On the morning of the first School Strike 4 Climate in March, there were just three police officers assigned to provide crowd control in Wellington. The strike’s organisers expected about 500 people to turn up. They had only been given permission to use the Lambton Quay footpath.

It quickly became obvious that wouldn’t be enough. Over 2,000 young people poured into Wellington’s Civic Square. They were matched by more than 20,000 others around the country. “We were like, there’s no way we can get this amount of people to stay on the footpath. They ended up shutting down the traffic,” says first year university student Molly Doyle, one of School Strike 4 Climate’s key organisers.

The young people behind the School Strike movement haven’t stopped since. Their second national strike drew approximately 16,000 attendees. They’re hoping their third, on September 27, will be the biggest yet.

It all seems a bit surreal to two young movement organisers when we meet at a Wellington cafe table in the Beehive’s shadow. Sophie Handford, National Coordinator for the School Strike movement, reflects on its coincidental origin. “I was added to a Facebook group of young environmental activists from across the country by my English teacher from last year—for no apparent reason, it was just like connecting people up.”

Students demonstrating with banners and signs for climate justice

Students at School Strike 4 Climate in Wellington

As Sophie scanned the Facebook group, she came across discussions about the #SchoolStrike4Climate protests championed by 16-year old Swedish student Greta Thunberg. “I made a quick post there and was like ‘Who’s keen to make this happen, let’s just do it!’. So many people were just like, ‘I want to help, I want to help, I want to help’. I think it was that night or the morning after that we jumped on a video call with everyone who could make it.” Sophie laughs. “We had no idea how to organise a strike, like whether we needed to talk to the Ministry of Education or who we needed to tell, to like, get kids to strike from school, cause like, we had no idea about that.” The group of young activists decided to plunge ahead anyway, giving themselves six weeks to organise it all.

Molly, sipping a hot chocolate beside Sophie, shakes her head in partial disbelief. “Everyone just got added to a group chat, and we were like, ‘Yeah, here’s a list of things we need done, put your name down if you can do it, and we’ll have a couple of Zoom calls. I think we had one in-person meeting, and then everyone just allocated roles and it just grew and grew.”

Some of the directions it grew in were unexpected. One woman emailed volunteering to distribute 500 flyers outside local schools—dressed as a penguin. “I was talking to some kids at the first strike, and I asked them how they found out about the strike,” says Sophie. “They said, “Well there was this penguin outside my school, and I got this flyer that said there was a strike, and I thought I may as well go.’” 

Most organisations would be wary of tactics that tend more towards the ridiculous than the inspirational. School Strike’s enthusiasm for it says a lot about their unique approach. Sophie explains, “There’s no one person that is overlooking everything. There’s no one person telling people what to do. We’re all holding each other to account, and checking each other, and making sure things are being done. We’re all part of the exec[utive team].”

“It’s kind of crazy,” says Molly. "Everyone always asks us, ‘Oh, how do you work together as a team?’ It’s just happened naturally. It’s so easy.”

It’s a consensus-based approach which has produced remarkable results. I took the chance to see School Strike’s work up close by volunteering as a warden for its second Wellington march. The stereotypical high-school overachievers were there, but so was everyone else: pre-schoolers excitedly shouting slogans, fresh-faced Year 9s stuck in nervous gaggles, exhausted Year 13s attending a protest for the first time. Again and again, I was told that it just “seemed right”. That it was a movement which they could relate to. That it felt more welcoming, more accessible, more youthful.

That vibe produced some of the largest protests in recent New Zealand history, which took everyone by surprise. It shouldn’t have. It’s the same phenomenon which countries all around the world have been experiencing.

Young woman wearing high vis vest speaking to crowd

Sophie Handford speaking at School Strike 4 Climate

In November of 2018, 150 American high school students sat in the corridor outside the office of Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, protesting a lack of action on climate change. Fifty-one were arrested for “unlawfully demonstrating”. The subsequent wave of publicity catapulted their group, the Sunrise Movement—a consensus-based coalition of young people similar to the School Strike movement—to the forefront of the American political conversation. In subsequent months their key demand, a ‘Green New Deal’ mirroring the ambition of President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous Depression-era public works program, came to dominate liberal politics. Thousands of young Americans joined the movement. Sixteen major presidential candidates endorsed it. Politicians who were more reluctant were heavily criticised.

In the UK, the climate advocacy group Extinction Rebellion has organised disruptive protests in major British cities, stalling streets and taking over landmarks for impromptu political conferences focusing on collective and cooperative action, and mass concerts with big names like Massive Attack, Ziggy Marley and Emma Thompson. Up to 40,000 protesters gathered in London for successive days of strike action in April. Police responded by taking over 1,000 protesters into custody.

And most famously, Greta Thunberg’s regular Friday vigils outside the Swedish parliament have ballooned into a global movement. On March 15, approximately 1.6 million people across 133 countries protested to demand climate action—many of them young students following Thunberg’s example. 

Student protesters with signs yelling

Students at School Strike 4 Climate in Wellington

New Zealand’s School Strike movement is, like these other movements, having some impact.

Councils around New Zealand, including all four major urban centres, have declared climate emergencies. These declarations have no legal or statutory effect. They have even been criticised by some climate experts who say what is needed is practical action rather than symbolic gestures. Nevertheless, the willingness of councils to take this stand speaks to the influence School Strike has had on the political conversation.

