Whatever Happened to the UK Youth Climate Strikes?
Two years on, and the movement appears to have all but fizzled out.
by Clare Hymer
15 February 2021
The night before the UK’s first climate strike, 15-year-old Izzy Warren had no idea what was about to happen. “Until the day before the strike, I thought I was the only person from my school going,” she tells Novara Media. “Then I got texts from like 100 people being like, ‘hi, how do we come to this?’”
On Friday 15 February 2019, around 15,000 young people in towns and cities across the country walked out of school in protest at government inaction on the climate crisis. A month later, as part of a global strike, they did the same again – this time in more than three times their previous number.
For 17-year-old Lola Fayokun, the walk-outs felt completely different from politics as she’d known it before. “There was something so unique and special and empowering and overwhelming about being in a group of hundreds and thousands of young people who were, like, climbing up posts and banging on drums and waving their school ties and screaming and dancing,” she recalls. “It was just the most incredible feeling.”
For the best part of the year, the youth strikers had the wind at their backs. Together with Extinction Rebellion (XR), monthly strikes forced climate breakdown onto the news agenda with a level of success not achieved by any movement previously. In September 2019, as part of a global week of action, 300,000 people participated in more than 200 events nationwide in what was the biggest climate protest the UK had ever seen.
The youth strikers’ message was clear – they wouldn’t stop striking until their demands were met. But two years on from the UK’s first strike, the movement appears to have all but fizzled out. While Covid-19 was certainly a factor – at least until Black Lives Matter broke the seal on mid-pandemic protest – youth strikers from around the country have spoken to Novara Media about tensions that fractured the movement from within. What really happened to the UK youth strikes?
The ‘golden age’.
Like everywhere else in the world, the UK youth strike movement came together around a tactic. In August 2018, the now internationally-renowned schoolgirl Greta Thunberg started skipping classes to sit outside the Swedish parliament with a sign reading “skolstrejk för klimatet” (“school strike for climate”). In the months that followed, students worldwide began staging similar protests, and the “Fridays for Future” movement was born.
London high-school student Anna Taylor began to think about organising strikes in the UK after seeing the success of those in Australia in November 2018. “I think I was 17 at the time, and I just thought yeah, it’d be great if we could do that here,” she tells Novara Media. She went about setting up Facebook and Instagram pages, and asked some friends if they wanted to get involved. In December 2018, she and a small group of others founded the UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN), and soon agreed on four broad demands.
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Around the same time, adults and young people across the country were also trying to kickstart autonomous strikes in towns and cities under the banner of Youth Strike 4 Climate (YS4C). For both UKSCN and YS4C groups, the idea was simple: to get as many people out onto the streets on 15 February as possible. The scale of the mobilisation astounded everyone.
Anna explains that in the weeks that followed, there was “very much a coming together” of strike groups around the country. For Abel Harvie-Clark, who had mobilised around 70 pupils at his sixth form college in Newcastle for the following month’s strike, linking up with other youth strike groups via UKSCN felt important: “Once we’d had this big thing in Newcastle, I was like okay yeah, we need to make more out of this, we need organisations to make this keep happening.”
It was during this period that UKSCN’s organisational structure started to develop: initially a core group – ten or so young people who led on building the national network, along with two adult support staff – plus a volunteer WhatsApp group of around 100 people. But as former core group member Noga Levy-Rapoport explains, it soon became clear this was “neither sustainable nor a fair way to run a rapidly growing network”. The core group was dissolved, and UKSCN instead adopted “a much more open, more transparent, more accountable model” – around 400 volunteers who communicated via Slack, with different working groups and coordinators for each working group.
Of course, UKSCN wasn’t emerging into uncharted political territory. Climate activism in the UK has long been dominated by a number of big, established non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and from October 2018, XR began to captivate the news cycle with colourful ‘rebellions’ including roadblocks, occupations and other forms of peaceful civil disobedience. With a wide range of campaigning models and strategies in its orbit, there was much for the developing youth movement to draw on – and, importantly, to define itself against.
From the outset, many of the foremost organisers within UKSCN were eager to distance themselves from XR in terms of the group’s politics – or professed lack of politics. While UKSCN was explicitly non-partisan, Bo Jacobs Strom, now 19, explains that for a number of those involved, the youth strikes were a reaction to XR’s “beyond politics” stance, and were led by young people keen to frame the climate crisis as a political issue requiring radical, justice-oriented solutions.
