Swedish teen’s worldwide strike for climate ‘without precedent’

”Strike for climate”. With that simple plea, 16-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg has inspired children worldwide to boycott classes under the anxious gaze of adults who don’t quite know how to react.

Swedish teen’s worldwide strike for climate ‘without precedent’
Swedish teen Greta Thunberg has been staging her school strike since August. Photo: Tomas Oneborg/ SvD/ TT

Every Friday since August, Greta, as she is known to all, has staked out a spot in front of parliament in Stockholm, demanding that her government step up the fight against climate change.

In the last six months, tens of thousands of high school students—in Sydney, Brussels, Berlin, The Hague, London and other cities—have followed suit. Some have marched in the streets bearing banners: “Save Our Future,” ”Act Now!”, “Climate Change is Real”.

“Our house is on fire,” the charismatic teen told the global ruling class gathered last month in Davos, Switzerland.

“I don’t want you to be hopeful, I want you to panic,” she said with icy calm. “And then I want you to act.”

“Her words penetrated people’s hearts because they were spoken with such integrity,” said Karen O’Brien, a professor of sociology at the University of Oslo working on climate change issues.

’Fire waiting to burn’

“Sometimes it takes one person with courage to spark a fire that is just waiting to burn,” she told AFP. “Thunberg articulated very clearly and courageously what the problem is and what needs to be done about it.

“Children have been listening, watching, and waiting—they expected more from us and we have failed,” O’Brien added, noting that they will likely be the first generation to feel the full impact of global warming.

An international protest movement led by young teens is “without precedent,” said Sylvain Wagnon, history of education specialist at the University of Montpellier, in southern France.

“Their youth and in-your-face attitude are unsettling to adults, some of whom clearly are tempted to say ‘you are just children, time to go home now’,” he told AFP.

Upon learning that the education minister of New South Wales in Australia, Rob Stokes, had threatened to punish students and teachers for missing classes, Greta delivered a stinging riposte by Twitter.

“OK. We hear you. And we don’t care,” she wrote. “Your statement belongs in a museum.”

Greta, who was to be in Brussels on Thursday and Paris on Friday, has called for a large-scale classroom strike on March 15.  

There was pushback in Germany as well, where upward of 15,000 students have boycotted school during the last few Fridays in dozens of cities.

And during the first large-scale action in Britain last week, Prime Minister Theresa May’s office complained that thousands of students walking out of class “increases teachers’ work loads and wastes lesson time”.

Once again, Greta fired back.

“British PM says that the children on school strike are ‘wasting lesson time’,” she tweeted. “That may well be the case. But then again, political leaders have wasted 30 years of inaction. And that is slightly worse.”

‘Follow their lead’

In a video clip linked to her Twitter account, she added: “Some people think we should be in school instead. But why should we be studying for a future that soon will be no more and when no one is doing anything whatsoever to save that future?”

“We are going to keep striking until our voices are heard and acted upon!”, said 13-year-old Holly Gilligrand, one of the faces of the movement in Scotland.

Greta’s army of schoolchildren has received ringing endorsement from many mainstream environmental NGOs and scientists, who have struggled for years to get the same messages across to a wider public.

“This is something new, something good—I am absolutely convinced that we need a strong citizen-based movement,” said Wolfgang Cramer, director of the Mediterranean Institute for Biodiversity and Ecology in Aix-en-Provence and a lead author on Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change reports. 

On Facebook, Cramer came to Greta’s defence against social network trolls mocking the young Swede’s Asperger’s or suggesting that she had been manipulated by her adult entourage.

“It’s shocking that some people believe that we can get rid of this kind of movement simply by making fun of its standard bearers,” he said by phone.

Climate activists hope the movement will pressure governments, whose national voluntary carbon-cutting commitments do not come close to meeting the Paris climate treaty target of capping global warming at two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

“I think it’s remarkably hopeful—but that hope depends on everyone else following the lead of these young people,” Bill McKibben, co-founder of told AFP by email. 

“It’s not enough to stand back in admiration, because young people don’t have the formal power to make change happen. It’s up to the rest of us to back them up, and fast.”


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How Sweden’s Sami reindeer herders are being forced to adapt to climate change

The indigenous Sami people have herded reindeer in northern Sweden for generations, but climate change poses a new threat to their way of life and livelihood.

How Sweden's Sami reindeer herders are being forced to adapt to climate change
Reindeer pictured near the northern city of Kiruna. Photo: AP Photo/Malin Moberg

Once, the lynx, wolverines and eagles that preyed on their animals were the main concern for reindeer herders as they moved them to find food in the winter. But now Margret Fjellstrom and Daniel Viklund, a married couple from Sweden's indigenous Sami community with hundreds of tawny reindeer, worry about a new threat.

