The student climate march in Parliament Square, London, on February 15, 2019 (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The kids are revolting, and they’re smarter than you

Just like the principals, students striking over climate change are seeking control and order. But what our children are hoping to control is the environment they inherit, writes science educator Richard Easther

The news in New Zealand is that the kids are revolting, along with kids in Sweden, Denmark, Germany, the United Kingdom and dozens of other countries. Just as previous generations of teenagers challenged their parents to widen their perspective on what’s possible, today’s students are protesting the world’s lack of progress in addressing climate change.

At this point, the implications of climate change are widely known: rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and more chaotic weather events – which will be both more frequent and more extreme than their present-day counterparts. Climate change will damage global ecosystems, disrupt farming and agriculture, accelerate extinction events, and create instability in countries unable to mitigate the impact of a changing climate on the lives of their citizens. For today’s teenagers, climate change holds a similar position to nuclear war in their parents and grandparents’ generations. The difference is that climate change — unlike nuclear war — has actually begun.

What has not yet begun is a response with the scale and scope needed to make a genuine difference. The good news is that we know what needs to be done. We need to minimise greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide and methane), and we can do this by developing and introducing new transport technologies, decarbonising energy production, changing industrial and agricultural practices, and modifying some of our own habits and choices.

My mother and father – whose own childhoods took place against the backdrop of the Pacific War and the Blitz, respectively – hoped that their children’s lives would be safer and more comfortable than their own. But parents today we should have no such illusions about what our children could face in the anthropocene if climate action does not begin right now. We remind our children to do their chores and homework, chivvying them through breakfast and off to school when they don’t particularly want to go. But on March 15, striking students are reminding the grownups of the jobs we need to do and the messes we should be cleaning up. It won’t be a small job; it may in fact be the biggest challenge we have ever tackled as a species, but it is both describable and doable. But just as we say to our kids about doing their homework, the sooner we start the easier it will be to make progress.

This is an uneasy moment for educators; schools have programmes and plans that are carefully fitted to the teaching term. And indeed, the chair of the Secondary Principals’ Council, James Morris, was less than enthusiastic when interviewed in the Herald. Morris helpfully added that “It would be a real sign of the students’ commitment to the cause if they chose to give up after-school jobs or weekend activities to ‘strike’ rather than school time.” This may be well-meaning, but “kids protest climate on a weekend” would be a quick newsblip, while “school strike for climate” certainly has our full attention.

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In short, these young people know what they are doing. And, if my memory serves, you can actually wag school for a day without going to the media about it – if all these kids wanted was a day off, they don’t need to organise a march.

Principals are charged with ensuring that the schools they lead run smoothly and deliver the results their communities expect; it is easy to see why they might be cautious. But some principals fully understand what is at stake. At Western Springs College a classroom was made available for students to hold meetings to organise their strike and their principal clearly knows that leadership is sometimes about more than just sticking to the timetable. We expect that schools will nurture our children toward informed and engaged citizenship, producing society members equipped to innovate, lead, and respond to the challenges of a changing world. From this perspective, a climate strike at your school is a marker of success as well as an administrative challenge.

Better yet, engaged students are teachable students. Climate touches almost any NCEA subject you care to name: chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics, statistics, art, technology, economics, social studies, media studies and no doubt many more. Clever teachers will find ways to tie climate to content, using the interest and passion of their students to facilitate their learning.

Normally, I would agree with Morris but right now, things are not “normal” – and will become less and less normal the longer we wait. Just like the principals, striking students are seeking control and order. But what our children are hoping to control is the environment they inherit, and it is easy to see why they are pushing their communities to start real work on climate now. And, let’s face it, if you can take a day out of lessons for the cross-country, and the athletic sports you can probably take time out to call for climate action across the country – and beyond.


The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.


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