School striker: ‘Young people understand what’s at stake. Older people were told about climate change years ago and did nothing’

Youth activist Scarlett Westbrook, 15, is a member of the UK Student Climate Network and Birmingham Youth Strike 4 Climate group. Here, she explains how meeting Greta Thunberg has given her hope

I took an A-level in politics aged 13. I’d been reading the news since I was ten and I was bored due to an injury, which left me on crutches for four months. I asked my school’s deputy head if I could sit the A-level, but she just laughed, so when I told my mum, she said, ‘Fine, but you sort it out.’ I emailed the exam board asking if I could do it the following year and they told me to find an exam centre. I taught myself using textbooks, revision guides and online resources, as I didn’t really know how to find a tutor.

‘One part of the course was called ‘ideologies in action’, about how climate change is being treated by various politicians. One example that really struck me was when, in 2006, David Cameron, who was then leader of the Conservative Party, said he wanted a green revolution. But in 2013, as Prime Minister, he allegedly said, ‘We have to get rid of all this green crap.’ (No 10 later said it did not ‘recognise’ the phrase.)

‘He scrapped the plan to make new-build homes zero carbon, the UK wasn’t meeting our Paris Agreement [a global action to plan to reduce carbon emissions] targets, and we were failing. The only thing he changed was his Tory Party logo to a tree symbol. We’ve known for decades about the climate emergency and nothing is being done. I thought, ‘This is awful; this is a disaster.’

When the UK Student Climate Network was founded last January, I joined. We’re the people behind the school climate protest strikes, and I’m the community engagement coordinator alongside my friend Isla. I’m also a prominent member of Birmingham Youth Strike 4 Climate.

It’s easy to label climate activism as something only white middle-class people do, but we don’t want that image because climate change doesn’t discriminate; everyone is going to be affected, and minority communities will be affected most. We’ve organised talks at churches, synagogues and mosques across Birmingham to get people – adults and children – involved in our strikes.

We’re doing nothing illegal, we’re just a group of kids with lots of cardboard signs. My school does give us the time off to strike, but you have to fill in a form and parents are called. The school has also been supportive when I’ve had to take days off to meet with politicians in Parliament. I can catch up on school work, but I can’t catch up on the damage done to the Earth.

So far, we’ve talked to Labour MP Ed Miliband [pictured with Scarlett], Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn about the Green New Deal, and Caroline Lucas of the Green Party, who was great. We plan to meet with Jo Swinson now she’s leader of the Lib Dems, and the Conservatives have yet to attend a meeting with us.

We’re moving very slowly and that’s really worrying. Young people understand what’s at stake because we know what our future is going to be like. Older people were told about climate change many years ago and they didn’t do anything about it, which is very frustrating. The future is really concerning.

The most impressive person I’ve met is [teenage environmental activist] Greta Thunberg. When she came to the UK as she set sail for the US to speak at the UN in New York, I interviewed her for the UK Student Climate Network. She was so lovely and humble. I just started fangirling her, saying: ‘You’re so amazing!’ She replied, ‘No, you are.’

I asked her how she feels standing up to older, powerful people, and she said she doesn’t really take notice of them because they are scared that our message is getting through and they feel threatened by that. That really resonated with me.

She seemed so wise; it just radiated off her, but she was also good fun. At one point we asked her to speak directly into the camera. Greta caught my eye and we just got the giggles and couldn’t stop laughing. We had to do four takes. They say never meet your heroes, but I think I love her even more now. Meeting Greta has given me a renewed sense of hope.

Interview by Marisa Bate

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