This week I saw some wildly contrasting images. One was a bleak photograph of the lonely, single figure of climate activist Greta Thunberg sitting on the steps of Swedish Parliament in August 2018. She is seated next to a sign which reads “Skolstrejk för klimatet” and this was the very first School Strike for Climate. The other images were taken 13 months later. They were aerial shots of mass crowds of protestors at iconic sites around the world held on last Friday’s Global Student Strike for Climate. It is estimated that across the globe more than 4 million people mobilised for this action. What a difference a year makes!
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” This powerful quote by American anthropologist Margaret Mead has been on my mind recently as I have witnessed the rapidly gathering momentum of the movement calling for urgent action on Climate Change.
Greta Thunberg has again been in the news as she derided world leaders at the UN in a brave and impassioned plea for action. She said: “For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight? You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.”
The response to Thunberg’s speech in certain sections of the Media has been to challenge her “naivete”, call her “brainwashed” and to discredit her as being “mentally ill”. This calls to mind another popular quote most commonly attributed to Mahatma Ghandi: “[f]irst they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Australian radio broadcaster Alan Jones criticised the students participating in the Climate Strikes stating that: “Well, if that’s the case, and that’s what the young people are about, then shouldn’t they turn off their mobile phones? Shouldn’t they stop charging their iPads? Shouldn’t they stop watching Netflix? Because all of that is using the same coal-fired power. Shouldn’t they in fact be walking to school? Shouldn’t they at the end of the day say, ‘Mum, you’ll have to turn off the washing machine. We’ll wash our clothes by hand. And you’ll have to turn off the TV’.”
Further criticism has been that the students should stay in school and allow the adults to manage the situation.
The messages our young people are receiving are contradictory and ill defined. It seems wrong to tell the students to do less because they are not doing more. It seems wrong to tell them to stay in school and learn the science and then denounce them for being naïve for accepting the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists.
We can’t expect our students to take responsibility to transition our electricity supply, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and change what we eat and how we produce our food.
It is indeed perverse to expect our youth to lead us to action. This was directly referenced by Thunberg at the UN when she said: “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!”
The youth’s calls to action are exactly that – they are begging the adult world to step up and deal with the emergency.
The Guardian recently reported that scientific consensus is now thought to be in excess of 99% that there are human-made causes which contribute to climate change. If this is correct then the stark reality is that it is these students who will live with the outcomes of the decisions that our leaders make or do not make. An image I saw of one of the posters held up by a young student at one of the Climate rallies read “You will die of old age. We will die because of the climate.”
Our great hope for our students is that they become upstanders who are prepared to fight for just causes. Rather than criticising the inconvenience they cause, we should applaud their courage and their ‘chutzpa’. And then our leaders should respond as adults and make informed decisions based on the very real threats that we all face.
As UN Secretary General António Guterres said at the closing of the UN’s Climate Action Summit: “you understand that climate emergency is the fight of our lives, and for our lives.
I thank young people around the world for leading the charge – and holding my generation accountable. We have been losing the race against climate crisis. But the world is waking up.
Pressure is building. Momentum is growing. And — action by action — the tide is turning.”