Sophie Handford, the 18-year-old responsible for starting School Strike 4 Climate NZ, is running for council in the Paekākāriki-Raumati Ward. Alex Casey hasn’t done anything as impressive as that, but does look a bit like her.
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There was a small, confusing period of time earlier this month where a not insignificant amount of people were convinced that I was running for council in Kāpiti. My parents received warm messages of congratulations on Facebook and investigative journalist David Farrier even quizzed me about it IRL at an event – undoubtedly planning to make his next documentary about my inspiring journey. Frankly, all the attention made me feel like the queen of France at a camembert fair.
I guess I could kind of see where they were coming from
Of course, it wasn’t me. I am a 28-year-old journalist turdlord type and Sophie Handford is an 18-year-old climate activist and local body candidate who has given up her young adulthood to try to save all of humanity. Scrolling Google, I immediately realised it was exactly like in the movie Us where – spoiler alert – there are two versions created of every person. One is a nice, regular person, the other is a lumbering wretch who just kind of shuffles around groaning.
As soon as I met Sophie, I sadly knew exactly which version I was.
Only in her first year out of high school, Handford is responsible for starting the School Strike 4 Climate movement in New Zealand, set to see tens of thousands of people striking today in over 40 locations across the country. Similarly, in my first year out of high school, I experimented with wearing a bandanna as a headband and littered empty Big Foot bottles at the train station. When we met at Britomart for breakfast, she greeted me with a hug, her open arms revealing a Nope Sisters ‘Mother Earth’ t-shirt.
“Oh, you don’t look 28!” she chirped, as I lowered my creaky body into a wire chair across from her, glowering like a witch who had been rudely awoken from an ancient slumber. She was sounding extremely positive for so early in the morning, especially considering she had been out the night before at the Girlboss awards to accept a prize for sustainability. Of course, today she’s much more focused on the emissions from her flight to Auckland than boasting about her accolades.
“You know, I flew here to accept an award and receive money. I feel so guilty about that,” she says, gently stabbing at her breakfast with a fork. “I’m eating an egg now, I feel guilty about that too.”
Handford hasn’t always been burdened by the unfathomable guilt that comes with being a teenager who is trying to keep an entire ecosystem alive. Growing up in Paekākāriki, a place that sounds like an actual utopia to my fatberg-clogged city ears, she says she has always had a strong connection with her community and her land. “I grew up having social barn dances in the hall, I am still in a knitting group and another that cooks meals for people. It’s really cool.”
Living right next to the beach (my eye just twitched), Handford remembers exactly where she was when she first heard the words “climate change”. She was 12 years old, and her parents had just opened a letter from the council warning of the rising sea level, one that could potentially reach their property in 50 years’ time. At first, she couldn’t grasp the concept. Her house was so elevated, and the water seemed so far away.
And if this was happening to her, then what was happening to everyone else’s houses?
“I was gobsmacked that nobody was running around and screaming about it,” she says. Just like the increasingly acid ocean knocking down her door, Sophie began to bubble with a deep passion for climate action, still only in her last year of primary school. “From then on I made it my mission to talk to everyone about the environment as much I could,” she says. “I spoke at school, at select committees – everything stemmed from me seeing everyone still living like everything was normal.”
When I was around the same age, I entered a talent competition and did a jazz ballet dance to Britney Spears’ ‘Overprotected’ while wearing a gold glitter bowler hat. I was not placed.
Handford stuck to environmental campaigning throughout high school, but had her cause invigorated by a 16-year-old girl who plonked herself on the steps of Swedish parliament on a school day and refused to leave in 2018. Her name was Greta Thunberg, whose School Strike For Climate movement would quickly grow worldwide, mobilising millions of young people. “She inspired a global movement without ever trying to inspire a global movement,” says Handford. “I saw her, I said ‘I want to do that’, and we made it happen.”
Reaching out to four or five friends online, the group quickly set up a Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts and launched School Strike 4 Climate NZ. “We had no idea what we were doing, we just had to pin ourselves to it so we couldn’t back out.” Next came the website, where people could sign up with their emails and phone numbers. With every sign-up in a new city, Handford called them and asked if they wanted to lead their local strike. 100% of them said yes.
As she finished high school, still in the thick of organising the first climate strike, Handford had a choice to make. She had a free return ticket to Germany waiting for her after graduation, complete with a full-time au pair job for six months – the opportunity most school-leavers can only dream of. But she also had the climate to save. She cancelled her ticket, gave the job to a friend, and stayed back in New Zealand to keep the school strike momentum going.
“I just knew that while I was still young and still have time to make change, I had to be a part of that. But it’s just so frustrating that it’s also come down on our generation to feel that urgency. The people before us would have all flown around the world and gone on their OEs, but for me, now, that’s just something I can’t do. I wouldn’t even enjoy it. I just – ”, she stops, staring down at her plate “ – it actually makes me sick to think about it.”
I asked her how she manages to stay so positive despite all those feelings of guilt, anger, anxiety and everything else that comes with potentially entering the sixth mass extinction. “I’m just past the point of trying to process it. I realised I don’t have time to feel frightened anymore. We only have 10 years to turn this around, so for me to sit there and feel scared for five of those years doesn’t sit well with me. It’s a waste of my precious time.”
