Youth for Climate Belgium: The narrative of an exceptional protest wave

By Ruud Wouters & Michiel De Vydt

All across the globe, youngsters are staging protest, demanding politicians to take the climate crisis seriously. What started with a lonely, striking Swedish schoolgirl giving an inspiring speech at the COP24 Climate Conference in Poland, quickly became an international movement and culminated in a global day of action on March 15th. On that single day, no less than 1.6 million people in more than 125 countries at 2000 different locations walked the streets and demanded better climate policies.

In this contribution, we focus on one of the more noteworthy national protest waves within this larger international cycle of protest. Our focus is on the case of Belgium, which—we believe—both in terms of mobilization and in terms of its subsequent public and political consequences, deserves to be on the radar of activists and scholars alike. Many elements of the protest wave we will describe in the following paragraphs resonate strongly with theories of social movements (political process, opportunity, framing, resource mobilization, etc). Here, however, we put the case up front and stick to a detailed description of the events that captivated Belgium between December 2018 and April 2019. What made so many youngsters skip school for so many weeks in a row? And what were the consequences of their protest actions?

The Youth for Climate trigger
The start of the protest wave in Belgium can be situated at December 2nd, 2018. Traditionally, the Belgian Climate movement mobilizes in Brussels at the start of every COP conference, and it does so with varying degrees of success. The 2018 “Claim the Climate” edition was exceptional, however, both in terms of its turnout and in terms of its simple, strongly resonating claim.

With 65.000 participants according to the police, the then biggest climate mobilization in Belgium was a fact. The claim of the demonstrators was simple and clear: Belgium should be among the forerunners in the international climate policy debate, and should support and sign ambitious climate policy proposals at the UN COP conference. This simple demand of “showing ambition” was inspired by an earlier, last-minute failure of Belgium in September 2018 to sign substantive climate agreements with The Netherlands and Luxembourg (in the so called Tanaloa-dialogues). With the massive turnout of the December 2nd demonstration, the “Claim the Climate” organizers offered politicians tangible proof of a large support base. Amplified by opinion makers and newspaper editorials stressing that a powerful signal was delivered, Belgium was expected to “show ambition” at COP24.

climate march 0212 vrt

Two days after the biggest Belgian climate demonstration ever, on December 4th, Belgium was one of the four countries that did not sign Europe’s new Energy Efficiency Directive. Accompanied by only the Czech Republic, Croatia and Slovenia (the latter two withholding their vote), Belgium could hardly be considered “among the forerunners” of ambitious climate policies. Civil society organizations posited that Belgium was “on the wrong side of history.” Opinion makers interpreted the Belgian “no” as an “arrogant punch in the face” of the many citizens that demanded climate justice. The fact that Belgium as a federal country has four climate ministers, but still did not succeed to act responsibly, was interpreted as a disgrace rather than funky Belgian surrealism.


Some ten days later, on December 16th, a young girl climbs the stage in Katowice, at the very end of another conference that, especially for Belgian citizens, stayed below expectations. Greta Thunberg delivers a powerful speech, calling politicians “scared to be unpopular” and “not mature enough to tell it like it is.” She posits: “if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school, then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to.” A seed is planted.


The Youth for Climate protest wave
Inspired by Greta’s speech, two Antwerp school girls named Anuna De Wever (17) and Kyra Gantois (19) launch a Facebook page named “Youth for Climate” the very next day. Having spent their summer holiday together in the mountains discussing climate change (and having experienced an exceptionally hot summer, and a remarkably soft autumn and winter), Greta’s speech appears to be the push they need.

On December 29th a first post appears on their Facebook page. In a nicely edited video clip, a number of diverse school children discuss the climate crisis and declare to skip school and strike every Thursday, in Brussels, the political heart of Belgium, until the upcoming elections of May 2019. Indeed, on the 26th of May, in some sort of “mother of all elections”, Belgians elect new regional, federal as well as European members of parliament. The demand of Y4C is simple and clear: Politicians, act! Time is running out! This is the new generation speaking!

