Stockholm: The first spontaneous school strike for the climate.

On 20 August 2018, the day she started her ninth-grade year in Stockholm, Greta Thunberg decided to go on strike, alone, in front of the Swedish Parliament. She announced that she would not go to back to school until the general election on the 9th September.

Sweden had just experienced a severe heat wave during the summer, which caused very serious forest fires. Greta Thunberg called on the government to take strong measures to combat global warming by sitting in front of Parliament every day during school hours with a sign ‘Skolstrejk för klimatet’ (‘school strike for the climate’). This Swedish schoolgirl demanded that her government reduced its carbon emissions in line with the Paris Climate Agreement.

After the general election in September 2018, Greta Thunberg, now surrounded by her striking schoolmates, announced that she would continue to strike every Friday. She attracted the attention of the media, and soon students all over the world began to organize their own strikes for the climate, inspired by her actions.

By November 2018, huge demonstrations and school strikes had been organized, particularly in Australia where thousands of young people held their demonstrations on Fridays. In December 2018, more than 20,000 high school and university students took part in strikes in 270 cities across the world.

In 2019, the strikes and demonstrations continued and brought together hundreds of thousands of young people: on 15 March in New York, Brussels, Sydney, Barcelona, Berlin, Paris, Moscow, Milan; on 24 May in more than 1,600 cities worldwide.

This is how the Fridays for Future movement developed and grew, little by little, all over the world, until it became a quasi ‘planetary phenomenon’, without precedent.

An international and non-political movement around common values

The international Fridays for Future movement originated with Greta Thunberg, even though her detractors claim that she is ‘manipulated’ by the ‘green lobby’. In 2019, Greta Thunberg said:

“it’s just funny, because a 16-year-old is almost an adult. Of course you can think for yourself. And in a way it’s sad to see those people who, while I’m pointing at the fire and saying we have to act, are looking at me and not at the fire”.

Greta Thunberg

Fridays for Future claims to be a pacifist, apolitical, independent and formally leaderless movement, although it recognizes Greta Thunberg as its figurehead.

By its very constitution, Fridays for Future is aimed particularly at young people (and even very young people), but in reality, it is open to all. With the #FridaysForFuture hashtag launched in 2018, the movement encouraged anyone, all over the world, to organize climate strikes and demonstrations if they wanted to.

Today, the movement has different sections that have developed autonomously all over the world. In France and Belgium, the Youth for Climate movement is positioned as the Franco-Belgian group of Fridays for Future. The different groups and sections participating in the movement organize their own ‘national’ events, while participating in the international Fridays for Future events.

All groups adhere to the common values and demands, endorsed in the Lausanne Charter. This charter was produced at the Smile for Future conference in 2019 which welcomed 450 young participants and organizers at the University of Lausanne.

Lobby governments to fight the climate crisis.

The mission of Fridays for Future is ‘to fight the climate crisis and create a society that lives in harmony with its fellow human beings and its environment’. As stated on the movement’s website:

‘We are fighting for our future and our lives because they are directly threatened by the climate crisis and ecological collapse. We are acting against this because we want to protect the beauty of the earth, the diversity of species and the lives of all beings. Our goal is to combat the climate crisis and create a society that lives in harmony with its fellow human beings and the environment. Join us!’

Fridays for Future

More concretely, the movement organizes school strikes and demonstrations to pressure governments around the world to take action on climate protection. The international consensus of the movement is to limit the increase in global warming to less than 1.5°C, and the young demonstrators and strikers are asking governments and legislators to:

  • End fossil fuel extraction as part of an energy transition.
  • Abolish subsidies for fossil fuel production.
  • Increase investment in renewable energy.
  • Comply with the Paris Agreement.

At the level of each country, each national section also has specific objectives. In Germany, for example, ‘Fridays for Future Deutschland’ has developed several demands: Net Zero CO2 emissions by 2035, an end to coal by 2030, 100% energy supply from renewable energies by 2035, and a CO2 tax of 180 euros per tonne of CO2.

Multiplying actions around the world

In a very short period of time, Fridays for Future has established itself as a global movement, closely followed by the media and leaders of many countries. Angela Merkel told young climate strikers in April 2019, ‘it’s good that you are putting pressure on us’.