But she can’t always be so strong. “Honestly, there are some nights I go to bed and I am literally shaking and crying,” she says. “It’s amazing how many people involved in the school strike movement will feel so overwhelmed and guilty because they watched like, one hour of Netflix instead of focusing on saving their futures. That makes me really sad too.” I thought of the recent weekend I spent on the couch watching all of the Lord of the Rings films. And then The Hobbit ones.
As the social media presence and mainstream media interest grew in the strikes, the group of rookie activists had to get organised. “It was a massive job,” says Handford. “There was a lot of delegation, a lot of staying up late, a lot of video calls. You’ve got to talk to police, you’ve got to talk to council, you’ve got to talk to traffic management and make sure you’ve got health and safety sorted. There are so many things to do, and people were thinking we were just, you know, bunking off school.”
That attitude wasn’t helped by the dominant media narrative, based almost entirely around the hours of school being missed. “I believe [this generation] is the most self-important and entitled,” AM Show host Duncan Garner wrote at the time, “and this march will achieve diddly squat.” Handford would have loved to have seen a more positive message being spread, but also thinks the curmudgeons eventually worked in their favour. “The whole narrative created a controversy that engaged people. They saw kids were striking, and that might have prompted them to look into why.”
I was aghast at her complete restraint to not say a single bad word about Duncan Garner’s infamous opinion piece, which also accused strikers of being “trendy” and “coat-tail marchers” who “just wanted a sleep-in”. Again, that’s probably why she’s the good one and I’m the bad one. “We simply wouldn’t be putting in hundreds of hours into this if we weren’t committed to the cause,” says Handford, addressing the invisible critic at the table. “We can’t actually afford not to be committed to this, which is sad. It’s sad that it’s our job to wake up an entire nation.”
On the day of the first school strike, held this year on 15 March, just hours before news of the Christchurch terror attacks broke, Handford and the rest of the Wellington organisers were prepared for 500 people to attend. Instead, they got 6000. “It was hectic,” she recalls. “I got there an hour and a half early and there were already hundreds of people in Civic Square. There were only three police officers and people pouring in and they didn’t even know where to look. We completely underestimated how many people were going to show up.”
Handford remembers jumping from bench to bench with a megaphone, desperately trying to yell health and safety protocol over the swarming crowd. “I think that was probably the biggest thing I’ll remember – the energy. It was really moving and felt so strong, which was cool because I really feel like we were finally doing something.” There have been many strikes up and down the country since, but none are as large as what is planned for today, 27 September, where all generations have been invited to take a stand and strike for the climate.
When I was 18, my demands were a Twilight marathon and a bag of Snickers Pods. Handford’s demands, and the demands of the wider School Strike 4 Climate, are slightly different. They want the government to declare a climate emergency. They want cross-party consensus on an ambitious zero carbon bill. The are calling for the net zero target to be brought forward to 2040. They want the government to cease all exploration and extraction of fossil fuels in New Zealand. They want a regenerative and renewable economy. I bet, if I asked, they’d also like a Twilight marathon and a bag of Snickers Pods.
I hasten to remind you that, while all this striking and demanding hubbub has been happening, Handford has also been running for council at just 18 years old – the second youngest in the country by two months. “It was something I had never thought of doing before,” she laughed. “I was just looking at the current standing councillors and I realised that none of them represented me or my concerns for the future. This issue needs to be at the forefront of everything, everything we do next needs to be looked at through the lens of the climate crisis.”
She recalls one presentation to the Kāpiti council earlier in the year, where she demanded that they declare a climate emergency and was dismissed. “They told us ‘oh well, we’re just Kāpiti, we’re just a drop in the bucket’, like there was no point,” she says. “But if we all say that, we’ll never get anywhere.” New Zealand currently makes up only 0.2% of global emissions, she points out, but if every country of a similar size bands together, we’ll make 20%.
“I thought it was time to shake it up a bit. I have nothing to lose, I couldn’t think of enough reasons not to, and I actually don’t think we have time to hang back. If I wait another three years, well, we’ve only got three years until our carbon budget runs out. So I thought screw it, let’s just do it.” From 6am-9pm every day she is working, whether it is coordinating strike organisers, leafleting, holding street meetings or hanging out with slack-jawed journalists trying to sap her youthful exuberance.
The world of local body politics is still a relatively foreign one for Handford, who is acutely aware that it isn’t a place built for young people. “Obviously the spaces are governed by older men, so that’s probably the biggest challenge – working out where I fit into all that. But it scares me a whole lot more if I just let things continue as they are. I’m nervous, sure, but I’m more scared about what will happen if I don’t step out of my comfort zones.”
Regardless of whether she is voted in or not, Handford’s mission is not going to change. “What’s every generation working for if not to pass on a better world to the next generation? We all live, we all work, we all participate in society, but then we leave. And what legacy are we leaving?” The answer, she says, is in the face of every person who strikes. “When I see these kids as young as eight and nine coming up through the school strike movement, it really gives me hope that people will stop shrinking back into that feeling of powerlessness.”
I felt my stomach drop for about the 20th time in our hour together, knowing full well that I have been one of those shrunken, cowardly people, frozen out of action by fear and a big dollop of selfishness. Handford soothingly assures me that, despite all my angst, I can still help. “I know now that if everyone played a small role, we’d be so much better off. You might think a small change won’t make a difference, but you have to start somewhere.”
There’s also a tipping point coming, she reckons. And it is coming soon. “If we get a certain number of people on that lawn, if we get a certain number of kids striking from school, we won’t be able to be ignored any more.”
“And on September 27, with the adults answering our call, we’ll be a force to be reckoned with.”
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