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Angry teens: On the streets with Youth for Climate

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In January 2019, teenagers in European cities took to the streets to let it be known that it was their future that was at stake. More than 10,000 students aged 15 to 18 skipped school to attend peaceful protest marches in the Belgian capital Brussels. Their aim was to pressure politicians into increasing measures against climate change. 17-year old Jutta Crois was one of them. “We are at a point of no return”, Jutta said. The younger generation is tired of waiting for political action. “We have to change the politics, not the climate”.

On an ordinary Thursday morning, Jutta Crois would have sat in class, chewed on her pencil and solved math equations. On this Thursday morning, Jutta was carried through the streets of Brussels in a wave of colourful rain jackets and painted faces. Her fingers, clasped around a cardboard poster, ached from the cold. But she didn’t care. Exhilarated by the roaring crowd around her, she joined in the chanting: “What do we want? – “Climate Justice!”; “When do we want it?” – “Now!”.

Global warming concerns young people above all, as they will have to live with the consequences. “It is clear that something is seriously wrong and if this is just the beginning, what will happen in the future?”, Jutta said with concern. Her generation grew up with the issue of climate change. “It’s not a political campaign”, she explained, “it’s nothing to be pro or contra – its facts.” Like Atlas, the facts are a heavy burden on the shoulders of the younger generation.

“I don’t think there should be anyone who doesn’t care about this.” Jutta is a vegetarian and often collects trash on her daily walk to school. She is puzzled at people’s everyday behavior: “Is it really so hard to throw that bottle, the plastic cake packaging and the cigarette pack into the bin or go just 24-hours without an animal on your plate?” These are little things everyone can do. “Just because it's a small step, it doesn’t mean it cannot grow into something big”. Just like the “Youth for Climate” movement has.

On the morning of the 31st of January, Jutta woke up before her alarm. The morning was foggy, like the calm before a storm, she remembers. She didn't know what to expect, her excitement was mixed with anxiety. It was a fun field trip, but in the back of her mind the journey from her hometown Bruges to Brussels meant so much more.

The movement “Youth for Climate”, in other European countries also known as “Fridays for Future”, was first sparked by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg in summer 2018. In Belgium, Anuna De Wever and Kyra Gantois took matters into their own hands. “People are always looking for a leader, someone with a compelling story”, explains Stephen Milder, professor of social movements at the University of Groningen. Jutta agrees: “It’s always been in the back of our minds, we only needed that extra push.”

Rainclouds overshadowed the scene on the streets of Brussels on 31 January. Thousands of self-made posters danced over the heads of the crowd. Crooked letters spelled quirky slogans: “Keep it cool!” or “Will Noah save us from a second flood?”.

Suddenly Jutta was in the midst of a crowd of cheering people. She felt uncomfortable. Then a drum started playing and everything around her became a blur. The beat synched with her heartbeat and she started wildly dancing and jumping, singing and shouting. “That feeling of solidarity, having a shared goal – you feel electrified.”

“A few teenagers had the guts to turn a whole country upside down.” Jutta knows that in the end, “the big changes have to be implemented by the government, not by 17-year-olds”. But the most important thing is that it is now finally happening. “It can’t be stopped anymore”, she said. “Ignoring this situation would be the dumbest thing the politicians could do.”

“This movement is very much directed at governments”, says Jan Mayrhofer, policy officer of sustainable development at the European Youth Forum, a platform that represents and advocates the interests of over 100 youth organizations across Europe.

Critics have argued that teenagers use the protests as an opportunity to skip school. Belgian environmental minster Joke Schauvliege resigned in tears after having claimed the "Youth for Climate" movement was nothing but a "set up", instead of children speaking up for their rights. Bart De Wever, chairman of the Flemish nationalist party, advised students to return to their studies and “not to believe in the apocalypse”. Jutta reacted outraged: “In order to be heard we need to do something illegal, otherwise nobody would listen.”

“It is not the size of this protest that makes it so powerful”, Professor Milder explains. “There have been much bigger protests that get less of a response.” This young generation, which is unable to vote and essentially powerless in our society, will be affected most by climate change in the future. According to Milder, this is what makes their message so powerful. “It makes us as adults stop and think about what kind of world we are leaving for younger people.”

The Youth Forum called for a more critical discussion of the systematic issues behind the politics of climate change. “We cannot have unlimited economic growth, but at the same time reduce greenhouse gases”, Mayrhofer concludes. He questions whether the current economic system is even capable of achieving any real change and whether systems of representative democracies can deliver a sustainable future for current and subsequent generations of young people, without seriously taking their voices into account. Perhaps this movement brings us one step closer to the change in mindset that is necessary to take more serious climate action.

“Whatever the punishment, I will go to Brussels again", Jutta said before we parted. “Maybe just one time, maybe two or three times or however long it takes.” To her it is a shame that it has come this far; that the planet’s fate is now in the hands of its youngest inhabitants. Nevertheless, she is proud to be a part of this impactful group. She is determined: “We won’t stop until politicians listen and react.”

Photo credit: Jutta Crois