Dutch students skip class for climate change

Edition 8 March 2019, by Juan Alvarez

A National Student Protest for a Better Climate took place on Thursday 7 February in The Hague. Thousands of secondary school students from all over the Netherlands skipped class that day to demand from the government a stronger policy and more action to counter climate change. The demonstration, organized by a group of high school students under the name “Youth For Climate NL,” took place at the Malieveld in The Hague. According to the police, between 4.000 and 5.000 students attended the protest. According to the organizers, the number was around 8.000.

It all started weeks before at Dalton High School in The Hague. Stijn Warmenhoven, a 16-year-old student there, decided to follow the example of young people in Belgium, where thousands of high schoolers have repeatedly taken to the streets of Brussels during school days with the same purpose. On social media, Warmenhoven and several of his classmates organized the national strike in the Netherlands, which drew great attention from the media and general public. By the time of the protest, the Youth For Climate NL Instagram account had over 7,000 followers; one week after, it had more than 17,000. Warmenhoven and his classmates demand to be taken seriously. According to them, the Dutch government is simply not doing enough to lower greenhouse gas emissions and counter climate change in time, so they protest for a stronger policy and urgent action. “We will still be on this planet in 50 years. Those who are in power will not. But they are deciding about our future,” stated Warmenhoven in an interview with De Volkskrant.

The movement of high schoolers skipping school to protest against climate change inaction has gathered momentum in several countries. It began with Swedish activist Greta Thunberg (16) in August 2018, when she decided to demonstrate in front of the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm until her government took action. To this day she still protests there every Friday. Since then the movement has spread to several countries, including Australia, Germany, Finland, Switzerland, Ireland, Scotland and England. British newspaper The Guardian reported that by December 2018 alone, more than 20,000 students had protested in more than 250 cities. That number is expected to rise exponentially this year.

In the Netherlands, the protest sparked mixed reactions. While many schools disagreed with the strike and some even threatened to report truants to school inspectors, others permitted their students to take part and saw the event as a curricular activity. Dutch television station NOS reported that several schools allowed their students to protest, provided that they had written permission from their parents and that they showed proof of actually being there, like a photograph of themselves at the event. “I think it is very good,” said Dalton School director Katrien van de Gevel in De Volkskrant. “As a school we always search for realistic assignments. This is one of them. If you look at it like that, this is also a form of education.” However, she stated that as a school it also has a responsibility towards students: “This time truancy is allowed. This does not mean that it automatically applies to a next time.”

The official government position was less supportive of the strike. Minister of Education Arie Slob said that, while he supports students being actively involved, he disagrees with them doing so during school time; if they want to march, it should be during their free time. Prime Minister Mark Rutte also considered it “wonderful” that students participate in the debate, but said that the Dutch government is already doing more with regard to climate change than most other European countries.

Students do not share this opinion, and they are backed by the court in The Hague, which ruled in October 2018 that the Dutch government must do more to reduce greenhouse emissions than it is currently doing. Additionally, 350 scientists and academics gave their support to the student protest, citing the gravity of the climate problem. In an open letter published in newspaper Trouw, they stated that “political courage” and “far-reaching measures” are needed quickly: “The climate risks give them every reason for this protest. That is not doomsaying, but purely based on facts.”

In the aftermath of the February protests, Dutch students remain firm in their intentions. “If politicians listen to us, we’re done after one protest. If they don’t, we will continue,” said organizer Stijn Warmenhoven. Already, a second protest has been announced on youthforclimate.nl for 14 March.