“We can’t achieve climate justice if we haven’t achieved social justice, if we haven’t fought for racial justice and gender justice – and capitalism is sort of the root of all that,” Izzy, now 17, explains.
At the same time, however, it was UKSCN’s lack of a “particular political attitude towards climate” as an organisation which, for Bo and others, enabled the strikes to grow so quickly. “To join, it was just: are you striking for the climate?” he explains. “It’s a very low barrier to entry.”
The same was true of UKSCN’s organisational structure. The youth strikers were committed to a loosely organised, anti-hierarchical and decentralised structure, whereby local groups acted autonomously. This autonomy, says George Bond, who was 15 at the time, meant the tactic of the strike could be replicated very easily. “Everyone can organise a climate strike,” he tells Novara Media. “You just text your mates and make a WhatsApp chat.”
Meanwhile, he explains, the influence of NGOs – both formally through the adult support they received and informally in terms of campaigning culture – was “really useful for strengthening [the organisation] early on”, especially in terms of creating institutional structures, raising money and formalising the organisation.
Up until September 2019 – the “golden age”, as George calls it – everything seemed to be going brilliantly. “Everything works, everyone’s super into it, and people can work together beyond their differences,” he says. The theory of change, meanwhile, was pretty simple: “attract politicians’ attention, meet the politicians, try to convince them [to meet the demands], they would say no, we would do it again until they conceded, basically.”
Asked whether she thought the strikes would be successful, Izzy says she felt naive. “I guess we all thought: we’ll get more and more people out on the streets, then that would show that people want this, and then the government has to do it.”
George, now 17, has similar recollections. “I think we had this vague notion that it would gradually escalate,” he says. “When something new explodes, everyone thinks that they’re going to be the ones to achieve the thing they’re trying to achieve.”
But whilst the momentum of the monthly strikes carried the movement along, problems began to grow within UKSCN. The youth strikers had successfully unified around a tactic, but it soon became clear it was pretty much all that unified them. In contrast to the founders’ justice-oriented perspective on the climate crisis, many new recruits didn’t see the crisis as political at all, leading some people – often towards the centre and right of the political spectrum – to leave the network altogether.
“I think a lot of the tensions within UKSCN have come from this idea of we need to fight for environmentalism, and that’s it,” Izzy explains. “It wasn’t clearly set out that we were a climate justice group – not just an environmental group – from the very beginning, which sort of led to a lot of confusion, as people weren’t sure what the organisation they were in actually stood for.”
There were also day-to-day political disagreements between different parts of the left. Those with more radical politics were often keen to frame the movement as explicitly anticapitalist, for instance, whilst those on the liberal left were keener to stick to more narrowly environmental issues and securing policy wins. Lola, now 19, explains that when some in the group discussed climate justice, the response from some was: “‘But what will the average person think? We’re trying to convince everyone here!’”
This tension played out in a number of different ways. Often, there were spats over what UKSCN should and shouldn’t post on social media. “Someone would put something out and then someone else would be like, ‘you can’t say that’,” George recalls. “Then there would be a debate, and then our social media output became very stagnant because we couldn’t put stuff out without there being conflict about it.”
Other times, there was conflict over the politics of the strikes themselves, ranging from arguments over whether or not strike organisers should liaise with the police, to a dispute over whether UKSCN should run adverts in publications owned by the Daily Mail group. Perhaps the clearest example came in 2020, around the time of a mass deportation charter flight to Jamaica, when UKSCN London – one of the network’s more radical local groups – marched around the city with a banner that read ‘CLIMATE STRIKERS SAY FUCK THE HOME OFFICE.’ “There were people in the movement that were horrified that we’d done it,” George recalls.
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Problems also arose when it came to UKSCN’s organisational structure. When combined with the absence of a shared politics, the youth strikers’ commitment to horizontal organising made decision-making difficult, and when decisions did get made, there weren’t structures in place to make sure everyone’s voices were being heard. Abel explains there was also often a discrepancy between those who spent most of their time organising and those who spent most of their time on Slack and in meetings, but weren’t necessarily connected to a local group.
The lack of national infrastructure to facilitate communication between local groups also led to groups drifting away from the organisation. “[In Newcastle] we never really felt connected to other local groups like ourselves,” Abel explains. “The only other one we could really see was London, and I think that’s because there was no structure for local groups to get together.” For various reasons – some political, some organisational – groups including Bristol YS4C even left the network altogether.
