LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Greta Thunberg was among 30 young activists who walked out of a major European meeting of more than 400 students who have spent the last nine months boycotting school on Fridays to demand action on climate change.
Thunberg, 16, has become the most visible spokesperson of the Fridays for Future movement after launching a solitary school strike in Stockholm in Stockholm. But during an emotional meeting Wednesday morning, the group left the main hall and sat down outside the front door, which BuzzFeed News witnessed, just before the conference was due to take up a draft platform of the movement’s demands.
“We’re on strike,” said Janine O’Keeffe, an adult activist who lives in Sweden and has been active with the strike movement since its early days, and who had been participating in a committee drafting the movement’s demands. Multiple other participants also described the walkout as a “strike” to BuzzFeed News.
Thunberg did not respond to requests to comment before this story was first published. But she said in a text message to BuzzFeed News after publication that she did not personally view the gathering as a protest.
“I did not ‘join a walk out’ or ‘join a sit in.’ We are going in and out of meetings all the time,” she wrote. “In this case I sat down outside the auditorium to comfort a friend of mine who was sad and upset at the time.”
This week's summit was convened in Lausanne, Switzerland, with the goal of articulating a shared vision and decision-making process for a movement that began as a spontaneous uprising but now brings hundreds of thousands to the streets worldwide. Ahead of a September meeting to discuss climate change in the United Nations General Assembly, the Fridays for Future movement is debating how to turn its visibility into political power that can quickly force policymakers to cut carbon emissions.
The tension that led to the activists to exit the hall began with a fundamental disagreement about strategic vision and how key decisions should be made, the same challenges that frustrated Occupy and many other grassroots movements. The Fridays for Future activists reject formal hierarchies and believe all voices should have equal say in decisions. But they also want to find consensus on fundamental visions and strategic calls, such as the dates when major strikes will be held. And trying to respect both principles threatened to derail the conference in Lausanne as it entered its third day.
The split began to emerge in meetings that BuzzFeed News sat in on Tuesday, but came to a head Wednesday as the conference was preparing to take up a list of demands. A committee had met the day before to revise a draft that outlined more than 20 specific policy recommendations, covering everything from reforming agriculture to curbing carbon emissions from boats. Thunberg and group of others recommended scrapping these proposals in favor of much broader principles like “follow the science” and “climate justice for everyone.”
“Not one of us agreed to all these demands, because they’re too specific,” Thunberg said in making the recommendation. Saoi O’Connor, a 16-year-old from Ireland, was even more emphatic in arguing against specific demands as the meeting broke up. “Our movement is strong because we haven’t had to do this,” BuzzFeed News heard them say to another participant.
But others said that specific proposals were the only way to hold politicians’ feet to the fire, and a majority of the committee leaned in that direction. The group struggled to reach a consensus, and many of the dissenters left as the meeting ran late. As the full conference prepared to take up their proposals, O’Connor walked out, and was soon joined by Thunberg and many others.
“We thought, if we [went on strike because we] didn’t like the government not listening to us about climate change, and we don’t like how they’re not listening to us [now] about how we felt, let’s strike,” a British student who was one of the instigators of the walkout, and asked not to be named, told BuzzFeed News.
O’Connor initially declined multiple interview requests from BuzzFeed News. But they said that the whole incident had been “blown hugely out of proportion” in a message to BuzzFeed News after publication.
“Even if we disagree on small details we as a whole movement stand together,” O’Connor said. “We are and will continue to be united in the fight for climate justice. Nothing has changed.”
During a meeting at the end of the lunch break witnessed by BuzzFeed News, conference organizers said the conflict had grown so heated that the event’s host, the University of Lausanne, wanted to call off further meetings that afternoon to allow participants time to cool off. The summit has been run primarily by high school and university activists involved in the movement. But the activists insisted on allowing the committee drafting the list of demands for policymakers to make a presentation, which offered people a choice between adopting just four broad demands or including many of the specific proposals, according to sources in the room.
Thunberg, O’Connor, and other activists who left the earlier meetings stuck around for that session, sources in the room said, and it proceeded smoothly. And soon the conference participants were doing the Macarena and playing other games designed to lighten the mood.
The conference is scheduled to adopt final declarations on Thursday, but organizers were struggling to figure out an approach that could bring consensus to a group of several hundred young people who are deeply divided.
This post has been updated to include comments from Thunberg and O'Connor and clarify events witnessed by BuzzFeed News.