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Student-led climate strikes – Expert Reaction

Kiwi students around the country are planning to strike on Friday to send a message to politicians about the urgency of climate action.

School Strike 4 Climate Action NZ stems from international youth movements to protest against climate change, initially led by 15-year-old Greta Thunberg who started protesting outside the Swedish parliament last August.

Over 1560 researchers, academics and educators have signed an open letter supporting the school strike.

The SMC gathered expert comment on the upcoming strike.

Jonathan Oosterman, Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“We face a climate crisis that demands urgent action. It is no wonder that young people are fed up with waiting for leaders to act. The government has been moving too slowly. Society as a whole has been moving too slowly.

“It is heartening to see young people show their concern about the climate crisis and demand action. There is no doubt that becoming involved in climate activism is one of the most important things young people could be doing at this time on the planet. The skills involved in working together to take a stand for justice and the greater good are precisely what young people will need in the chaotic future that we – the wealthy countries of this world – have created through our past emissions.

“The students should be particularly commended for their choice of striking as a tactic. It is important that protests are disruptive. We need to disrupt the climate-changing society we live in. So we should thank the climate strikers for disrupting ‘life as usual’ – for disrupting the ‘common sense’ that pushes the climate crisis from our minds and tells us to get on with our everyday lives.

“We should be inspired by the climate strikers to have difficult conversations about the climate crisis. Zero carbon by 2050 is not enough – to allow less wealthy countries the time to achieve this, wealthy countries such as New Zealand need to reach zero carbon significantly before 2050. The Budget Responsibility Rules are a fiscal straightjacket that block sufficient climate action. A just transition is not only ethically required – to look after the least well off during the transition to a zero carbon society – it is the only way to get sufficient people on side with adequate climate action.

“We should also be inspired by the climate strikers to take action. Research clearly demonstrates the changes that social movements have brought about at the societal level. Taking action works. But it only works when enough people join in. If young people are willing to take this sort of action, then we as adults should be willing to take this even further. The strikers have said they will not stop at Friday’s strike. What about an adult climate strike? That may be the level of action required to get the message heard. Let’s join with the climate strikers in building the grassroots social power that will enable real change to occur.”

Conflict of interest statement: I am a signatory of the open letter and will be attending the strike in support of the students.

Professor Niki Harré, School of Psychology, The University of Auckland, comments:

“The worldwide series of strikes by school students has helped focus attention on the need for decisive political action on climate change. What is it about these strikes that is particularly humbling and inspiring? They are humbling because we, as adults, know that our generation has let our young people down. Instead of being guardians of their natural environment and offering them a world full of hope, we are offering them a world full of risk. This is partly due to the physical damage we have done to our planet, but it is also due to our inability to show young people that we can work together to improve the situation.

“If I was 16, I’d be terrified by the behaviour of adults in politics and the media – who is going to look after me in a world that seems more interested in controversy than in calmly figuring out how to solve the problems we face? The strikes are also inspiring because young people are expressing their fear and anger collectively. Fear often leads to withdrawal when the problem is huge and the person concerned feels unable to take meaningful action. By organising these strikes, young people have given each other a way to do something that just might make a difference. Instead of feeling isolated and miserable they are now standing united, and that is huge.”

Professor Harré is a signatory on the open letter.

Dr Bronwyn Wood, Senior Lecturer, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“There has been growing attention by media and ‘qualified’ adults to comment on the anticipated School Strike for Climate Change this Friday.

“Their positions fall broadly into three camps:

  1. The strike won’t do one scrap of good, it looks like a prank to wag school;
  2. Climate change is an important issue, but advising students to cut school is a step too far for me;
  3. Go for it – it’s great learning and important – worth cutting school for.

“This is how the Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins responded: ‘I want kids to be learning. If taking part in this action is part of the learning process, then there may be some merit in it. If they’re just taking a day off school then actually they’re just punishing themselves’.

“So, what could students learn by taking part in the School Strike for Climate?

“We have some good evidence from a recent two-year study of New Zealand secondary school students who undertook ‘social action’ as part of their learning for NCEA.