Inadequate investment in the network itself was reflected in how the organisation allocated funding. Sometimes, Abel says, money was spent on spectacular stunts rather than essentials for local groups. He recalls an incident from summer 2020 when UKSCN funded some huge projections onto the Houses of Parliament and other London buildings. “There were still a lot of places where local groups existed and had energy, but would feel quite detached from that,” he says. “In Newcastle, we’d watch these amazing things happening [with] a lot of resources going in and be like, oh okay, we actually just need some flyers printing.”
the projections last night as a video!
thank you to everyone who has been involved in this really really cool action !! pic.twitter.com/E2RYmJwdrh
— ukscn london 🌍🏴 (@ukscn_london) June 30, 2020
Simultaneously, the influence of NGO-style organising on UKSCN was sapping dynamism from the movement. Anna explains that many in the organisation felt pressure to act more like an NGO, such as when courting funders. “I was going to lots of venues and I was basically saying the same speech to a room full of white middle-aged businessmen in suits,” she tells Novara Media. “I love going to active protests and I love organising things – but what I don’t like is doing the same thing again and again.”
While the youth strikers agree that having adult support staff was invaluable, Abel argues they also “became quite dependent on them”. When their one paid staffer moved on at the start of 2020, George explains that keeping the movement going became a lot harder because there were then a number of tasks that the strikers hadn’t learnt or been trained to do themselves.
At the same time, George argues that NGO culture was “not very conducive to taking opportunities as they come,” and began to restrict the movement’s activities. After one strike, young people in London were planning an afterparty on Westminster Bridge. “Some people came and said: ‘You can’t do that, because what if someone falls off the bridge? You would be responsible, and you don’t have any insurance’,” he recalls. “We were having to behave as if we were this large organisation with employees and a fiscal year and stuff and we just weren’t – we were just some kids and we just wanted to do what we wanted to do.”
According to Bo, the speed and suddenness with which UKSCN grew meant that rather than developing their own longer-term, movement-oriented strategy beyond the tactic of striking, they instead rushed to ape NGO-style organising models – behaving how they thought a big environmental organisation was supposed to behave. This led to the launch of national campaigns separate from the strikes, such as a campaign around climate education. Bo argues that while these campaigns were – and many still are – worthwhile in and of themselves, without being part of a broader strategy, “a lot of people joining [UKSCN] national got sucked into that, and the actual building of the movement slightly fell by the wayside.”
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For Lola, what UKSCN was missing was the right kind of strategic support. “We had support in terms of people doing tasks for us and helping us with specific things,” she explains. “But there was really nobody there helping us not to make the mistakes that so many leftist movements have made before.”
As more people joined the network, UKSCN struggled to resolve both political and interpersonal problems, whilst also replicating dynamics widely observed across the left and wider social justice movements, such as “cancel culture”. This was especially true of the culture which emerged in UKSCN’s internal communications on Slack – with the added complication that the young people involved were of a wide range of ages. “There’s a big difference between people who are, like, 19 and people who are, like, 13,” says George. “These people were all interacting together.”
A lack of political education – particularly around racism – amplified the group’s problems. “I remember once on a UKSCN Zoom call, I think I brought up the topic of climate reparations [for countries in the Global South], and everyone was like, ‘oh, well we can’t trust them to spend our money’,” says 16-year-old Scarlett Westbrook. “When somebody was racist, nobody would say anything, and because we didn’t talk about it, because we didn’t tackle the political misinformation and xenophobia, it got worse and worse and worse.”
Lola explains that these instances happened relatively frequently. “I remember that there was one thread [on Slack] where someone said we needed to meet with Boris Johnson, and I was like, ‘he’s a racist, we don’t want to become a photo op for Boris Johnson, that’s not necessary’, and this person was like ‘no, that’s not true, he’s not a racist’.”
While some – though not all – youth strikers say instances of outright racism were at times “managed reasonably well” (in that people would be kicked out of the network), issues that were more complicated – or “problematic”, as the youth strikers describe them – were often addressed in ways that caused further problems.
“I remember instances of people saying things on the Slack, and then people snapping back, ‘you’re not supposed to say that, that’s the wrong way to say it’,” says Anna. “I think this resulted in people not talking about how they felt as much, because they felt so scared that they didn’t know the right way to say something.”
“Someone would say something that was not radical enough, or problematic, and people would come down on them like a tonne of bricks,” George recalls. “There would be these Slack threads that were like 300 replies long, and people would be really upset by that.”
