Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 14 December 2019

Our children are telling us that we have failed them and planet Earth

Thousands of young climate change activists will take to the streets tomorrow. We could all learn from them

Youth climate activist Greta Thunberg delivers a speech during the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos. Fabrice Coffrini / AFP
Youth climate activist Greta Thunberg delivers a speech during the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos. Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

Earlier this year, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg addressed an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos, her bright purple trousers, baby-faced appearance and pigtails belying her sombre message. “Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope’,” she said. “But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day – and then I want you to act.”

Tomorrow, the young people’s climate change movement galvanised by this solemn Swedish schoolgirl, who began her solo protest in August last year by skipping school every Friday and camping outside her Parliament building, will come to the streets of Britain. Thousands of schoolchildren are expected to march in more than 50 organised events around the UK. Globally, an estimated 70,000 children take part in similar protests every week in towns and cities. They are all calling for the same thing: for adults to take responsibility and act on climate change.

A student takes part in a protest against climate change in Switzerland. Fabrice Coffrini / AFP
A student takes part in a protest against climate change in Switzerland. Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

Greta’s message, and those of the children around the world supporting her, seem to be in stark contrast to the richest and most powerful business leaders and politicians, many of whom flew into the Swiss resort on an estimated 1,500 private jets, apparently oblivious to the irony of hearing her and environmentalist David Attenborough speaking about the potential catastrophe the world is hurtling towards. According to scientists, if global temperatures rise 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, the effect will be severe and irreversible.

Greta’s message, and those of the children around the world supporting her, seem to be in stark contrast to the richest and most powerful business leaders and politicians, many of whom flew into the Swiss resort on an estimated 1,500 private jets

Greta’s warning has snowballed. Thousands of children took to the streets in Australia in November last year, demanding swift action. This year, the protests spread to Germany, Belgium and Switzerland. Although there have been some small-scale demonstrations in the UK, tomorrow marks the first time there has been co-ordinated action by children around the country. British authorities have a punitive policy towards parents who let their children take unauthorised days off school and impose fines for absconders. Schools are scrutinised for absence rates and anecdotes proliferate of parents being penalised, even for children taking the day off to attend family funerals.

Greta Thunberg with students participate in a climate change strike. Laurent Gillieron / EPA
Greta Thunberg with students participate in a climate change strike. Laurent Gillieron / EPA

I sympathise with schools who might feel obliged to forbid students from attending the strikes. And if it was a regular occurrence, there would no doubt be an impact on education. But the point of schooling is not only to learn about theories and the world of academia – all important contributors to a well-rounded life - but also to be out in the world, to learn how to make it better, how to be a good citizen and, crucially, to learn about responsibility and accountability. Schools should be actively encouraging participation, not sitting on the fence. They are part of the process of turning out balanced, informed individuals who actively participate in the world around them.

The strikes have had their naysayers. There have been suggestions that Greta is being manipulated as part of a marketing strategy; meanwhile, criticism of children “bunking off” when they should be studying, or that there are bigger issues, such as obesity and social media use, to tackle, ignore a bigger point. Our children have determined that we have failed in our duty, not just to planet Earth but to them, and that continuing failure is not something they are willing to tolerate.

Greta Thunberg on a panel at Davos with moderator Christiana Figueres (left) and governor of the Bank of France, Francois Villeroy de Galhau. Fabrice Coffrini / AFP
Greta Thunberg on a panel at Davos with moderator Christiana Figueres (left) and governor of the Bank of France, Francois Villeroy de Galhau. Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

I was of a similar age to the children protesting today when discussions abounded about global warming and acid rain in the 1980s. Then, the talk centred on the ozone layer, greenhouse gases and reducing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) from aerosols.

I am slowly starting to do my bit to protect the environment but I'll be the first to admit that they seem paltry, half-hearted, easy changes. I switch off lights, I recycle. I have a hybrid car. But I could probably do more. Like a lot of comfort-loving Generation Xers, I need a motive to get my act together. That’s the real gift these children are giving us. When someone is willing to lead change, we should hitch our wagons to their cause and absorb their energy and determination.

I applaud these children. If my own children were old enough to take part and wanted to do so, I would fully support them – because the younger generation are offering the leadership we have failed to provide and that is desperately needed to tackle this crisis.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World

Updated: February 14, 2019 03:12 PM

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