For everyone Not just small change: students lead on climate action

School Strike for Climate protestors (photos: Rachel Power); Centre: climate activist Olivia Nakhle (supplied).

Growing up surrounded by relentless evidence of the severity of climate change, it is no wonder that school-aged children are at the forefront of climate action. LOUISE SWINN speaks to one young activist on the campaign trail.

Young people have understood from an early age that they will be living with the snowballing effects of climate change throughout their lives, and it is front of mind in a way it hasn’t been for previous generations.

One of the School Strike 4 Climate Action team is Year 11 student Olivia Nakhle, who was inspired by her peers to get involved, knowing that the climate crisis will affect her generation the most.

“The harsh reality that we are living in a climate crisis right now is a perverted inspiration for getting involved – because of the deep impacts that my and future generations will feel,” Olivia says.

Students march through Melbourne's CBD in 2019. Photo: Rachel Power

“The feeling that comes from seeing such a large group of young people marching in the streets or campaigning for climate action is so empowering.”

Olivia

Olivia believes that the views of young people are often overlooked because of their perceived naivety and lack of experience. “Those in parliament and in positions of power don’t take climate change and our demands seriously – and continue to fund these fossil fuel projects that are killing our climate, our home,” she says.

“Although as a young person it can be daunting being engaged in taking climate action – because it is such a complex issue to understand and properly aid in addressing – the feeling that comes from seeing such a large group of young people marching in the streets or campaigning for climate action is so empowering.”

This political awakening has also led her to “recognise her privilege” and seek to help marginalised communities that don’t have the same access to the movement and are feeling the greatest effects of the crisis.

“Living where I do in Australia, I am very privileged to not be affected by the climate crisis as much as rural parts of Australia or other countries within the global south,” says Olivia, who is now studying Global Politics at school.

'Warming stripes' graphic depicts annual mean global temperatures, 1850-2018 (World Meteorological Organization data). Credit for concept: climate scientist Ed Hawkins, University of Reading, UK.

“Especially during the 2019–2020 bushfires, I saw how water restrictions can affect your daily life and I saw how privileged my access to water was. I also saw how the bushfires affected the whole of Australia in such a drastic way.”

Olivia says climate anxiety is having a detrimental effect on the mental health of young folk, making it difficult for them to have a positive outlook on the future.

“It comes down to the burden of knowledge. Knowing that there are so many issues stemming from the lack of urgency among powerful governments worsens our view of the future,” she says.

“Although climate activism isn’t all doom and gloom, it is quite difficult to see this lack of action and these harsh statistics and to maintain a stable mental view of our prospects.”

School Strike 4 Climate rally, 2019. Photo: Rachel Power

“It is our responsibility as a wealthy and developed country to decrease our emissions first.”

Olivia

While this takes a toll, she is heartened by her peers’ willingness to fight. For Olivia and her fellow activists, there are no excuses for government inaction. As a priority, she wants to see both state and federal governments tackle Australia’s significant contribution to global emissions.

“We were recently ranked last within the ‘wealthier countries’ with regards to our greenhouse gas contributions. Scott Morrison at the COP26 conference claimed that we should be focused on driving down emissions from the developing world – essentially shifting the blame. But it’s our responsibility as a wealthy and developed country to decrease our emissions first,” she says.

“I would like to see the federal government tackle our large production and export of fossil fuels. We have the technology and access to resources to make a shift to sustainable energy sources, but our current economic and political reliance on fossil fuel exports, specifically coal, is dragging us behind in terms of developing our climate policies.”

The School Strike 4 Climate movement is also pushing the Australian government to plan a “just transition” to a green economy – retraining workers for renewable industries. “We know that many Australians rely on the fossil fuel industry for their jobs and their livelihoods, which means it can be hard to show them that they will keep a job if we shift our funding away from mining,” Olivia says.

Extinction Rebellion Youth activists block traffic in Melbourne to draw attention to the climate emergency. Photo: Danielle Judd

In March and May last year, student activists took part in the global #FundOurFutureNotGas strikes. Perhaps the biggest win came in May when a judge found environment minister Sussan Ley has a duty to protect youth from climate harm when approving coal mines.

In October, more than 10,000 young people took part in #TheYouthAreRising climate strike, imploring the government to take action to meet the necessities outlined in the IPCC report. This strike contributed to the intense pressure put on Scott Morrison to attend COP26, after previously suggesting he planned to skip the important event.

As Olivia points out, her generation is about to reach voting age, and “change is on the agenda”.

School staff for climate action. Photo: supplied

AEU Victoria is a supporter of the School Strike 4 Climate movement. A network of AEU members has set up a group to show their support for students taking part. Get involved at schoolstaff4climateaction.wordpress.com

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