In the following weeks—and now already for more than twelve weeks in a row—a for Belgian norms unseen wave of grassroots climate protest sweeps the country. On the first “Strike for Future”, on January 10th, some 3.000 pupils skip school and demonstrate. The second Thursday strike draws 12.500 pupils to Brussels (January 17th). In the third week, on January 24th, pupils are joined by university students and no less than 35.000 youngsters make their voices heard in Brussels. This is unseen. School skipping kids show up in massive numbers and it does not look like they are thinking of quitting.

As the turnout of the Y4C actions grows, also mass media attention explodes. The young girls are invited into news studios and speak frankly. Everybody needs to act responsibly, they argue, but we can only collectively meet the climate challenges if politicians listen to the solutions experts propose and act courageously. Quickly, the climate issue becomes the subject of national debate.

Four elements make the Y4C actions potent debate kick-starters. First, their composition. It are youngsters and even especially minors that participate. Having no right to vote, but having politicians decide on their future, the voice of the youngsters is considered authentic and legitimate, in stark contrast with the strategic talk-without-action of politicians. Second, the protests are in a particular way disruptive: by skipping school but behaving worthy in the streets, the youngsters succeed to come across as both disobedient and decent. Given debates on the political apathy of Belgian youth, these youngsters show that their generation cares. Third, there is no professional mobilization machinery involved. Two girls, word-of-mouth, clicking, sharing, liking and a bit of initial press does the trick. The combination of the fact that it are kids without a strong organizational backbone and little professionalization, makes the youngsters difficult to pin down politically, having citizens approach the movement without very strong or polarizing predispositions. Fourth, although grassroots protest facilitated by social media is nothing new in Belgium, the frequency, consistency and turnout of the Y4C events are “du jamais vu.” This is connective action from another level.

The Sunday after the third youngster action, in the pouring rain, the Belgian national railroad company is unable to transport people from all over the country to Brussels. With the issue making headline news day in day out, people from all walks of life—not only youngsters—are willing to protest in Brussels. The youngsters—labeled “climate truants” in the media, “klimaatspijbelaars” in Dutch—seem to have struck a national nerve. Social media footage of packed trains that pass crowded platforms on their way to Brussels indicate that something is really happening. The 75.000 soaking wet demonstrators at the January 27th “Rise for Climate” demonstration set a new national record in climate demonstration turnout.


Clearly having the momentum, the youngsters play a clever game: every week, a new twist to each of the Thursday actions is given. Next to the main march in Brussels, local spin-off actions pop-up all over the country—as many young school kids find it hard to travel to the capital. Next to Anuna and Kyra, other youngsters—many of them being girls; like Laura Cools, Hanne De Guytenaere and Adelaïde Charlier—take the lead in other cities, with marches in Liège (15.000 striking school children on Thursday January 31st), Leuven (10.000 participants on February 7th), Antwerp (3.000 on February 28th) and Louvain-La-Neuve (4.200 on March 7th), next to many small scale actions in local communities. The movement diffuses but keeps on rolling. In the meanwhile, the ‘cute’ civil disobedience of the striking school children is starting to get frowned upon: shouldn’t these children be in school? How sincere are their motivations? How should schools and parents deal with these committed “youngsters on the loose”?

A continuous stream of new events keeps the climate truants in charge of the public narrative, however. On February 20th, under massive press attention and after a week of building up the tension, Greta Thunberg—the personal hero of many climate truants—arrives in Brussels, ready to support the Youth4Climate youngsters in their 7th consecutive week of protesting (7.000 youngsters attend, but the turnout is of secondary importance, it is all Greta Greta Greta). After the march, Anuna De Wever calls civil society organizations to join the youngsters in a “Global strike for future” on March 15th, a global day of action. The weekly strikes now enter their 10th consecutive week.


