Later this week, on 10 January, marks the anniversary of the first of Belgium’s student strikes.
Following the example of Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, who even now holds a lonely vigil outside the Swedish parliament every Thursday to call attention to the climate crisis, a year ago young people first in Flanders and then across the country took Thursday afternoon off school to march through the streets calling for more and better government action on climate change.
A year later the argument is made, as Australia burns and Indonesia drowns. The students would seem to have made their case, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be giving up.
The figurehead of the Belgian movement is Anuna De Wever, who will mark the anniversary at sea, aboard a cargo ship bringing her back from Chile to Dunkirk, where she is due to arrive in two weeks.
The Belgian delegation set off for Chile in a sailboat, for good environmental reasons. On arrival the climate summit there had been cancelled and moved to Madrid, but De Wever was unable to find transport to Spain in time to attend. And now she has had to settle for a less clean mode of transport for her return to Europe.
“It was a difficult decision,” she told Het Nieuwsblad. “The difference with flying is that those ships are sailing anyway, to transport cargo. Our cabins would have otherwise remained empty. Whereas as an airline passenger you directly suppose the airline, which has no other purpose than to transport passengers.”
The crossing from Colombia to Dunkirk will take two weeks, meaning she and her party will miss the start of the new school year. But she is ready to pick up the action where it left off.
What started off as a small local effort soon blossomed into a nationwide affair. 2019 was, she said, “an eye-opener”.
“We always made choices that we thought were the right ones at that moment. We also had no example to follow. One mistake Youth for Climate made was not to give out enough information about the climate crisis. That’s what I’m now going to work on.”
Indeed, attention for the weekly marchers did seem to be diverted away from the issue at hand and more towards the fact that thousands of young people were taking the day off school, and jeopardising their futures. As if to slap down that notion once and for all, De Wever passed her year with straight As.
“I have also become much more conscious of the climate crisis,” she said. “When I started, I wasn’t panicking. Now I am. Now everything I do is linked to the climate crisis. It’s taken over my whole life.”