Belgians stage walkout to protest inaction on climate change

Graphic by Kinsey Couture ’22

Graphic by Kinsey Couture ’22

BY VICTORIA WANG

Student climate change activists staged a large protest in the city center of Brussels, Belgium on Thursday, Jan. 31. Tens of thousands of teenage students walked out of their classrooms to call for government action addressing climate change, holding signs with slogans like “no nature, no future,” and “if the climate were a bank, it would have been saved by now.” The 35,000 student protesters joined a mounting number of demonstrations across Europe.

The Thursday protest was the fourth in two months to occur in Brussels, with about 70,000 people in attendance, according to TIME. Although the recent protests in Brussels are related to their own domestic politics, the protestors also focused on the implications that the upcoming European Union elections will have on environmental policy.

The Brussels protests were largely inspired by Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old Swedish student who started a school strike inspired by U.S. high schoolers’ walkouts for gun reform in front of the Swedish Parliament in central Stockholm during the summer of 2018. It was an effort to demonstrate the younger generation’s frustration with the government, which they feel has not taken sufficient action against the global climate
crisis. They feel that the government’s lack of concrete policies to combat climate change ultimately threatens their future.

Earlier that year, the Swedish government released a statement claiming they had enacted “the
most ambitious climate law in the world,” aiming to become carbon neutral by 2045 to beat the targets established by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Thunberg considered the act “too little too late,” according to a Guardian report, and decided to take direct action herself to call attention to the climate crisis and to advocate for larger-scale policy changes.

After organizing the protests in Sweden, Thunberg was invited to the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos, where she spoke to world leaders, business figures and celebrities. During the talk, Thunberg claimed that “rather than finding a solution to global warming, some [world leaders and influencers] were profiting from inaction on climate change,” CNN reports. Thunberg’s talk at Davos garnered global attention, and her dramatic stance at a relatively young age inspired a wave of other students to lead protests of their own.

Protests have taken various forms in Germany, France, Sweden, Switzerland and elsewhere, ranging from online petitions to real-life rallies. Much of the mobilization has been accomplished online, where teenage activists utilize messaging tools and social media broadcasting to gather in large numbers.

According to The New York Times, German stu- dents scheduled protests several weeks in a row in ear ly 2019 by communicating mainly through the messaging app WhatsApp. Belgian students also organized school walkouts by the thousands on four consecutive Thursdays, mainly through Facebook messaging.

Further climate change protests extended beyond the European continent. In response to Thunberg’s talk at the World Economic Forum, some hundreds of students also prepared to strike from school to protest Australian politicians’ refusal to recognize climate change as an emergency.

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison was widely criticized as being “out of touch” after he released a dismissive response to the walkouts, telling students to “let the politicians, not school children deal with the issue,” the Guardian reported. On Wednesday, Nov. 28, students in Canberra held additional protests in response to the prime minister’s comments. Two days later, Australian students in Sydney and Melbourne initiated a campaign entitled “Strike 4 Climate Action” in which, according to a Guardian report, more than a thousand primary and secondary students have participated. Students in Sydney filled a shopping center and students in Melbourne marched through the streets, bringing traffic to a standstill. Last Sunday, additional climate protests in Brussels swelled in number to an estimated 100,000. The crowd was comprised of people of all ages, according to the New York Times.

In response to the increasing momentum of the demonstrations, Belgian prime minister Charles Michel spoke at a delegation with climate activists, stating that his government was “prepared to act, but not at any cost,” the New York Times reported.

“We need a climate policy that is positive for the environment, but also one that is positive for the purchasing power of the families,” Michel said.

The youth movement in Europe has been watched closely in the U.S. and especially at Mount Holyoke, where the College’s Climate Justice Coalition provided a statement in support of the student protesters. The Climate Justice Coalition “stands in solidarity with the brave youth leaders that have risked their futures and safety by taking action. Disruption is key to bring attention to these critically important issues. Student strikes and coordinated actions are an accessible format to engage high school-aged youth and can shift the conversation towards legislative action.”

The protests by teenagers in Brussels have inspired a movement around the world, with the rest of Europe closely following their lead. A similar protest is being planned in the Netherlands for the week following the Brussels protest.

“At this point, no one action will ‘resolve’ climate change,” the Climate Justice Coalition’s statement continued, “but we should continue encouraging youth and people of all ages to get involved in climate justice to pressure their legislators to take concrete actions.”

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