As luck would have it – or not, if folks wanted a more “tragic” setting – it was an idyllic snowy Arctic morning for more than 100 people marching in the world’s northernmost gathering of a global youth climate strike that a reported 1.4 million people participated in worldwide Friday.
A drum-beating polar bear, kids holding signs atop a huge pile of freshly plowed snow, and promises not to keep participants standing in the chilly storm too long during a few speeches and songs all spoke to an Arctic that still exists. But with a recent study showing Longyearbyen has already lost two months of winter each year due to climate change in recent decades, Anna Kexel, a German student at The University Centre in Svalbard, told strikers she wants such days to be more than a memory.
“When I am a teacher I don’t want to tell my students there once was a place in the Arctic that had mountains covered with snow and lots of glaciers,” she said.
Kexel said her feelings when she arrived at UNIS in January were amazement at the beauty of the winter landscape, but sadness as she learned about the warming and impacts of the past decades that are affecting the area up to three times as fast as the rest of the planet.
“On the other hand, there is hope as well because when we change our behavior we can change the climate and the effects it’s having on the planet,” she said.
The strike began at 10 a.m. at UNIS – with students from the university, Longyearbyen School and local kindergartens representing most of the participants – and proceeded about a kilometer through several centimeters of fresh snow to the miner’s statue in the town center. They carried in Norwegian and English with a variety of similar-themed proclamations such as “You might like getting choked. Our planet doesn’t” and “We are Arctic scientists. Don’t make us historians.” To the cadence beat of the the striker in a polar bear costume (standing next to a “rain deer,” invoking the struggles the species are having here due to the ice from alternating warm/freezing that keep them from foraging), they shouted call-and-response chants such as “What do we want?” “Climate Action!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”
While the local strike got plenty of attention from Norwegian media due to the imagery and the global strikes plenty of coverage as part of a highly publicized campaign started last summer beginning with a single student in Sweden, the prospects such gatherings may have the hoped-for impact are decidedly mushy in terms of existing scientific and political realities.
The same study referring to already-shorter winters in Svalbard states the archipelago will likely lose another two months in as soon as 50 years unless significant impact reductions are enacted – and the roughly five degrees Celsius that has occurred during the past 50 years may warm an addition five degrees. Nationally Norway is still pursuing an aggressive expansion of Arctic drilling up to and past Svalbard’s southern border, while a growing number of hard-line conservative national leaders globally are severely crippling efforts by the United Nations and other entities to pursue international climate agreements.
As such, some of the day’s words and slogans offered some harsh phrases to counter the harsh impacts and comments from climate skeptics who scoff at the nations humans are responsible (and if they are folks should just deal with it). Among them was teenage girl holding a “fuck sopp (trash)” while singing cheerfully with the crowd (some of whom reading the lyrics from smartphones because this ain’t the ’60s anymore).