But increasingly School Strike has found itself constrained and obstructed by a political system resistant to the kind of rapid change they demand. The movement’s ultimate goal—to get Parliament to declare a national climate emergency—was scuppered in May when Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick’s parliamentary motion to declare an emergency was blocked by National, who argued it was merely “Green Party symbolism” with “no plan at all behind it”.

While it’s true that a Parliamentary declaration would be symbolic, in practice it means a commitment to put climate and the environment at the very centre of all government policy. The move has been adopted elsewhere with cross-party support. In May, the United Kingdom became the first country to declare a nationwide climate emergency. It has since been followed by Ireland, Canada and France.

With no action here yet on declaring a climate change emergency, School Strike has been forced to shift its focus to other political issues; in particular, to the Zero Carbon Bill, a Government proposal to commit New Zealand to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. School Strike argues this plan is not ambitious enough. They have demanded that the Bill instead set a goal of carbon-neutrality by 2040, with legally enforceable interim targets and ultimate methane emission reduction of 47 percent.

Two student protesters holding signs: 'Why do we act like there's planet B' and 'Respect your mother'

Students protest for climate justice outside the Beehive in Wellington

The Bill is already deep inside the grinding procedural machine of Parliament, currently being considered by the environment Select Committee (public submissions have closed). While the Select Committee has the power to recommend the legislation be changed to reflect these demands, School Strike 4 Climate fear that after months of cross-party negotiations before it was introduced earlier this year, the Bill will remain in substantially the same shape, or be watered down slightly to win the support of National.

Sophie says they’ve been trying to change that reality by unleashing waves of protesters throughout the country, mobilising thousands of submissions to the environment select committee and by meeting with as many different MPs as they can to talk about how climate change will, and is, affecting them and their families.

The School Strike organisers call the Zero Carbon Bill a “great first step” but say there is still so much more to do. “We’re just backing James Shaw to make [the Zero Carbon Bill] better and really committed to mobilising as many people as we can to make it the best piece of legislation it can be,” says Sophie.

While School Strike is struggling on in the face of these political difficulties, the bulk of the movement’s energy seems to be moving back towards the grassroots. Sophie and Molly are at their most enthusiastic not when they are talking about the thousands of protesters on the Beehive’s doorstep, but when they are discussing the small group of girls in Lower Hutt who have been organising educational events on climate change at their high school. “There are so many people organising different things and making stuff happen in their own communities,” says Sophie. “We’re not organising everything. They’re motivated and have people in each of these communities who are leading their own projects.”

Student protesters with signs yelling

Students at School Strike 4 Climate in Wellington

Those projects range from local tree plantings, letter-writing parties, days out for beach clean-ups, open-mic climate poetry events and trips to nearby rest-homes to talk to seniors about the environment. Politics is an element of some of these projects, but the bigger focus is on building communities of engaged and active climate advocates around the country.

The fact that the vast majority of School Strike movement members live in urban centres hasn’t stopped it from reaching out to build those climate communities in more isolated areas. Before the last strike, Sophie got a message from Dunsandel in rural Canterbury. “I’m not going to lie, I looked it up on the map to find out where it was—and they were like, ‘We’re striking, fifteen of us are going to be standing on the side of State Highway 1 with our signs’. We need to empower more people like that to do things in their own communities. Who knows, Dunsandel could rally 100 people.” 

With no money to fund actions, the national organisers have only time and effort to give to the cause. According to Sophie, “If we have an email from someone in Christchurch, then we’re connecting them to the Christchurch convenor and saying ‘This person will know what’s going on in Christchurch, get in touch with them, and if you don’t hear back we’ll follow up’.”

Despite the increasing focus on local change-making, there’s still an unwavering commitment to regular strike action. The week leading up to the third strike on September 27 will be full of smaller actions, the detail of which the organisers are keeping close to their chest, timed to coincide with a UN meeting taking place that week and with other events planned by other groups like Extinction Rebellion. The movement is hoping this will be their biggest strike yet, and are planning to involve people of all ages and backgrounds. Before sitting down with me, the organisers had been meeting with representatives from Unions Wellington to determine how they could cooperate.

Somehow School Strike is balancing on the high-wire between ambitious national planning and hyper-localised community projects. Not even the School Strike organisers themselves know how they’re managing it.

As our interview winds to an end, Sophie notes, “The cool thing about us is that we’re not actually an organisation. There’s no structure at all. We’re literally just a movement, a group of people. We don’t have a constitution, we don’t have any rules. Well, we have our kaupapa, which is our guiding document, and we have our demands and stuff. There’s no executive team. It’s just real ad hoc.”

She pauses for a moment. “The more I think about it the more I wonder how does this actually work.” Molly turns to Sophie and asks, “Like what are we doing?” Sophie agrees. “Yeah what are we doing to make this work properly?” Molly starts to laugh. “It just does!” Turning back, Sophie nods. “Yeah it just does. So far. It’s this huge beast that just runs itself.”


Pete McKenzie is a freelance journalist based in Wellington focusing on youth affairs, politics and foreign policy. Twitter: @PeterTMcKenzie