“The research team interviewed 92 students from a wide range of secondary schools who had been involved in taking social action themselves. They found that students felt their learning was enhanced greatly through dealing with actual issues that mattered to them.

“Encounters with the public and community meant students needed to develop a set of ‘real-life skills’ that were often ‘more hands on and practical [than] a lot of the stuff we learn in school’.

“In fact, because students felt the skills they learned were valuable for life, as one 18-year-old student explained: ‘So we actually probably put a lot more dedication into it because we know it’s going to be useful in life’.

“Taking social action involved some element of risk-taking – and often weeks of planning – which held potential for much deeper learning rather than ‘smashing out an internal assessment in a couple of days’ [participant quote].

“I don’t doubt that the experience this Friday will provide similar memorable learning opportunities for students. In addition, they will be exposed to experiences that deepen their knowledge and experience of processes within our democracy. At the same time, their actions will draw attention to the issue of climate change which needs world-stopping attention right now.

“Go for it – it’s great learning and important – worth cutting school for.”

Dr Wood is a signatory on the open letter.

Dr Sylvia Nissen, Lecturer, Department of Environmental Management, Lincoln University, comments:

“Most of the students striking on Friday cannot vote. But in walking out of school as citizens they are sending a powerful signal to political leaders and ‘adults’ more generally that our continued action and inaction is violating their right to a future.

“The students’ message is as clear as it is uncompromising – that we must urgently reduce greenhouse emissions across all sectors of society to avoid even more severe impacts of a changing climate. It’s a message that is grounded in the latest science on climate change, while reminding us that climate is a matter of social justice with the burdens falling on those least responsible, including children and future generations.

“Above all, it is a message that should unsettle us all into action – hope is not enough when the wellbeing and survival of the planet and those who inhabit it are at stake. I will be standing in solidarity with the students on Friday (down the back, in support) because what could be more important than being part of a global movement calling for a future based on climate justice, and not climate breakdown.”

Dr Nissen is a signatory on the open letter.

The organisers of the open letter have a released joint statement:

– Dr Raven Cretney, Research Officer & Teaching Fellow, Department of Political Science and Public Policy, University of Waikato
– Dr Amanda Thomas, Lecturer in Environmental Studies, Victoria University of Wellington
– Dr Bronwyn Hayward, Associate Professor, Political Science and International Relations, University of Canterbury

“As academics working on climate change, environment and youth issues, we drafted an open letter supporting young people who are calling for urgent action to address climate change. History teaches us that whenever youth mobilise for change, from civil rights to nuclear-free movements, their actions are always initially trivialised and dismissed as publicity seeking or naive, but we need to listen to these concerns, recognise the seriousness and urgent nature of the issues young people face, and act on their demands with urgent resolve.

“We have been overwhelmed with the volume and speed of responses to the open letter, over 1500 New Zealand researchers, academics and educators have signed the open letter in support of the School Strike 4 Climate movement in Aotearoa to stand in solidarity with rangatahi and their youth climate movement.

“The open letter stresses that the efforts students are making in planning school strikes matter. They focus on vital issues that threaten young people’s wellbeing. Organising the protest is itself an important practical lesson in democratic participation; young people are learning how to be heard and how to express dissent on an issue that will shape the lives of this generation and those to come.

“Approximately two-thirds of the letter signatories are academics affiliated with research or higher education institutions, while the remaining third signed as independent teachers and educators. These signatories represent an extraordinary diversity of research expertise and educational experience. Tertiary institutes across Aotearoa are represented, as well as educators from early childhood through to secondary school, and researchers from Crown Research Institutes (CRIs). There is also representation from a range of diverse disciplinary specialisations we need to draw on to tackle how we change the way we live to reduce climate change: from climate science, engineering, biomedical science, to music, art and product design, political science and ecology.

“It is unusual for such a wide range of experts to agree on a common cause, but when it comes to climate change we all acknowledged that we need to listen to the voices of young people and take urgent action.

“We recognise, as adults, researchers and as educators, that it is important to respect youth leadership and stand with young people as allies, but not in front. To listen hard to their concerns and then take responsibility for action to achieve the change they demand to avoid catastrophic impacts. We want to thank and honour youth leadership in building this local, national and global movement at such a crucial time.”