Shifting weather patterns in northern Sweden are forcing them to go further afield to find grazing for their hungry reindeer, pushing up costs and taking more time.

Dressed warmly in jackets and ski pants against the minus 17-degree-Celsius (1.4 Fahrenheit) temperatures, the couple watched on a February morning as their animals pawed through deep snow for the lichen they eat. It's their main food source in winter on the hillsides near Sweden's Baltic Sea coast.

Back when snowfall like this was a regular occurrence, Fjellstrom's herder parents would follow the same migration routes year in, year out, stopping at tried-and-tested spots for food. But that isn't the case now.

“It can rain in January, it can snow in May, there's no logic to it any more,” Fjellstrom, 39, said, sitting with Viklund by their snowmobiles.

Photo: AP Photo/Malin Moberg

Between 1991 and 2019, parts of northern and eastern Sweden saw a rise in average temperature of nearly two degrees C compared to the 1860-1900 period, Sweden's meteorological institute said in a report. For several days in early January, temperatures in the north climbed about 10C more than normal, the institute said. And on January 2nd, three weather stations in central Sweden reported their highest temperatures for the month since 1971.

Unseasonably high temperatures cause the snow to thaw and freeze again when the cold returns, building up thicker layers of ice that prevent the reindeer from digging down through the snow to the lichen.

To ensure they will find food during the migration, the couple spends two months taking turns to scout out unfamiliar areas, before setting off with the animals. Moving the reindeer from their summer pasture now often involves navigating them around motorways, windfarms or hydroelectric projects. The journey this year took nearly twice as long as it would have done in predictable weather, Fjellstrom said.

The Sami have herded reindeer across areas of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia for generations and are thought to number between 80,000 and 100,000, with many living above the Arctic Circle. In Sweden, only the Sami are allowed to herd the animals, raised for their meat, pelts and antlers.

Fjellstrom and Viklund annually move their herd from Dikanas, a village 800 kilometres (500 miles) north of Stockholm, to the plains near Ornskoldsvik. They transport them first by lorry, then release them and follow by snowmobile, tracking them using GPS collars.

Viklund watched as the reindeer disappeared into the snow-dusted forest, before launching a drone with a speaker attached into the freezing air above. It allows him to keep track of the animals when poor snowfall makes travel by snowmobile impossible. He can also herd them on with recordings of his dog barking when they head to areas with little food or hazards like roads or windfarms whose turbine noise scares the reindeer.

“We're getting more and more days that don't look like this, the snow is just a few centimetres,” he said. “It's a way to adapt.”

Reindeer herding on the Vindelälven river. Photo: Grahame Soden

Concerned that the animals get enough to eat, the couple split their herd and asked Fjellstrom's cousin to move the other half. It's an added expense for 31-year-old Neila Fjellstrom but he understands the need.

The Sami peoples and their reindeer are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, according to research. 

A “warming climate alters the vegetation conditions and threatens the reindeer's wellbeing and access to food,” Finland's University of Oulu and its Center for Environmental and Respiratory Health Research said in a study last year.

Many Sami are more worried about fluctuating temperatures now, than encroaching infrastructure, said Gunhild Rosqvist, a Stockholm University researcher into the effects of climate change in mountain and polar environments.

“I think their awareness of their vulnerability has increased a lot,” she told AFP.

At the annual Sami market in Jokkmokk above the Arctic Circle in early February, thousands of Sami mixed with tourists, just weeks before the new coronavirus forced countries around the world to introduce lockdowns. Reindeer products were proudly on display, from steaming pots of reindeer stew to soft pelts and knives with handles carved from antlers.

“Reindeer herding has been practised for many hundreds of years and it's an important part of Sami culture,” Kjell-Ake Aronsson, a researcher at the local museum, said. “Reindeer meat is an important product. A lot of people are related indirectly to reindeer herding.”

Sweden's Sami parliament estimates around 2,000 people are directly dependent on herding the country's 250,000 animals for a living. Away from the crowds, young Sami activists, in traditional outfits embroidered in blues and reds, gathered for a “climate strike” attended by Greta Thunberg.

Fjellstrom and Viklund's 17-year-old daughter Alva also spoke at the event and hopes to become a herder herself. But the increased effort needed for herding reindeer now makes Viklund worry about the future.

“I want to give my children the opportunity to do it,” he said, the sun casting long, blue shadows across the snow. “Climate change could destroy that dream.”

By Tom Little/AFP