Strike if you like, but then go do what really matters: maths and physics

Climate change is here and now, and young people will bear the costs of continued inaction. But it matters less whether they skip a day of school than what they do when they go back, argues climate scientist Dave Frame

The school students’ climate change strike has divided political and parental opinion. For some, it’s great children are finding their voice on an issue of global importance and placing pressure on the adult power structures that do so little to reduce climate change. For others, it seems facile and perverse – given any viable solution requires giant dollops of engineering technology and deep policy wonkery, children are going to need all the education they can get and skipping school is in many ways a self-defeating bargaining chip.

To me, the march has at least one poignant element: the outcomes this century really are up to today’s (global) youth. They will bear the consequences of continued inaction or they will bear the consequences of a massive and ground-shaking transition. (Most likely, they will do some of both.)

Quite how acutely this generation is in the centre of things is not always widely appreciated. In New Zealand, we still talk about climate change as though it is remote in time and space. The New Zealand media’s strange and disproportionate focus on the remote and uninhabited continent of Antarctica and on sea level-rise – among the slowest-evolving parts of the problem – make the problem seem distant: some other time, some other place.

But climate change is here, now, and it’s doing lots of damage. The damage directly attributable to climate change from extreme rainfall and droughts over the last decade has probably already cost New Zealand somewhere around a billion dollars, and probably more.

That’s a lot of money, and a lot of damage, and it’s already happened. The situation is even starker elsewhere. People in the tropics are beginning to experience climates their grandparents may never have seen and unless we decarbonise rapidly the climates today’s young people experience will be a distant memory by the time they are old.

Living in a changing climate is simply a fact of life for today’s youth. It’s something they will have to cope with. One way or another they will deal with it. The magnitude of those changes is something that will be up to them, like it or not. Dealing with climate change is not, for today’s youth, a choice.

This sort of issue inevitability is not new. It is to be expected in times of technological change. Each of the past several generations has faced unprecedented challenges. The generations born between 1890 and 1920 faced industrial warfare on an unprecedented scale. Those born since have lived under the uneasy peace of nuclear deterrence. In the 1980s, in response to Aids and acid rain, the late Hunter S Thompson wrote “about a generation that has been taught that rain is poison and sex is death”.

What’s unique about climate change is not the global nature of the challenge but the dim prospects for success. Taking a day off school won’t make any difference either way. The worst outcome is if the participants convince themselves they’ve achieved something, because climate change will still be there, big and ugly as ever, in the morning. This is an enduringly hard problem, at least until technologies exist that make doing the right thing about as cheap as doing the wrong thing.

What the striking students should be clear about is what meaningful action looks like. It doesn’t look like grander and grander declarations or stronger distant targets. Targets are aspirations but policies determine action. Targets and declarations are like the things boxers say before a fight. Policies and options are like the punches they throw and the defensive stances they deploy. That’s where the game is won and lost.

Today’s young people will bear the costs of continued inaction on climate change, and will reap the benefits if they can innovate their way out of the problem. It matters less whether they skip a day of school than what they do when they go back.

From a climate change perspective, not all subjects are equal. Two areas matter most: maths and physics, and the humanities. Maths and physics are essential on two fronts. One is because the best foundation for engineering is maths and physics; and innovation in engineering promises to be a vital part of climate solutions. The other is climate science, where maths and physics form the background for our understanding of the climate. Most my colleagues on the IPCC Physical Science Working Group are applied mathematicians or physicists, although this is sometimes obscured by graduating from oceanography or meteorology programmes. Basically, climate change is scientifically a physics problem, and creating new frontiers in low carbon energy is, too.

The humanities are also fundamental. History, philosophy and international politics are vital components of the climate change problem. (I guess economics is, too.) We could have all the low carbon solutions in the world, ready and available for low-cost deployment, but if the nations of the world cannot find a way to work together to invest in that deployment, then climate change will continue to confound both today’s youthful generation and that of their children (and their children’s children, and so on to biblical infinitude).

So enjoy the protest, if protests are the sorts of things you enjoy. But focus on the stuff that matters: policies and products, not speeches and declarations. And when you go back to school, hit the books, but choose wisely. Your collective futures depend on it.

Dave Frame is Professor of Climate Change and Director of the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington

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