Global Climate Strike 

On 20 September 2019, millions of young people across the world gathered to participate in the Global Climate Strike demanding urgent action to tackle global warming. This was the biggest climate protest in history and began as a youth movement started by Greta Thunberg, a 16 year-old Swedish student calling for school strikes to express concerns about the rapidly deteriorating climate crisis and to demand environmental justice.

The worldwide demonstrations unfolded on the eve of a UN climate summit seeking to galvanise government leaders to take action to restrict the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as agreed under the Paris climate agreement. Each protest group often had individual targets: rising sea levels in Solomon Islands, toxic waste in South Africa, etc. However, the overall message was a unified mantra of demanding for urgent action to cut emissions and to stabilise the world’s climate.

Click here to watch Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN Climate summit. 

“You have stolen my childhood and my dreams with your empty words.”

Although the movement started as a series of school strikes, adults have joined the young people in the demonstrations as a show of solidarity and support. Trade unions representing hundreds of millions of people have been mobilised to support the cause and employees at firms like Google and Facebook have also left their workplaces to join the climate strikes for the day.

The demands made by the student activists have not fallen on deaf ears. Government and businesses around the world have also responded to the youth-led climate strike. For instance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged at least 100 billion euros to tackle emissions in the energy and industrial sectors and Amazon’s CEO has pledged to make the US retail giant carbon-neutral by 2040.

The value of student activism

Student activism in response to all forms of injustices is not a new phenomenon that has only recently emerged. From the earliest historical accounts, activism has reflected the grievances that have been mirrored in the global political climate. It is the students who are championing an ideal vision of society in the face of oppression and injustice that have become normalised in today’s society. Why is this so?

Schools provides a platform for young people to interact, discuss their individual experiences while also learning about the struggles of others in the global community. It is also a time of rapid intellectual formation. As such, given the growth in mental acuity and the exasperation that comes from realising that one’s world is not as it should be, it is not surprising that student activism flourishes as a way of making students’ voices heard on issues that they care about.

A question invariably arises: are today’s protesters just putting up a fight or genuinely effecting change? How can a student march filled with shouting and banners transform to become a movement that leads to positive change? 

Indeed, they are some who claim that there are many forces which keep student activism in check and which weaken its real-world potency. There are marches which create a riotous noise but are distrusted and dismissed by the adults. As the activists are students, they are also subject to other obligations as a student such as studying, co-curricular activities and moving on to the next level of education. In some cases where the student leaders and influencers graduate, the student movement can also weaken or disintegrate entirely.

Should student activism be actively encouraged by schools?

Part of student activism includes school strikes where students walk out of their classrooms without permission. Should such civic disobedience be actively encouraged by schools? Could there be a possibility that students are merely taking the opportunity to skip class without putting their minds to the issue at hand?

On the other hand, it can also be argued that activism nurtures one’s sense of citizenship. Student activism campaigns remind students that there is a transcendental purpose to their education – that there is a community beyond the classrooms. Furthermore, as students begin to believe that they can make a difference to society, they also learn how to be responsible citizens who can make a positive contribution. Finally, participating in student activism also teaches one the soft skills of communication, coordination and peer leadership.

If schools wish to encourage student activism within their learning environments, they must be mindful to manage the expectations of their students. Effecting real change can take years of determination and creativity. We would not want to create a situation where students become demoralised by a lack of outcome or response. At the same time, student activism must not be portrayed as the only means of contributing to one’s society; students who are unable to participate should not feel less than those who do.

Questions for further personal evaluation: 

  1. If you could participate in a student activism campaign, what would you lobby about? What are the issues you care about and would like the rest of society to take note of?
  2. How do you think Singapore’s tertiary educational institutions would respond to student activism? Would this be encouraged? Should it?

Useful vocabulary: 

  1. ‘mantra: a word or motto that embodies a principle or guide to action of an individual or group
  2. acuity’: keenness of perception

Here are more related articles for further reading:

  1. NY Times: A history of student uprisings and activisms in the United States


Perhaps more than anything, the results of the Greensboro sit-ins showed the power of a small group of students prepared to stand alone if necessary.

“Inevitably, people ask me, ‘What can I do?’” Mr. McCain said in an interview in 2005. “What kind of question is that? Look around you. Once you identify what you want to do, don’t ask for the masses to help you, because they won’t come.”

From the actions of the students of Soweto grew a vast campaign led by college students in the United States, who built shantytowns on campus quads, blockaded buildings and disrupted speeches by South African politicians. From Columbia University to the University of California, protests compelled administrators to withdraw billions of dollars in investments from companies tied to South Africa. Over time, the resulting economic stress contributed, along with other factors, to the dismantling of apartheid..


  1. The Atlantic: Student activism fuelling the Hong Kong protests

Student unions have been a part of Hong Kong’s political activism for nearly as long as the territory has had universities. The University of Hong Kong was founded in 1911, and its student union was established a year later. There are now 22 universities and colleges here, with just over 324,000 students enrolled. Since their inception, these unions, and students more broadly, have often taken a leading role in activism, though their enthusiasm has ebbed and flowed with the intensity of Hong Kong’s political issues.

Following deadly riots in 1966 and 1967, many in Hong Kong believed that demonstrations could “potentially threaten the stability of the colony,” leaving an opening for students, Stephan Ortmann, a professor at City University’s Department of Asian and International Studies, wrote in a 2012 piece examining the history of student activism in Hong Kong. “The willingness of the students to stage demonstrations in subsequent years, therefore, positioned them as vanguards of protest,” Ortmann wrote. In the early 1970s, however, many were pushing for Hong Kong’s reunification with China, he noted.