As someone who lives on this planet and a father who hopes my child lives on it long after me, I couldn’t not find the tens of thousands of Australian students who walked out of school as part of international protests over inaction on climate change powerfully uplifting. With everyone from the Reserve Bank to our intelligence agencies to the scientific community delivering blunt warnings of the threat posed by climate change, the Abbot/Turnbull/Morrison government’s refusal to stand up to their donors/owners in the coal industry is as self-servingly treasonous as David Cameron’s actions around the Brexit referendum.
I’m angry about it and I’m glad the youth of this country are too. And our government would do well to take notice. Far from virtue-signalling, these protests have been an exercise in vote-signalling by soon-to-be voters, and politicians would do well to take note. Alternatively, they could choose to double down and condescendingly tell students to stay in school and let the grown ups worry about climate change.
It seems obvious which response would have been a more prudent long term strategy for any political party, but no prize for guessing which option our tin-eared government and its supporters in the commercial media took.
Let's consider the dismissive and hostile treatment of student activists as ill-informed truants by conservative media and politicians. It was nothing short of disgusting. It belied an anachronistic belief that adults are always right and children are always wrong- that adolescents are too young and naïve to be treated with the same respect as adults.
Repeatedly, airtime and column space has been devoted to the idea that children are too young to have formed and educated opinion and that they have been unduly influenced by others (like maybe teachers educating them about climate change, species extinction, etc). Students have been berated and denigrated, whilst being accused of disingenuously seizing a change to skip school over an issue they don’t actually care about or even understand. Whilst these accusations don’t deserve much serious consideration- coming from politicians who have barely turned up to parliament in the last six months or from hack journalists who make a living from simplifying and misrepresenting complex issues- I’m in a generous mood.
So let’s consider the primary criticisms levelled at these student activists.
1- “They should be in class.”
Now education is important. I believe that even if the Liberal government’s gutting of the public education system at both state and national level shows that they don’t. But education doesn’t just happen in a classroom. The education experience for school children includes learning in classrooms, in the playground and out on excursions. There are also many occasions in a school year where regular programmed teaching is halted for special occasions such as sports carnivals, performances and assemblies. Let’s not pretend that by missing a few hours of class this time they have jeopardised their future, but every other interruption is fine.
Moreover, children becoming politically engaged through taking interest in government policy is important in achieving a better informed society. By physically taking part in peaceful protest, students are experientially learning about democracy and political activism in an arguably much more meaningful way than studying its history.
2- “They don’t understand the issues fully.”
This is hilarious. Remember Tony Abbott saying global warming is probably good because some people find it hard to stay warm in winter? What about Craig Kelly blaming energy blackouts on renewable energy? Or Pauline Hanson diving in a healthy part of the Great Barrier Reef to prove the entire reef was not at risk of coral bleaching? If these illiterates are still allowed a platform to speak about climate change, why shouldn’t children who probably have a better understanding?
And climate change isn’t a bloody debate anyway. The science on climate change is as settled as the science of vaccines. Those who refuse to accept it are as stupid and dangerous as the anti-vaccers responsible for the resurgence of measles this year. Nor is it debatable that our COALition government has done nothing to address the worsening threat of climate change over the last six year- and in fact have done all they can to divert funding and discourage investment in renewable energy. Don’t try to tell me either of those facts are too difficult for school students to understand. Even someone who writes for The Australian could probably understand them.
3- “They’re hypocrites because they use technology and vehicles that contribute to climate change.”
This is even stupider than the previous argument. Unless you have heard any of the advocates seriously advocating Australia’s immediate return to pre-industrial times, why would you expect them to do it themselves? Quite rightly, the activists are calling for policy that transitions our country towards renewable technology over the next decade. Moreover, it is wilfully disingenuous to suggest individual actors will address the problems of climate change through behavioural changes such as recycling and reducing their electricity consumption; unless these changes are mirrored by the private industries whose factories have exponentially greater impact on our environment than any private citizens.
But for all the conservative bluster and attempted intimidation, school students turned up in huge numbers and I want to credit their courage. For some children, arguing with authority comes almost as second nature, but for many others it is very difficult. The crude coercive tactics by adults of perceived power and influence would have been a test of courage for some to overcome. But the numbers at rallies around the country proved our students passed this test.