The movement has three main types of action:

Local and international strikes and protests

The climate strikes organized by Fridays for Future have quickly become very popular with school children in many countries around the world. These new kinds of strikes are even supported by parents (‘Parents for Future’), teachers (‘Teachers for Future’) and scientists. In the UK and the Netherlands, for example, hundreds of scientists published open letters in February 2019 to publicly support the school strikes and confirm the urgency of taking action against global warming. Among the most notable strikes was the one on 27 September 2019, when half a million people, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, gathered in Montreal and, at the end of the march, the mayor symbolically handed over the keys to the city to Greta Thunberg.

In addition to the local strikes and demonstrations in each country, there are also international mobilizations:

  • The #FightFor1Point5 Actions and Promise organized on 11 December 2020 for the 5th anniversary of the Paris Agreement.
  • A mass international strike on 20 September 2019.
  • The international mobilization on 21 June 2019 in Aachen, Germany, with 40,000 demonstrators from 15 different countries.
  • The international strike on 24 May 2019, with events organized in 1600 cities in 125 countries.
  • A strike on the 15 March 2019 which mobilized more than 1.4 million young people in 125 countries and 2083 cities.

To continue to develop these events, the movement is also offering online training to young people who want to ‘learn how to build a local climate movement’ or ‘learn how to write and distribute petitions’.

More ‘classic’ actions to put pressure on governments

In addition to strikes and demonstrations for the climate, the movement, through its initiator and representative Greta Thunberg, is also inserting itself into the global political agenda to put pressure on the governments. Greta Thunberg participated in the Katowice Climate Change Conference 2018 and the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019.

Fridays for Future is also behind a European Citizens’ Initiative to ‘call on the European Commission to step up its action to address the climate emergency in order to meet the 1.5°C warming limit’.

Shock communication campaigns on social networks.

Fridays for Future uses the internet and social networks to broadcast shocking messages and videos to raise awareness of ecological problems and climate change. This has been useful during the pandemic, when in person demonstrations were difficult to hold. In April 2020, for example, the movement broadcast a shocking video, ‘Our house is on fire’, on the occasion of the 50th Earth Day.

Combining ‘festive’ events with a radical discourse at the international level

Fridays for Future’s strategy to push policy makers to act on climate change is by putting moral pressure on them. To create this pressure, the movement’s activists carry out peaceful actions, while delivering a radical and emotionally resonant message on a global level.

Peaceful actions

The young climate strikers want to convince and unite as many citizens as possible, from young to old. The organized demonstrations and civil disobedience actions are therefore openly peaceful and non-violent, almost joyful, attracting the sympathy and even admiration of their parents or teachers. On this point, the movement clearly states that it is based on the research of the American researcher Erica Chenoweth, which shows that ‘non-violent civil disobedience is the most effective way to bring about change’.

A radical and emotional speech

Despite the language used to describe the demonstrations as ‘truancy’, Fridays for Future chose to carry a clearly radical and very ‘mature’ discourse. The demonstrators therefore express both their concern for their future and their anger that the leaders are not acting as they should on this issue.

A global scale

The young activists of Fridays for Future understand that the climate issue cannot be fought just in single countries, but at the global level. The movement therefore aims to broaden its influence as widely as possible, in every country and city in the world. Being present and acting on an international level puts pressure on political leaders as wherever they go, there will be a climate strike. In order to expand so widely, Fridays for Future relies of course on the internet and social media and seems to leave a great deal of freedom and autonomy to local groups and initiatives that partner with the movement.

Lessons from Fridays for Future

The Fridays for Future experience demonstrates that young citizens are able, and willing, to get involved socially and politically when they are convinced by a cause. Important struggles can be fought and these can influence the global political agenda.

  • There are clear lessons from the success of such a global movement:
  • Do not be afraid to dare.
  • Carry a clear and radical discourse with precise demands.
  • Combine physical actions on the ground and online actions that allow the movement’s message to reach a large audience.
  • Have one or more emblematic individuals to act as figureheads for the movement.
  • Let local initiatives develop autonomously.
  • Be able to talk to everyone (activists on the ground, the media, and policy makers).
  • Act at the right scale.