Anna emphasises that those attempting to address such issues often had good intentions, but the imperative for people to “take accountability” often led to a group dynamic which mimicked the “call-out culture” of the very online left. The result, she says, was that Slack became an unproductive space – and because it remained “the core of the movement”, it became a key factor in people’s disengagement in general.
“It was interesting how something that was, at the start, very essential to the growth of the movement and was a very warm and welcoming place became a very hostile place to be,” she explains. “It became a place where a lot of people felt they were just being shut down, and obviously people don’t want to be in that kind of environment.”
Anna feels there are things which could have been done to improve UKSCN’s internal culture. “I think as an organisation we could have sat down and done a workshop on how to have these conversations with people in a constructive way,” she says. “But we never did because there was a lack of focus on regeneration and wellbeing within the movement. And then I think when [the network] grew so big, it was difficult to do that on a wide-scale, because people don’t want to sit on endless Zoom calls – whereas if you’re doing it in person it’s much easier to sit in a circle in a room and have that kind of conversation.”
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Then there was the phenomenon of the ‘activist influencer’. Anna, who co-founded UKSCN and had a high-profile media role, was often portrayed as the “leader of the youth strikes” by the media. She says a culture of competitiveness developed between her and other strikers designated as media spokespeople. “It became almost a competition to see who has the most followers on Instagram, who was getting the most media interviews,” she recalls. “I started basing my self-worth on that.”
Abel says such media attention began to have a negative effect on the organisation’s politics. “There was definitely a culture of, almost, celebrities amongst UKSCN,” he says. Weight was given to “who’s got the ‘best politics’ – and that’s not based on, like, open discussions, but more on whose word had the most sway.” This culture, Abel adds, also informed how people began to go about engaging with the movement. “Things could become quite self congratulatory, like ‘look at all these great books I’m reading’, rather than, like, are you engaging with new people, are we actually making new connections?”
Scarlett says such problems were due in part to the fact that the organisation “didn’t have a proper identity.” Although there were attempts to resolve cultural problems within the group, they “happened too late for it to have made a proper difference”.
George agrees. “There were efforts made later on to address things, and a group that was set up to do accountability work and stuff to get rid of the toxicity,” he says. “But the trouble with saying ‘the culture is toxic’ is that cultures are very difficult to just change.”
The tactic stops working.
The movement’s growth throughout the first half of 2019 was propelled by the replicability of the strike as a tactic. By the summer, however, the momentum behind the strikes had started to wane. By the time planning began for September’s global week of action, the whole idea, Anna explains, “was to try and bring momentum back”.
And for one day, they did. On 20 September, more than 300,000 people participated in walk-outs and demonstrations across the country. Internationally, participation was somewhere between 6 million and 7.6 million. Notably, it wasn’t just young people out in the streets this time: the youth strikers had invited everyone – from parents to NGOs to trade unions – to join them.
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But in the months that followed, participation in the strikes dwindled again. For many of the activists, the September strike felt like a finale. “I see 20 September as the last big thing that worked really well. After that, it became very difficult to continue doing stuff,” says George.
For Izzy, the problem was that it didn’t feel like the strikes were working. “[The September strike] was this amazing moment. But it was also this very demoralising moment, because we’d had 350,000 people out on strike, which was the largest ever environmental protest in the UK, and then nothing happened,” she explains. “And I think that was the point at which we were like, this isn’t going to get us the change that we want.”
“It was never framed as though there was a next step,” Abel recalls. “It was like we’re going to do this big day, and everything will be sorted.” For Noga, articulating a plan beyond 20 September was made harder by the way activists had mobilised during the summer. “It was very difficult to keep up the momentum when a lot of the language we’d used around the September strike had painted it as a massive one-off.”
Another factor was simply burnout. “In February and March [of 2019], [the strikes] seemed to happen spontaneously,” Anna explains. But despite the huge turnout in September, “it was really hard to squeeze out those numbers”.
For many in UKSCN, the “shock” of the strikes had simply worn off. “I think what made the youth strikes so exciting and powerful at the start was the ‘fuck it, let’s do it’ attitude, where not everything was fully controlled or planned,” Abel says. But by opening the September strike up to groups from across civil society, he argues, “we were far more playing by the normal rules of doing things”.
Should the loss of momentum around the strikes have signalled a death knell for the movement? George suggests not, arguing that had there been proper organisational structures in place, the movement could have developed a plan for regeneration. The problem was that they didn’t.
