Canterbury, take comfort in the knowledge that your youth is passionate for the future of New Zealand. On 27 September 2019, the students of Christchurch participated in New Zealand’s scheduled ‘School Strike for Climate’ and in doing so, demonstrated that once and for all, they are in fact entitled to a future. As I stood on the stage photographing the boisterous throng before me, Lucy Gray, a local Year 8 student, was announcing beside me that this generation was not going to stand by and watch the imminent climate crisis be treated with a ‘business as usual’ approach. Prior to the event, I was lucky enough to speak with her and fellow event leaders Corena Exener and Nellie Manning about their intent for the strike. ‘We love school, and don’t enjoy missing it,’ Nellie says. ‘But,’ she adds, ‘our education isn’t going to be worth it if we don’t have hope for a liveable future.’ Lucy continues, ‘So we demand that a climate emergency be declared by the government, and that all efforts to make New Zealand carbon neutral by 2040 are pursued.’
‘[Climate change] is only mentioned briefly in school; there isn’t enough education on it,’ says Corena. ‘We hope that today allows people to learn more and consolidate their understanding on this issue.’
The event included a gathering for announcements, a march through the central business district, and a closing address. Prior to the march beginning, barely a patch of pavement was left free. The expansive crowd in Cathedral Square made estimates of attendee numbers difficult to ascertain. ‘Maybe five thousand?’ Sienna, the event’s media liaison officer suggests. The march itself was conducted in a peaceful, but assertive manner. No onlooker would have been left wondering what these students expected from their political leaders, nor what they are prepared to do with their voting power once they come of age. Corporations would also be wise in noting the growing individual messages being expressed at these events. Many people bore signs or slogans upon their clothing stating their value of a vegan diet and a waste-free lifestyle. After witnessing the event in its entirety, I congratulate the organisers on its orderly, informative and well-orchestrated manner. However, some key lessons did present themselves, and all participants ought to take note.
It is not outlandish to suggest that the immediacy of political reaction to striking school students will be uninspiring. Some politicians have previously patronised the attendees; others criticised their action for being within school hours. The move to include adults in this protest was commendable. It gave a greater weight to the demands of the protest and a more reliable cross section of where this issue stands with the wider New Zealand population. However, a greater number of university students being present in the leadership of these events is likely to add further structure to the overall message being sent to the nation’s politicians. Not only are university students likely to be taken more seriously, due to their eligibility to vote, but they also have a more educated understanding of what the crisis involves, especially regarding what pertains specifically to New Zealand. In 2017, New Zealand had the third highest percentage of generated renewable energy amongst member countries of the OECD region; and, with the bipartisan support for the Climate Change Response Amendment Bill introduced in May of this year, we find ourselves in a uniquely ambitious emissions reduction position. With this in mind, students could channel their future protest energy to a more specific message, such as reforestation in an attempt to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide, or stricter regulations for high polluting corporations.
There was one unfortunate aspect to the event; possibly the greatest learning point of the day. One gentleman, Rick, stood alone with a broad sign hoisted above his head that declared ‘man-made global warming is a hoax’. It goes without saying that this drew the ire of several nearby students and activists. ‘You’re a joker, just go home!’ one young woman yelled at Rick. Another young man tried to block the message of Rick’s sign with his own. ‘He’s ridiculous, he’s wrong, and he shouldn’t be here,’ several students told me as I asked their perspective. Yet Rick stood there calmly and received what could only be described as public shaming and demands for censorship. Rick’s incongruity with the prevailing climate science is not the point here. Climate activists everywhere will receive a greater amount of counter-protest as this issue advances; and, the logic to that counter-protest will begin to match their own. How so? Let us assume for one moment that the world’s governments equally declare a climate emergency and vow to be emissions neutral by 2040, who is going to lose out? Will certain beef and dairy farmers be forced to close their businesses? Will the automobile industry be regulated to eliminate production of petrol and diesel-powered engines? What will happen to the workers in these industries? Regardless of how ‘environmentally justified’ future regulation is, resistance will meet it. If these young climate activists wish to succeed in the implementation of their demands, they need to be equipped with a smarter message, holistic analysis and a reasonable demeanour that accepts debate; not an automatic reaction to shame anyone with an opposing view.
In the aftermath of this event, what exactly has the effect been? So far, there has been little comment from the government, and a climate emergency has certainly not been declared. However, this movement is in its infancy, and it has already come such a long way. Prior to 2018, a school strike for climate did not exist. Now, it numbers in excess of a hundred thousand participants nationwide. Our youth should be commended on their ardour; seldom has any generation sought gross action for a future 50 years ahead of itself. However, these students must remember that they are not exempt from further learning of how to conduct themselves on such a grand stage. Just maybe, that lesson will come from those who have gone before them.
Words & images Isaac McCarthy