The school climate strikes have taught us the kids are all right and the adults have it all wrong
As images of resistance go, it doesn’t get more heartening – and heartrending – than seeing tens of thousands of pupils across Scotland, the UK, and Europe striking for the ravaged planet they never chose to inherit.
Outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, George Square in Glasgow, and in every other polluted place where young people refuse to abandon hope, despite our politicians giving them hourly reasons for doing so, they walked out of classes. They skipped school to take to the streets. They carried wise placards and held aloft witty banners denouncing the gross immaturity of governments that have let down a generation before they have even had the chance to vote. They taught us that the kids are all right and the adults have got it all wrong. “What I stand for is what I stand on,” they cried. “Climate change is messy – save Nessie,” they quipped. “There is no planet B,” they warned.
And how did we respond to the heady smell of teen spirit? To learn a lesson from our youth, who were originally inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg holding a solo protest outside the Swedish Parliament, let’s start with the hopeful stuff. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon described their actions as a “cause for optimism in an often dark world”.
Claudia Beamish, Scottish Labour shadow cabinet secretary for environment and climate change, referred to the strikes as “an inspiration”. For Scottish Greens education spokesman Ross Greer, “these strikes represent a movement of young people who won’t settle for anything less than the transformation required to save this world from climate breakdown.”
Elsewhere, the response was less generous. In The Spectator, Toby Young’s column carried the headline: ‘If children want to protest against climate change, why not do it at the weekend?’ Which, apart from anything else, fails to get the basic definition of strike action. Perhaps the most damning criticism came from the Prime Minister, whose last budget prompted MPs and heads of environmental organisations to denounce its lack of a policy to combat climate change as an “unforgivable betrayal of future generations”.
“It is important to emphasise that disruption increases teachers’ workloads and wastes lesson time that teachers have carefully prepared for,” said the Prime Minister’s spokesperson. Except more than 200 academics voiced their support for the strikes, as well as the NAHT headteachers’ union. “A day of activity like this could be an important and valuable life experience,” a union spokesman said. What is not an important or valuable life experience is learning from our political elders… and doing next to nothing.
In Scotland, we are at least doing more than that. The First Minister calls this country a “world leader” when it comes to combatting climate change and it’s true that the actions taken already by Sturgeon’s government have been described by the United Nations as exemplary.
But still it is not enough. Last year, when the draft Climate Change Bill setting an emission reduction target of 90 per cent by 2050 – with the ultimate aim of achieving “net-zero” – was published, climate campaigners branded the target disappointing. Holyrood has since been called on to strengthen the bill and the Scottish Government is said to be seeking independent advice on its targets following the most up-to-date warning on rising global temperatures. But experts have also warned that tougher policies on cutting emissions from Scotland’s roads are needed. The SNP's science homework, in other words, is to learn that there is no time for self-congratulation or complacency when the UN warns we have just 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe.
And still the planet warms, oceans rise, insects die out, flat earth conspiracy theorists multiply, and we sleepwalk ever closer to the cliff-edge of Brexit. Denial, amongst adults, anyway, appears to be the latest school craze. As a recent tweet that has stayed with me, by Canongate author Matt Haig, put it: “Amazing the amount of people who think 52 per cent is a conclusive Brexit result but won’t accept the 98 per cent of scientists who believe we should take urgent action on climate change.”
Well, quite. David Attenborough, who was literally god when I was growing up, so I’m reckoning is still a deity to the next generation, warns that the collapse of civilisation and the natural world is on the horizon. Yet still the US President pulled America, the biggest carbon polluter in history, out of the Paris climate change agreement on the viciously short-sighted grounds that he was elected “to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris”. And in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro is carving up what’s left of the Amazon rainforest.
It’s hard to imagine how overwhelmingly stressful it must be to witness all this as a young person… invariably via multiple feeds on a smartphone you never have time to recycle. I remember the climate terrors of my own generation: how palpably frightened I was of the greenhouse effect and the thought that my deodorant was ripping a hole in the planet’s ozone layer. I remember feeling heartbroken about species on the brink of extinction, some of which have now gone, and furious at the grown-ups who had decimated a planet billions of years old in a couple of violent centuries. That was then. If it was now, I haven’t got a clue how I’d be coping. But I do know this: I’d be skiving off school with the best of them.