In the meantime, Anuna and Kyra have been working on a small book (published on March 8th) in which they specifically address different publics, urging those in power to take the alarm bells of climate science seriously. Anuna and Kyra stress that their fear about climate change is not a pose or an exaggeration; it is the result of being constantly reminded by science that something has to change, yet at the same time not seeing that change materialize. To today’s parents and grandparents, as well as to the youngsters of their own generation who have thus far remained indifferent, they extend the invitation to join the movement. The book ends with a call to participate in a digital platform that collects suggestions, ideas, and possible solutions to address climate change. A panel of climate experts will take these suggestion into account when drafting their climate action plans.

On March 15th, about 30.000 students accompanied by teachers and civil society members walk from Brussels North to Brussels South, in solidarity with climate strikers all over the world. Many youngsters start stressing strike fatigue, as the school skipping comes at a cost: missing classes, tests and getting extra work endangers passing on to the next school year. The broad momentum of Y4C seems to be cooling down. On April 4th, 500 youngsters and young farmers—often standing at opposite sides in the debate, but both identifying as victims of climate change—still sound combative despite the disappointing turnout. Anuna De Wever: “How would you feel, if you protest for 13 weeks in a row, but are disappointed time and again by politicians? You think about quitting, but that’s not how it works, we need to be in here for the long run. That’s why I call my generation: we can make a difference, but we have to put pressure on politicians until the elections in May.


The public consequences of the protest wave
How did the general public react to the climate truants? What is sure is that they kick-started a national debate; that they were front page coverage for weeks in a row; and that they inspired the biggest climate demonstration in Belgium’s history. Two more systematic data sources help capturing the public consequences of the climate truants’ protest wave.

First, every half year the European Union surveys its constituents and releases the so called ‘Eurobarometer’. The last Eurobarometer was fielded in the final two weeks of November, right before COP24 and the December 2nd demonstration. It presents a nice ‘before’ measurement for the public impact of the protest wave. The most important issue confronting Belgians at that moment in time still is migration (29%). Environmental and climate change issues, however, come in second, and they come close (25%). Whereas concern about migration shows no temporal evolution, the proportion of Belgians that worry about climate change appears to have doubled in a single year (13% in November 2017). In sum, concern about climate change clearly was on the rise among Belgian citizens, even before the protest wave took off.


Second, and unfortunately, as for now, no representative poll data capturing the protest wave period are known to us. Google trends Belgium—aggregating search string hits of google users—offers a modest alternative. The figure below shows the evolution of four search strings over one year and gives some clues: first, climate has always been a more popular search term. Second, peaks in issues correspond to real world events (migration and asylum rise when the government falls, there are peaks for the December 2, the January 24th, January 27th and the March 15th demonstrations). Third and finally, the number of people entering ‘climate’ in Google clearly explodes when the climate truants hit the streets. The evolution in search hits appears to correlate with the turnout of the different marches, and leaves a nice wave signature.

google trend graph

google trend legende

To put the issues in perspective, a somewhat more personal Google trend analysis features below. It compares Bart de Wever with Anuna de Wever. Bart de Wever is the most well-known and powerful politician in Belgium. He is the president of the Flemish Nationalist party N-VA. The N-VA is the biggest party in Belgium, the party that owns the issue of migration, and the party that left the government causing it to fall over the UN Marrakesh treaty. Anuna de Wever, coincidentally sharing the politician’s last name, is the girl who started ‘Youth for Climate’. She is the spokesperson of the climate truants and was not a public figure before the protest wave took off.

google trend anuna bartanuna bart legende

De Wever the politician peaks on October 14th, when he wins the Antwerp local elections; and in January, when he calls the climate truants “doom-mongers” and argues that “it is not because the youngsters display juvenile behavior, that politicians should behave as adolescents too.” Yet De Wever the politician is clearly dwarfed by De Wever the activist in January. To put it into numbers: in the first week of February, Anuna the non-institutional activist peaks, and gets 67% of the amount of search entries that Bart the institutional politician gets in the week of his election as major of Antwerp. These are attention statistics that activist normally only dream about. Although the evidence is far from perfect, it is hard to deny the possibility that the climate truants’ have strongly influenced Belgian’s societal agenda in the first three months of 2019.


