By Tor Lawrence and Dr Tony Whitbread
Chief Executive and former Chief Executive
Friday 15 March 2019 will, we hope, be remembered as a turning point.
This was the day of the biggest climate strike by children and young people yet. Over 1,000,000 students in over 1,000 locations in over 100 countries on all continents (including Antarctica!) took to the streets to demand action. Climate change, the environmental crisis, the extinction of species and the breakdown of the earth’s life support systems have spurred a whole new generation into action. In the words of one 6-year-old’s banner “we get it, why can’t you”.
As the current and the past CEOs of the Sussex Wildlife Trust, we were proud to be there. But this was the kids' day. They are leading and we think it imperative we support them.
When we first arrived, Parliament Square and the nearby streets had many pockets of primary age children demonstrating and there was an excitable, but gentle feel to the revolution. Then all of a sudden, taking us completely by surprise, thousands of teenagers streamed from two directions converging into the area in front of Westminster and poured around the square.
This young generation is rightly concerned. Developed nations throughout the world signed the convention on climate change back in 1992. Since then the world has emitted more carbon dioxide than in the entire history of the human race before 1992.
We were warned. Scientists said clearly at that point that we had a few decades to sort this out. We’ve now had those few decades. In that time we’ve moved from climate change, to climate emergency to climate crisis. It is now beyond crisis - we have left things so late that the next generation, children in school today, will inevitably suffer major consequences.
We are not all naturally activists in the Sussex Wildlife Trust. Marching on the streets is not our day job – it isn’t, and never will be the core approach to the way we work. But, in the words of one student from Minnesota, it’s now “so bad even introverts are here”! We prefer to do careful work gathering evidence, building partnerships, influencing policy and plans, presenting considered arguments, educating, championing wildlife and best practice in land, river and marine management. This work remains central to our ethos. We can point to individual successes, we can show species saved, habitats regenerated, policies influenced, people inspired by nature. But our efforts have not delivered enough of what is needed and the children and young people are right to stand up and challenge us all.
We believe this is a cross-party issue. Everyone, whether left, right or centre all need a healthy environment, all have people with a strong environmental ethic and all have delivered work that they can be proud of; yet it is not enough. Young people can see through this with the crystal clarity that is the benefit of their age.
This upwelling of strength of feeling from children must now spur real action from us adults with significant change at government and inter-government level, as well as in the private, voluntary and public sectors and from us all as individuals. The kids mean business - for example there are currently legal actions against governments in France, Germany and the USA stimulated by the campaigns of children. And the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, will host the 2019 Climate Action Summit on 23 September to meet the climate challenge.
We must not fail them.
Whilst marching with the kids in London we saw a baby being carried – less than 6 months old. Her mum was holding a tiny placard for her saying “I demand climate justice – and milk”! When this child gets to the age of a retiring Sussex Wildlife Trust CEO it will be around the year 2085. We are determined to take action to ensure that Sussex and the planet are well stewarded for her and her children’s children. The race is on.