‘WE KNOW MORE THAN OUR PARENTS’: Youths at world’s northernmost climate strike say they’re living what older people have failed to learn

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Lina Engås Vikaune, 11, is growing up in consistently warmer temperatures where winters keep arriving later, but by participating in the northernmost of about 3,000 worldwide climate strikes Friday is obviously a brainwashed delinquent being abused by government school propagandists. Or something like that, in the opinion of many she was hoping to reach with a handmade polar bear protest sign and a few shouted chants.

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Primary school and university students paint signs for Friday’s climate strike on Thursday evening at the Longyearbyen Youth Center. Most of the signs were in English for the sake of those following the estimating 3,000 strikes taking place worldwide. Photo by Mark Sabbtatini / Icepeople.

Vikaune was among about 100 people, mostly primary school and college students, participating in the march in Longyearbyen, which in addition to its northernmost distinction is also the town where climate change is happening faster than anywhere else on Earth, scientists say. But she rejected the accusations from a flood of online commenters responding to global media reports about the strikes that students were ignorantly reciting the bleatings of socialist parents and “educators” obsessed with forcing people to live impoverished in badly-lit shacks.

“I think we know more than our parents,” she said before starting a two-kilometer march through the main part of town with her peers. “Many of the grown-ups don’t know much about it. We have heard about it from when we were very small.”

Of course, hearing about climate impacts since early childhood might be what the skeptics call brainwashing, including such things as scientists saying Longyearbyen has indeed warmed five degrees Celsius and lost two months of winter during the past 50 years. Or it might be less abstract things like hearing the details about the freak avalanches that have destroyed nearly two dozen of her neighbors’ homes the past few years and made many more too dangerous to live in (not to mention her mother’s veterinarian office is in an area that’s been evacuated numerous times recently before major storms due to the risk).

But the students’ primary focus during the strike were outwardly focused, with most of the signs and banners they made and carried in English rather than their native Norwegian.

“It’s because on the internet we think that people on the top of Norway can show people (elsewhere) what they haven’t experienced,” said Tiril Hermansen, 12, who has lived in Longyearbyen for eight years.

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Participants in Longyearbyen’s climate strike gather in the town center to hear speakers after their march from Longyearbyen School. In the background is a gap between homes where an avalanche in December of 2015 destroyed 11 residences and killed two people, and snow barriers built during the past year to protect homes still standing. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

The Longyearbyen strikers set out from the school toward the town center shortly after 10 a.m., shouting call-and-response slogans such as “What do we want?/Climate justice!/When do we want it?/Now!” (another not-quite-rhyming chant of “No more lies! We want ice!” is bound to be – deliberately? – misheard by some).

Arriving on foot and bicycles about 15 minutes later in the square – where a couple hundred meters away a large gap where homes destroyed by one of the avalanches once stood and hillside snow barriers built during the past year loomed large – several of the university-age participants addressed the crowd, again mostly in English, as numerous media and amateur smartphone shooters captured the moment.

“I’m not here to tell anyone what to do with their lives, but remember that your choices have the power to change the world,” said Benjamin Vidmar, who in 2015 started a local greenhouse/permaculture project intended to provide Longyearbyen with locally produced food and therefore reduce the impacts of importing it.

While the size of Longyearbyen’s gathering was tiny compared to elsewhere – more than 100,000 protested in Melbourne, for instance, in what was called the largest climate-related event in Australia’s history – participants younger and older expressed hope their higher profile, so to speak, would mean higher exposure as well. And while a “strike” implies the students defied authority walked out of classes and other “official” activity – to the tut-tutting of the naysayers – Hermansen said that definitely wasn’t the case in this so-called socialist sanctuary.

“Our teachers said we should do this because our parents and old people have ruined the planet,” she said.

As for skeptics who argued students ought to be in class, Vikaune said lessons have limited use when it comes to existing in what’s become the real world.

“It’s better to save the planet because if we study instead there’s no place to live and no place to work,” she said.

 

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