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Rebellion — In the course of two years, students moved from being virtually invisible in the climate debate to capturing the agenda and making demands on both university management and the decision makers in the Danish parliament.
It was as if ‘the adults’ did not really believe in young people. Leader of the Alternative Party Uffe Elbæk called for a youth rebellion on the Danish TV2 News. In a column on the news site Politiken, one of its journalists wrote that young people find it difficult to find what they should revolt against, and that they »don’t hit back at society, but at themselves when things fail.«
There was a head of studies at the psychology department at the University of Copenhagen, Torben Bechmann Jensen, that tried to explain it all in another media, Jyllands-Posten: »There is plenty of movement among young people in the form of minor, individual rebellions,« he said. But he found it hard to see how young people should coalesce into a common opposition that could lay the foundation for a large scale youth rebellion.
This was three years ago, it was in the autumn of 2016.
A month after the article in Jyllands-Posten had been published, a green student association with a focus on climate and health called IMCC Earth was founded at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen.
Others also moved forward with smaller scale green initiatives. In the spring of 2017, a group of students started the think tank Frej, an independent food-policy think tank that hoped to reduce the gap between agriculture, the environment, politicians and consumers. In the autumn of 2017, the association Green Forum turned up on the Food and Nutrition study programme. In the beginning of 2018, three biology students at the University of Copenhagen founded the group Os Om Havet which organises events where volunteers and families pick up rubbish from the seabed.
»If you can’t get three biology students who have studied plastic to go out and pick up trash on a dive, then you can’t expect others to do it,« one of them said.
And in the spring of 2018, something big happened.
A professor at the University of Copenhagen, Jens Friis Lund, met up with students repeatedly who would like to engage with climate and sustainability. He joined them up, and in the course of the summer the Green Student Movement evolved. Its members wrote letters in the newspapers, and at the opening of the Danish Parliament in the Autumn of 2018, they camped for 48 hours in front of the Danish parliament Christiansborg. Then people knew who they were, and the media threw themselves at them. One of the movement’s spokespeople, student at the University of Copenhagen Esther Michelsen Kjeldahl, was profiled in the newspaper Information and in Politiken, and the movement sent letters, a large number of letters, to the former Minister of Climate Lars Christian Lilleholt, and the digital news site Zetland published 20 of them.
At the same time, several green associations were founded at the University of Copenhagen. Psychology and political science students had each separately founded smaller green associations, but merged into an association called SIMA for the whole of the Faculty of Social Sciences. At the Faculty of Law the green association Casus Clima was founded.
Then another big new thing happened.
In Sweden, a young woman had been on strike for the climate for weeks, and in November 2018, Danish young people in several Danish cities joined in, inspired by Greta Thunberg. Fridays For Future had come to Denmark.
In December, in connection with the COP24 in Poland, climate activists from the University of Copenhagen organised a bike demonstration called KlimaAlarm to get politicians’ attention, while the Green Student Movement set up a human chain around the Danish parliament in Christiansborg. Before the year was out, people from the international civil disobedience movement Extinction Rebellion were demonstrating in Denmark too.
In January 2019, the Green Student Movement issued a series of demands on universities: Stop research into the extraction of oil and gas, put the climate question on the syllabus and curriculum, and avoid, as far as possible, any flying, they said. And when there were strikes in more than 1,000 cities and 90 countries in March, students at the University of Copenhagen also took part. At the Social Science campus, SIMA had organised a presentation which included former chairman of the Danish Council for Climate, Peter Birch Sørensen, and several hundred people took part in the strike at the Faculty of Social Sciences.
At the beginning of 2019, the Student Council at the University of Copenhagen also threw itself into the green struggle.
The students’ five demands
1. All students are to have teaching in climate and sustainability
2. Campus to be CO2-neutral in 2015
3. Research to be oriented towards the future with the Sustainable Development Goals as a guideline
4. Travelling policy to be introduced
5. Closure of the Danish Hydrocarbon Research and Technology Centre.
»Climate had become an agenda that we could not avoid,« says Mike Gudbergsen, chairman of the Student Council. »It took us some time, because it is not a typical student political subject, but our responsibility as an organisation is what is important for students’ lives. And so we couldn’t avoid it.«
The Student Council co-ordinated a collaboration between the green associations at the faculties and the Green Student Movement, according to Mike Gudbergsen. A collaboration that resulted in five joint demands that were issued to management, a petition, and a demonstration in front of the University of Copenhagen in September, when they handed over 1,700 signatures and their demands to Prorector Bente Stallknecht.
In September, the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs annual study-start survey was released. In this, 30 per cent of students said that it was crucial for them that their future workplace had a green and climate-friendly profile. Fewer students pointed to it being crucial to them that the company paid a high salary (21 per cent), and that it is prestigious to work in it (10 per cent).
Mike Gudbergsen from the Student Council reckons that the University of Copenhagen should quickly prioritise the green transition if it is to attract the students of the future.
»I believe that a focus on climate and sustainability will have a strong impact on the next generation of university students’ choice of education,« he says. »It is something that is on the mind of students at university right now, but it is just as much on the mind, maybe to an even greater extent, of secondary and primary school students.«
He says that he sees that the University of Copenhagen management wants to be progressive and become a green university. But it is the students that have to come up with the ideas, because management doesn’t always have them. That’s why it’s good, according to Mike Gudbergsen, that management listens to students:
»Later today, I will go with representatives from other green associations to a meeting with Prorector Bente Stallknecht on how we can help each other to push UCPH in a greener direction.«