The political consequences of the protest wave
Also politically, the Y4C protest wave can hardly be called inconsequential. Two contextual elements help understanding the political potency of the climate strikers. Firts, the timing of the protest wave in the Belgian political landscape is of importance . After years of societal debate being dominated by the issue of asylum and immigration, the local elections of October 14th made clear that another issue was waiting to pop up. In the run up to the local election campaign, the quality newspaper De Standaard reported extensively on a citizen participatory research project “Curieuze Neuzen”, dealing with the quality of the air citizens breathe. The project mapped air quality in Flanders and its results were depressing. After having experienced an exceptionally hot summer (containing the warmest summer days since the measurements), followed by furious storms and a soft autumn and start of winter, another issue came into focus. Both climate change and the quality of citizens’ living environment became an important issue during the local elections, competing with the issues of migration, asylum and terrorism that were expected to define the campaign.

A second key contextual element follows a couple of months later. On December 18th, the federal Government of Belgium falls over the vote for the UN Marrakesh pact, clearly exposing the within government-divide over how migration should be dealt with. Prime minister Charles Michel travels to Marrakesh, signs the Pact, his cabinet falls, and the new interim minority cabinet—with all former government parties except the Flemish nationalists—declares in its opening statement to make climate politics a priority, a move considered by some quite populist and cheap, as the minority cabinet status and the short term to the next federal elections (only 5 months) give the cabinet little leeway to take serious action. Commentators, however, link the declaration directly to  the impressive mobilization of the December 2nd demonstration and the subsequent societal commotion. It is in this sensitive and highly inflammable but also fertile political context—a context of a minority cabinet and issue refocusing—that the Y4C actions take off.

Three key political consequences can be credited to the Y4C protesters. First, at its most basic but nonetheless crucial level, the protesters forced political parties to take sides, or at least, to show colors. Which parties caused Belgium to vote against the Energy Efficiency directive? Citizens were soon to find out. Not all parties, or even politicians, navigated this new issue context equally competently, however.

The second political consequence of the protest wave is the dismissal of the Flemish minister for Environment. Belgium, a small federal country, has 4 ministers on different levels that are in one way or another in charge of combatting climate change. On the Flemish level, minister Joke Schauvliege already had a track record of displaying modest climate ambitions. The enduring actions of the climate truants were “the straw the broke the camel’s back.” In many of the climate youngsters slogans, Schauvliege was directly put responsible (“Our climate minister is a Joke”), and her reaction to the youngsters couldn’t have been worse (“I am so grateful that the youngsters help increasing public support for climate policies, I feel strengthened and supported by their actions”). Instead of acknowledging the public’s demand for a more ambitious climate policy, she rather appropriated the protest as a sign of support. The minister’s interpretation of the events was met with disbelief; commentators wondered in what kind of parallel reality she was living.

Her statements urged the more radical environmental organization “Act for Climate Justice” to take action. Posters were illegally placed at commercial billboards all over the country, advertising the website wakeupyourministers, which encouraged citizens to e-mail and sms-bomb the minister and her cabinet. 41.000 people overwhelmed the minister in the first week of February, who got over a thousand text messages—day and night—on her personal phone. This, however, was at that time unknown to the wider public. When speaking in front of a meeting of an interest group organization of farmers—Schauvliege’s prime constituency—a tired minister insinuated that the demonstrations of the climate youngsters were a “complot”; that she knew “who was really behind the youngsters’ actions” and that State Security was working on the case. Video footage of the minister’s speech was leaked and went viral, State Security denied that there was such information on the Climate youngsters, Schauvliege had to admit her lies and the Christian Democratic Party made her resign in an emotional press conference.

But did the climate youngsters also achieve substantial political outcomes, rather than the replacement of a minister they considered “poorly ambitious”? Eventually, climate policies are about votes in parliaments. Did something happen in the institutional political hemisphere? The answer is “yes” but also “no”; and, as ever, politics is not only about substance, but also about procedures. We discuss the third political consequence of the climate protest wave.

