Each year I live in Australia, the natural disasters mount and appear to worsen. Every spring, as the bush fire season approaches, we make our preparations.
I am aware of the impact of climate change, but also that I am part of the problem. I drive a petrol car and I fly to the UK to see family and friends.
Nevertheless, there are some reasons to be mildly optimistic. Solar energy has taken off in Australia and is looking even more worthwhile now that battery storage has become viable. My next car may be electric, powered largely by the southern sun that glints off our roof. And one day, I hope, there will be industrial plants that brew carbon neutral aviation fuel.
But these are largely market-based solutions, even if they are eased by subsidies and tax breaks. Otherwise, the politics of climate change is a mess. The intransigent wing of Australia’s governing party recently blocked an extremely modest set of proposals, slaying their leader in the process. They are so torn on the issue, and voters are so frustrated, that the party may not survive the next election, where defenestration is a clear possibility.
Britain, with its binding response to the Paris climate agreement, looks positively progressive in comparison.
What would it take to make more rapid progress? What could governments do if they were so inclined? One answer would be a hike in taxes on fossil fuels, with revenue used to subsidise renewables. Any government that took such measures would face a backlash. We must remember, for instance, that it was an increase in fuel tax that sparked the Gilets Jaunes movement in France.
Therefore, those protesters who wish to push for a more radical response to climate change need to do the calculus. They need a clear plan for exactly what measures they want to see implemented and they need to somehow make it more painful for governments to not implement these measures than to implement them.
What does that require? Probably a mass mobilisation across a number of societal groups; something along the spectrum towards a general strike, depending on just how radical are the protesters’ proposals.
In this light, British school kids skipping school on a Friday to make vague demands that the government declare a ‘climate emergency’ does not really cut it. It is not like miners or nurses going on strike. It’s not really a ‘strike’ at all because nobody is inconvenienced and nobody loses any money. The only potential losers from a withdrawal of student labour are the students themselves, although this will depend greatly on the quality of the education that they have left behind.
Yes, school students could form a part of a very powerful protest movement. If that movement had clear demands and created enough inconvenience it could have an impact on climate policy. For instance, a planned campaign of peaceful civil disobedience that involved stopping traffic or preventing access to petrol stations would make a far bigger point. If the students did this on a Saturday then nobody could claim it was all just an excuse to avoid biology class.
I’m not saying they should do this, of course. I am making a claim about what they could do and how this would be more effective, assuming the intention is to have an effect and not to make an empty, symbolic gesture.
And as teachers, I think it is important to maintain some objectivity about the rights and wrongs of the issue. It is not for us to attempt to manipulate children into protesting about the right issues. It is for us to provide young people with knowledge of the world in all its contradictions, including truths that may be inconvenient. That way they can participate as democratic citizens with their eyes wide open.
Because those who are old enough to protest, are old enough to be criticised for doing so. That is liberal democracy.