The rise of students against climate change

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A sea of placards were the voice of a generation wanting a better future (Screenshot via YouTube)

Students striking against the lack of climate change policy are a strong voice against an ineffective government, writes Peter Henning.

IT IS NOT OFTEN in Australian history that school students have been politicised to the extent of taking direct action on an issue. There have been other occasions, but they are fundamentally different from what is happening now in relation to the failure of the political system to address climate change.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, high school students who participated in demonstrations against the Vietnam War, against apartheid, on civil rights issues and against environmental destruction, for example, rallied in support behind a much broader movement without playing the key role in leadership. The same is true of other public protests on a range of issues since then, such as saving the Franklin River, stopping old-growth logging, Aboriginal rights, gender equality — until now.

It is difficult to say at this point in time how this will play out because it is unprecedented for high school students to take the lead on an issue of such importance. The turnout on 15 March was clearly a shock to politicians and other authorities. In Melbourne, the police attempted for a brief period to keep the roads and tramlines clear at the top end of Collins Street but then gave up. They were simply overwhelmed by student numbers.

It was a sea of placards across the 20,000 people there and they dominated the space and told a story which is no flash in the pan.

People like Scott Morrison, Matthias Cormann, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, her Education Minister and other climate change deniers and delayers were variously appalled.  Take them back in time and they would have opposed the eight-hour day, the old-age pension and the abolition of slavery. As in the case of all organised attempts at reform from beyond the corridors of established political and economic power and influence extending back in time and place for generations, the age-old canard of people being manipulated by “professional activists/agitators” has been raised once again.

In the vacuous rhetoric of Morrison et al, we can hear the voices of Bjelke-Petersen with Reds under the bed, John Howard opposing Wik and Mabo and an apology to the stolen generations, Tony Abbott proclaiming that same-sex marriage will wreak havoc and Scott Morrison informing us that lumps of coal are lovely, divinely-created gifts. 

When Greta Thunberg commented that the statement of the NSW Minister for Education belongs in a museum, she could have been saying the same thing about nearly every Liberal and National Party politician in Australia. Such political opposition to students having a voice about their own future will only strengthen this generation’s view that the current political class are active agents against them, with little interest in anything except their own piece of cake.

The placards were unequivocal in their overt contempt for the current Federal Government — ‘Governments are supposed to help. So where the bloody hell are you?’; ‘It’s time to change politics like we change PMs’; ‘Fossils should be in the ground not parliament’‘I can’t believe I’m marching for facts’; ‘I bet the dinosaurs thought they had time, too’; ‘School taught me that dinosaurs were extinct’; ‘If climate was a bank it would have been saved’‘The water is rising. Get your budgie smugglers ready’.

Young Australians articulating a clear understanding that the Federal Government is essentially ignorant and contemptible is somewhat different to anything we’ve seen before.

One student, 17-year-old Manjot Kaur of Sydney said

“The action of striking is so important. Students are so afraid, so upset, so worried about their future that they’re literally sacrificing their education to show how serious this problem is. Because right now we aren’t treating it as a crisis. The act of striking is us saying this needs to be treated as an emergency.”

In Melbourne on 15 March, it was obvious that many schools fully supported the strike and encouraged students to wear their school uniforms with pride. On the other hand, some school principals threatened that those who participated could jeopardise their assessment results. 

Schools which threaten sanctions and punitive action in this way are contradicting one of their essential and fundamental educational purposes to develop democratic values, participation in public life and critical thinking in students. Such schools are contributing to the development of a mindset which encourages silence, passivity and acquiescence in the face of overwhelming evidence that climate change is here with us now and that Australia is already being severely impacted.

Schools not actively promoting discussion of climate change are breaching their responsibilities as educational institutions, undermining educational standards, inhibiting access to vital knowledge and are engaged in the wilful promotion of ignorance.

The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority has recently stated that government inaction “is rapidly moving beyond a purely partisan or moral issue — indeed, the threat is distinctly financial in nature”. The regulator predicts “economic and environmental disaster” to Australia under the current leadership vacuum.

As Greg Jericho wrote in The Guardian, the RBA is no longer equivocating about the threat to the economy, either, saying that:

“...the physical impact of climate change and the transition are likely to have first-order economic effects”.  

According to Jericho:
‘This week really should mark the end of the line for anyone within politics or the media being able to spout climate-change denialism without being met with scorn and jeers. It also should mark the time when boldness and verve becomes the norm for any climate-change policy’
Former corporate coal boss Ian Dunlop has come out swinging against proposals for new fossil fuel projects in Australia, labelling them as ‘crimes against humanity’ which must stop immediately:
To halt our suicidal rush to oblivion, the community must ensure no leader is elected or appointed in this country unless they are committed to emergency action.’
The three main goals of the student campaign are to stop the Adani coal mine, no new gas or coal projects and 100 per cent renewables by 2030. The majority of informed Australians, including students, are well ahead of the main political parties. Energy Minister Angus Taylor inanely claims that Labor’s 45 per cent emissions reduction target is aggressively high, when, in fact, it is too low.

We are at the end of an era. Australia is at a crossroad it hasn’t faced since late 1941.

The students are right. Ian Dunlop is right. This is a crisis. People like Taylor belong in a museum. If the incoming Shorten administration displays the same flat-Earth blind stupidity, it will follow the current Morrison Government into irrelevance. We simply can’t afford any more gutless and ignorant Federal administrations. Time is too short.

Peter Henning is a Tasmanian historian and author.

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