"That's not democracy!" shouted the young people next to us, pointing their placards at the Palace of Westminster. "THIS is democracy!" And this demonstration felt more democratic than any I've been on. These young people chose not to be in school, coming instead to seats of power in over sixty towns and cities across the UK. From nursery-age on up, the generation that will face the most extreme consequences of climate breakdown are shaming today's decision-makers.
Youth Strike 4 Climate are demanding the government declare a climate emergency. With a void of leadership or action, it's young people who are offering the prophetic voice we need. Most UK children are well-versed in the science and consequences of climate change. Not only is it part of the school curriculum, but young people have a real sense of the danger.
It's not a dearth of policy ideas that has left young people so frustrated. They've grown up in a world that's been doing a lot of talking about reducing the use of plastic, making transport more fuel efficient and a consensus – at least in the UK – that climate change is real and that significant action is needed to stop it. It is that lack of action that has them striking on a cold February day. Their schools might go on recycling drives, but the systems that ravage the planet remain unchallenged.
Prioritising climate change
Quakers young and old have been demanding action too. Chris Walker, our Sustainability Programme Manager, blogged recently, "The issue of climate breakdown needs urgent political leadership. It demands we change the way we run our global economy for the good of people and the planet."
There are some clear ideas about what to do (PDF): committing to a net-zero emissions target and going further on the Clean Growth Strategy to actually commit to the emissions cuts needed would be a start. There's an opportunity to include this in the current Agriculture Bill. Please join us and call on your MP to back this net-zero target.
One young man said, "Business as usual, economic structures are the problems we're facing – they're not saving people's livelihoods." He reminded us of the rethinking security project that Quakers are involved in. The current security approach prioritises military spending and endless growth, marginalising many voices in the UK and globally. By exploiting the planet and ignoring climate breakdown as a security threat, everybody's future becomes less safe.
A sense of unity
There was a euphoric mood amongst the young people in Parliament Square. There were no speeches from the great and the good, they weren't necessary. Every young person we met was clear about why they were there.
Instead of the usual off-the-rack NGO creations, most placards were crafted separately with individual messages: 'It's our future', 'Don't frack with me', 'My children will be an endangered species'. There were some non PG-rated chants too but if there's an issue to be angry about for this generation, it's climate breakdown.
Two sixth formers we asked said, "We're here to show that Parliament needs to do something. Climate change has been in the background for too long and it shouldn't be! There's a real sense of unity, everyone is here to prioritise climate change." They went on, "We've got 12 years to act. We're going to be 26, 27, 28 when that 12 years is up. Most politicians that have the power are middle-aged. Unless we act now we can't do anything like they can do. We need to act now."
People power forcing change
Unintimidated by police, young people flooded the roads around Parliament, and crowded to the top deck of a tourist bus, paralysing traffic. Children have the right to a voice about issues that affect them, and climate breakdown will damage their futures most of all.
When we chatted to young people sitting in the highway, they articulated a theory of nonviolent change. "Civil disobedience – when people are forced to interrupt what they're doing in their daily lives – they're forced to acknowledge what's going on… that's the only way people have ever got people to change governmental structures," explained one young woman.
A lesson in challenging injustice
While the decision to break the rules will discomfit some, nonviolent action often does that to highlight injustice. Quaker faith & practice 1.34 reminds us to "Remember your responsibilities as a citizen for the conduct of local, national, and international affairs. Do not shrink from the time and effort your involvement may demand."
Today young people taught us about our responsibility to challenge injustice. Those making decisions must listen to the voices of young people about the kind of sustainable future we need. Let's use this opportunity, while young people have put climate breakdown on the agenda, to take action locally, nationally or internationally.