“It wasn’t the momentum [being lost] that was the problem – it’s that the loss of momentum exposed all the issues underneath,” he explains. “Because we had no overarching written strategy, and we had no tactical ideas beyond the strikes, there was nothing to unify around.”
“It happens a lot, right? Social media-driven movements explode and then they fizzle as there’s no political substance to back them up, and we didn’t know that because we were all, like, 15,” he continues. “As soon as the thing you’re unified around collapses, all that you’re left with is the conflicts. And that was what ultimately killed it off.”
Building for the future.
Since September 2019, UKSCN has faced a series of external obstacles. In February 2020, plans for the network’s first national conference had to be scrapped due, ironically, to flooding caused by Storm Dennis. The same month, UKSCN’s paid staffer left the organisation – a departure which made the day-to-day running of the network more difficult. Whilst Bristol YS4C managed to pull off a local strike of around 30,000 – including Greta Thunberg – nationally organised strikes have continued to draw much smaller crowds.
In March, the UK’s first national lockdown put an end to physical meetings and mobilisations altogether. While youth strike groups internationally launched so-called ‘digital strikes’, attempts to get them off the ground in the UK fell flat. “If physical strikes were already losing momentum before Covid, it’s very difficult to go from that to digital strikes and expect them to pick up momentum,” Anna explains. “I think [Covid-19] really kind of finalised what was going to happen eventually anyway.”
Some say it’s now too late for UKSCN to be revived as the national organising force it was back in 2019. “I’m not very hopeful,” Scarlett tells Novara Media. “I think the lack of a cohesive aim has left us too divided to move forwards.”
For others, however, Covid-19 has been an opportunity for the movement to pause and regroup. Izzy describes herself as “cautiously optimistic”, explaining that it’s been a time to “reflect on where we’ve been, what we’ve done and how we move forward”.
Everyone agrees that if the movement does make a comeback, it won’t be just with monthly strikes – amongst other things, Covid-19 has made missing more school untenable. Instead, youth climate activists want to focus on local campaigns, develop a diversity of tactics – and, for many, a more radical, social justice-oriented politics too.
“Obviously protests are still going to happen, but we need to disrupt the machinery of capital,” George argues. “We need to do things like rent strikes and mass fare evasions, and build more solidarity with other groups.” For Noga, the time for strikes has now passed, and UKSCN should instead take lessons in civil disobedience – from mass sit-ins to breaking onto discussion panels – from the Sunrise Movement in the US. UKSCN also needs to be “more explicit” in its demands, she adds – particularly when “we’ve seen the way phrases like ‘green recovery’ and ‘build back better’ have been so easily co-opted by the government”.
When Izzy and thousands of other young people walked out into the streets in February 2019, none of them could have foreseen the scale of the movement they were going to be part of. There’s no doubt that the legacy of the UK strikes will be significant – perhaps nowhere more so than in the political growth of those involved.
“My politics have definitely become more left-wing since getting involved in this stuff,” she explains. “At the risk of sounding cliché, it was very much the youth strikes that, sort of, politicised me.”
The question that remains, however, is whether the missteps made by the movement can be instructive for the future. For many, there’s an underlying sense that things could have turned out differently had the movement been able to prioritise political education – especially in terms of resolving political and personal tensions.
George believes five changes could have put UKSCN on a different course. First, embracing an explicitly progressive politics from the outset, and inducting new members into it. Second, having a clear organisational structure based on voluntary hierarchy and democracy. Third, having a fairer and more straightforward system for raising and distributing funds. Fourth, developing a “tactical roster” or “escalation plan” for political action. Finally, forming two branches within the network – one concerned with “politicking and meeting MPs”, the other with “protests, direct action, civil disobedience and grassroots organisation”.
For others, however, there is also the question of how climate movements can ever rise to the scale of the challenge facing them – particularly without falling in line behind the NGOs which dominate the movement.
“How do you, like, break through and do that kind of thing, while not just adhering to the standard environmentalist understanding of what climate politics is?” Bo asks. “I think that’s still very up in the air.”
- Since the publication of this piece, Fridays For Future Scotland has been in touch with Novara Media to clarify that it has never been affiliated to UKSCN, and has always organised separately. An organiser within the Scottish movement was contacted during the reporting of this piece, but an interview could not take place.
Clare Hymer is a commissioning editor at Novara Media.