Holly Gillibrand lives in a small town outside of Fort William, Scotland, in the remote, mountainous Scottish Highlands, which should be filled with ancient natural forests, badgers, red deer, wildcats, wolves and other wildlife. Gillibrand, who is a young ambassador for Scotland: The Big Picture and a campaigner for animal welfare charity OneKind, has been interested in animals and conservation since she can remember. “When there’s about 200 [species] going extinct every day, it’s quite scary,” she says. “So you have to do everything you can.”
Gillibrand is particularly bothered by the grouse moors throughout Scotland, which are swaths of land managed specifically to attract hunters who pay up to thousands of pounds per day to shoot and kill flocks of red grouse — plump auburn birds with red head feathers and a mildly hooked-tipped bill. To maximize the number of red grouse on each moor, moor owners cover the land with heather, replacing what would otherwise be a diverse forest ecosystem with a monoculture cover that is particularly susceptible to wildfire. “Any predator and possible threat to read grouse are poisoned or shot,” says Holly. “I think rewilding is the answer — ecologically, financially and just in general.” According to the World Wildlife Fund, more than 56% of species native to the UK are in decline, including bees, frogs, water voles, barn owls and hedgehogs, whose population has plummeted 50% since 2000.
At Lochaber High School, Gillibrand and her classmates have been learning about the Global Goals, established in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly. “One of them is climate action,” she explains. “Unfortunately it’s thirteen and not number one.” Eliminating poverty is the top priority on the list of Global Goals. Gillibrand says she has an ongoing argument with one friend who says that “we should make more businesses so people can get out of poverty,” Gillibrand explains. But as she sees it, “we need to reduce the population which is also related to climate change, because there’s just too many people in the world,” she says. “It is economic growth that is driving climate change.” Despite the conflict, Gillibrand is clear on the fact that these conversations are productive, not petty. “We just have debates. We all know we need to take action on climate change.
Yet she’s just one of two students who decided to begin a climate strike at Lochaber High School. Gillibrand’s first strike was on January 11th — the first Friday after the winter holiday. Gillibrand says her friend Lilly has joined her each week for the hour-long strike. Holly has invited other friends too. “But their parents aren’t too keen on the idea.” In spite of classmates being slow to join, Gillibrand says the small strike group’s presence in front of the school building during the busiest commute time has called good attention to issues around climate change. As she stands with her sign and a handful of supporters each time, Gillibrand says the group gets constant beeps, waves, thumbs-ups and smiles, in addition to attention from inside the school building. “When the bell rings and everyone is moving from class to class, we see them looking down at us and taking videos and pictures,” she says. After striking during her first class — drama — she goes back inside for the rest of the school day, where she says there is now chatter about the strike and climate change overall.
Gillibrand says her teachers have been supportive of her activism. But a spokesperson for the Highland Council has reinforced that, “the education authority cannot sanction unauthorized absence from school, no matter how well-meaning the intention.” Gillibrand says she loves school and would strongly prefer not to miss any of it. Deciding to strike each Friday is a kind of personal sacrifice. “Even just thinking about [going on strike] is going against what people have been telling me my whole life that I need to go to school to do well,” she says. “I like school, I like learning. But I want to have a future that is habitable.”
Climate awareness and activism have a long way to go in Scotland, and in the United Kingdom in general, says Gillibrand. Although slower to answer Greta’s call than in Belgium, Germany or Australia, where tens of thousands of students have been on strike in past week, participation in the global climate strike is on the rise in Scotland and across the UK. In addition to Gillibrand’s Fort William strike, which more than doubled in size to 22 in spite of -8C temperatures this past Friday, students were also on strike in Edinburgh, Dublin, London, Manchester and Ullapool.
On February 15th, Gillibrand will participate in the first UK-wide climate strike. All the while, she says, government officials are celebrating the arrival of a new oil rig two hours from her house at Kishorn Port. “They have been advertising that it is a brilliant chance to involve local communities,” she explains, through new job opportunities. But as far as Gillibrand is concerned, “we should be moving to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.” As Gillibrand has told The Press and Journal, “I am striking because we are running out of time. Thousands of children around the world should not be having to miss classes because of our leaders’ inability to treat the climate crisis as a crisis.”