this start?

In the summer of 2018 -- Sweden’s hottest summer in 262 years -- a 16-year-old Swede named Greta Thunberg skipped school every day for three weeks straight to sit on the steps of the Swedish parliament, demanding that the government take action to reduce the emissions that cause global warming. Other students began joining her, or imitating her elsewhere, striking every Friday. Thunberg, whose long braids have made her an icon in the movement, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 by a group of mayors from around the world.

3. How large is the movement?

Almost 3,500 climate strikes have already taken place all over the world, according to registration records maintained by a clearinghouse called Fridays for Future. At least 1,100 more are planned. Organizers say a series of coordinated strikes in March drew 1.4 million participants and that even more showed up at another round of protests in May. The next large-scale climate strike is planned for September, when there will be a week of actions timed to coincide with the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York.

4. Are they having any impact?

Thunberg and some other protesters have met with some European Union leaders and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres. She also gave a blistering speech to a group of the world’s elite gathered at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The energy and visibility of the young people is feeding into other demonstrations. In April 2019, a group of half-naked activists filled the U.K. House of Commons viewing gallery, spurring a crush of publicity. Soon after, the adult-led Extinction Rebellion movement, which uses civil disobedience and non-violent resistance to advocate for action on climate change, began weeks of actions around Britain. That included blockading major roads in central London and occupying the London Stock Exchange. Youthful protesters are pushing the old environmental hands -- such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and WWF -- to up their game or risk losing influence.

5. How have governments responded?

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been critical of the strikers, saying the government is already acting on climate change and that the students should stay in class. Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May complained earlier this year that students joining the Youth Strike 4 Climate movement were wasting lesson time. They’ve received more support from opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, who cited student strikes as a wake up call. Beyond this, the House of Commons declared a “climate emergency.” Some cities have followed suit, including Sydney, New York and Paris. However, there are no commonly agreed policies that come about as a result of such a declaration. Rather, it’s coded language meant to highlight the urgency of the climate situation.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—What to expect from the second Democratic debate

—When it comes to politics, Americans are divided. Can data change that?

—Elizabeth Warren declares war on private equity “vampires” in 2020 plan

Trump outspent every other political campaign on Facebook. Here’s who those ads targeted

—Sex toys allowed, not massages, in fine print of Trump tax break

Get up to speed on your morning commute with Fortune’s CEO Daily newsletter.