On Sunday March 24th, the climate truants and a coalition of environmental organizations started occupying the “Rue de la Loi”, chaining themselves to the gates of the federal parliament. Inside the parliament, a commission was meeting. The protesters sought to keep them in parliament until a majority would make the new ‘Climate Law’ possible. A jump back in time is necessary to understand this situation. On February first, a group of prominent academics placed a proposition for a novel climate law online. The document proposed 20 measures in total, amongst which the creation of a single, federal “expert committee” that should streamline and inform, at its own initiative but also on request, Belgian climate policy. Within a week, seven parties (Groen, Ecolo, sp.a, PS, MR, cdH en DéFI) submitted the text as a bill. The State Council, however, judged that in order to pass the bill, a constitutional revision was necessary (Article 7bis of the constitution). Specifically, in article 7bis, a paragraph should be added prescribing that Belgium’s different governments collaborate on effective climate policies, along the lines, goals and modalities stipulated in the ‘climate law’. That very week in March, with activists camping in front of parliament, the commission of constitutional revisions would decide on Article 7bis.

stemming plenair 1On March 26th, after a long and intense debate, the commission passed the bill, yet only with a majority of 9 versus 8 votes. In the federal parliament’s plenary meeting, scheduled for March 28th, a two-third majority would be necessary to make the constitutional revision immediately effective. The climate activists had 48 hours to convince the Flemish liberals and Christian democrats (obviously the Flemish Nationalists were not on board on this matter of re-federalization). On 2.10 am the following Friday morning, after once again a long and intense parliamentary debate, 76 politicians voted for the revision, 66 against. The two-third majority was not met; the Flemish nationalists, Liberals and Christian democrats voted against, the ‘climate law’ was unconstitutional.

Some reactions. Anuna de Wever: “I am afraid these politicians leave a generation of disillusioned youngsters.” The Flemish nationalists: “We understand the disappointment of the youngsters, but this vote was purely symbolic, it wouldn’t have changed a thing.” The reaction of the Christian democrats: “We agree with the goals of those who passed the bill, but we disagree with the method. No constitutional change, but special collaborative agreements. That’s what should happen.” The liberals: “We stand for collaborative federalism. We invite all parties to think about a law that respects constitutional competences, and that proposes concrete measures that are achievable and affordable.” The green party: “The debate was informative. Clearly, some parties are afraid of binding climate laws. We are disappointed, but hopeful. The public support for effective policies is gigantic. We are convinced that a new climate law is within reach.

stemming plenair 2On April first, two days after the failed plenary vote, something peculiar happens in the federal commission of public health. Debating alternative routes for making elements of the rejected climate law possible, debates are completely stuck at first. No alternatives succeed in convincing simple majorities. Then, Jean-Marc Nollet (Ecolo) asks all parties whether they would consider having the option to revise article 7bis in the next legislature, after the elections of May 26th. All parties see merit in the idea. On April 2nd, the federal commission of constitutional revisions unanimously approves that article 7bis is eligible for constitutional revision by the next legislature. The proposal also passes the plenary vote. Whereas only a small majority voted in favor of effectively changing article 7bis, a large majority votes to keep the option for revision open. The effective decision on 7bis is put off until after the election, clearly signaling the stakes of May 26th for the climate movement.


What’s next?
What will happen next? Will the climate activists be able to keep the issue in the public eye till the 26th of May? What about the youngsters’ perseverance? Will the climate issue dominate the campaign, and what positions will parties take in their platforms? Who will win the election? How many seats will which parties win? What kind of coalition will be formed? And how will the novel government agreement—the most important policy document in Belgium—treat the climate issue? The answers to these questions will largely determine Belgium’s climate ambitions and policies of the next five years, making the next weeks probably the most important ones in the history of the Belgian climate movement. To be continued.

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Filed under Daily Disruption, Global Climate Movement

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