On 15 March, the same day as our country’s worst terrorist attack robbed them of the headlines, thousands of students in many New Zealand towns and cities marched to demand that our government do more to halt the effects of climate change.
This strike was part of a worldwide youth movement to show adults that youth are extremely concerned about the lack of demonstrable action their governments are taking on the biggest issue facing the planet.
New Zealand adults were divided in their opinions about the strike. While a group of academics – many from the University of Auckland – teachers and researchers signed an open letter of support, the Ministry of Education dithered about its role when secondary principals looked for guidance on how to deal with it.
Politicians were also openly split, with Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges disagreeing with the students’ actions and James Shaw, our Climate Change Minister, saying that he was not urging children to participate. Other politicians, such as Labour’s Damien O’Connor were more supportive, while Dunedin mayor Dave Cull openly encouraged the strikes on social media.
I believe this issue is deeper than whether these students should be striking in class time or not. Rather it’s about how adults perceive the role of youth in making important decisions about society and who should be wielding the decision-making power. The way things currently work, adults guard this power very tightly.
Young people are rarely consulted and often regarded as ‘citizens-in-waiting’ despite being citizens already and in this case, potentially far more affected than adults.
I believe school children should absolutely be allowed to contribute to important decisions that impact on them. The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children are capable of forming their own views, have the right to express them freely and that they should be given weight. They proved their ability to form opinions and take action by the way they organised and took part in this successful strike.
By ignoring these students’ message, or saying that they should be striking on a day in the weekend, adults are minimising their views about an issue regarded as the most serious we have ever faced.
And young people are right to be worried. According to author David Wallace-Wells, if the current inaction continues, climate change will turn Earth in a ‘hell’, altering our way of life beyond recognition.
His prediction is not a fantasy when, according to Professor Juliet Gerrard the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, if everyone on Earth produced emissions proportionate to those of New Zealand’s, we would be on track for five degrees of warming by the end of this century.
This is a figure well beyond the 1.5 degrees set by the 2018 Paris Agreement, a target hoped to have the least negative effects on Earth’s living organisms.
This generation, the post-millennials or Generation Z, has been identified as the one who will bear a disproportionate share of the costs for the effects of climate change.
Not only will these be physical (extreme heat, floods, fires) and psychological (conflict, mass migration, food insecurity, social upheaval), they will also be adversely affected economically, having to finance the majority of the policies to reduce carbon emissions.
This will make them the first generation to be worse off than their parents, nullifying the myth of perpetual progress across generations.
These informed young people didn’t necessarily learn their climate change facts in the classroom either. Climate change education is sporadic and totally reliant on an individual teacher’s interest to include it. In fact no particular environmental or sustainability education is mandated by the New Zealand Curriculum.
Young people cannot be left out of this crucial discussion. The well-attended strike is a wake-up call for adults to stop dominating the conversation and instead, invite youth to meaningfully share in the process.
It is their future and they are in the fight of their lives.
Sally Birdsdall is a senior lecturer, Curriculum and Pedagogy, at the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland.