From divestment to school strikes – climate activism in the UK is going mainstream

Climate change school strike
Chris Jarvis

Time is running out for us to tackle climate change. In October 2018, the UN warned that we have just twelve years left to limit a climate catastrophe. And yet if we look at the actions of our politicians, you’d be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t all that bad. Aggressively promoting fracking; looking to expand airports; £10.5bn in subsidies for fossil fuels. These aren’t the policies or actions of a government that recognises the scale of the climate crisis. Rather, they’re the policies of a government closing its eyes and putting its fingers in its own ears.

But while politicians fail to acknowledge the urgency of climate change, people are stepping up. And they’re starting to win.

Building movements for climate justice

On 22 February, the University of Essex and Keele University announced a commitment to end their investments with all fossil fuel companies. As a result, the total number of UK universities that have pledged to cut their ties with the fossil fuel industry has risen to 71. This is just shy of half of all publicly funded universities in the UK.

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These universities are part of the 1,029 institutions across the globe that have also made divestment commitments. In doing so, they have removed over $8 trillion from the industry.

As we rapidly approach a climate crisis – a crisis which the fossil fuel industry has played a major role in driving – mainstream institutions like universities are refusing to finance it and give it license to operate.

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But they haven’t done so willingly. Just as our politicians have been slow to act, so too have institutional decision makers. It’s taken a national movement of student divestment campaigners – coordinated by People & Planet – to force their hand. Indeed, some universities still hold cosy relationships with fossil fuel companies.

But on an ever increasing scale, climate activists are winning, and the institutions retaining ties to fossil fuels are on the wrong side of history.

The success of the school strike for climate

University students aren’t the only ones building campaigns to fight climate change, either. School students are at it too.

Just a week before the latest two universities joined the growing fossil free movement, the UK played host to its first major wave of school climate strikes. Inspired by the international movement, school pupils across the country walked out of classes on 15 February. And they’ve planned a second major nationwide strike for 15 March.

Like student divestment campaigners, the school pupils on strike recognise the urgent need for action on climate change. The UK Student Climate Network, one of the groups behind the strikes, has laid out its demands:

Demand 1

The Government declare a climate emergency and prioritise the protection of life on Earth, taking active steps to achieve climate justice.

Demand 2

The national curriculum is reformed to address the ecological crisis as an educational priority.

Demand 3

The Government communicate the severity of the ecological crisis and the necessity to act now to the general public.

Demand 4

The Government recognise that young people have the biggest stake in our future, by incorporating youth views into policy making and bringing the voting age down to 16.

The impact of the strikes can’t be understated. They represent a crucial development in the climate movement. And it’s one that shows just how mainstream climate activism has become.

The most recent examples of school pupil walkouts playing a part in political movements in the UK were in the campaign against the Iraq war, and in the 2010 protests against tuition fee increases and the cutting of Education Maintenance Allowance. Both of these are seen as crucial moments in the history of social movements and political campaigning.

Other developments

It’s also not just young people with this energy around climate activism. People of all ages are pushing for bold action.

A growing number of local councils have passed motions declaring a state of ‘climate emergency’. They’re calling for radical action on climate change, and for councils to decarbonise by 2030. Groups like Extinction Rebellion are bringing new people into the climate movement. And Reclaim the Power has built a powerful resistance to fracking, most prominently in Lancashire.

This wide ecology of climate activism is making waves in national politics too. Against the background of mass movements for climate justice, the Labour Party has started to engage properly in what a transition to a zero carbon economy could look like.

Motivated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s work on a ‘Green New Deal’ in the USA, key Labour figures are developing thinking on what a similar project could look like in the UK. This builds on earlier work from the New Economics Foundation, supported by the likes of Caroline Lucas.

All of this provides fertile ground for a total shift on climate policy. As time is ticking away, this growing movement will be crucial in how we respond to climate change. And history will remember that it was campaigners – school children, students, citizens – that drove action on climate change, not politicians.

Featured image via David Holt – Flickr

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