by Nick Johnston
Soon in Leuven Editor
In the past few months, a social momentum has been gathering across Belgium, and echoing internationally. Students have been skipping class, taking to the streets, and regularly claiming the media spotlight in a historic series of manifestations. Out of this enthusiasm, a number of figures have arisen and transformed national and international dialogue, revealing fault lines of outlook, highlighting a social and political contest over climate policy.
During the autumn of 2018, a series of manifestations in Brussels culminated in a mass demonstration in December with over 65,000 participants. Organizations such as the Climate Coalition and Climate Express called upon tens of thousands to signal to the Belgian government what steps it should take at the United Nations Climate Change Summit in Katowice Poland. However, days later, Charles Michel voted against more ambitious goals of European Energy saving objectives, and the movement, rather than jubilant, was galvanized, and has continued to organize, with a manifestation of over 70,000 on January 27th.
Meanwhile, in Sweden Greta Thunberg was gathering support and attention from a younger demographic. Since August 2018, the 16 year old activist had been ‘on strike’ by refusing to go to school. By the end of 2018, over 270 cities had student strikes for the climate, and Belgium is a leading example. The 17 year old Belgian student Anuna De Wever has played a principle role in organizing the student strikes here in Belgium, which have occurred weekly on Thursdays now for over a month, and have little sign of slowing down. Originally the class skipping ‘spijbellars’ were manifesting in Brussels. Yet on Thursday February 7th, from elementary school to the KU Leuven, students assembled on Ladeuzeplein in record numbers, totalling over 11,000. With university courses beginning again,we can expect expanded participation of university students. Moreover, protests have spread to the Netherlands, with 10,000 marching in Den Haag. Across the Atlantic, the United States expects manifestations as well.
The young protestors from Greta Thunberg to Anuna De Wever have argued by rhetorically asking “Why go to school if we have no future?” The language of catastrophic climate change caused by a positive feedback cycle of increased heat and corresponding release of carbon by melting ice caps is a central theme in their discourse of influencing the national conversation, and policy.
The challenge is posed primarily to the political establishment, and the perceived apathy of career politicians that haven’t passed audacious enough legislation, or achieved international cooperation. Beyond this, many protestors, on their placards and online polemics, have argued for lifestyle changes ranging from reduced air travel to vegetarianism. The supporters are also noted for incorporating memes and sexually explicit humor in their placards, crossing the gravity of the situation with signature millennial and generation Z internet content. At the heart of the movement however, is a struggle to mobilize the youth as a politically forceful demographic, capable of influencing the national conversation, and policy.
The confluence of the ‘Rise for Climate’ marches and the student strikes has set environmental policy on the agenda for most Belgian political parties as well as media outlets. Though the response from the political establishment is not always supportive. Many on the right wing have rebuked the student protestors for not themselves living environmentally friendly lifestyles. Figures like former rector Rik Torfs, Bart De Wever, Theo Francken, and conservative youth activists have depicted the environmentalist students as naive, hypocritical, and short sighted. These critics claim that the youth are campaigning for political action that would harm the lifestyle of Belgians, and restrict many luxury goods and activities that are presently enjoyed by many. Beyond these jabs and critiques lies a more central aim of the right wing to discredit climate activists, often by depicting them as impressionable tools of leftist movements, or uninformed.
Joke Schauvliege of CD&V, the Minister of the Environment, originally stated that the climate protestors were an affirmation of her policies. After being strongly rebuked by activists, Schauvliege’s tone changed. She stated in a speech that the student manifestations were being ‘set up’ and instigated, and thus not authentic demonstrations of a popular will. She claimed to have received this information from state security forces. These claims were met with a storm of criticism resulting in her subsequent admission that she had lied. Soon thereafter, she resigned. Though she will stand for election in the spring, it is clear that the students exert significant force, enough to place career politicians on the defensive.
We can expect to see further drama as the student protests continue and intensify. The streets of Leuven have already been the stage for a historic student march this year, and may yet again host more. The contest over environmental policy and international cooperation resonates with other political struggles, with different movements and parties shuffling to align both their rhetoric and ambitions with potential allies, or against perceived opponents.