Young Australians Have An Urgent Message About Tomorrow’s School Strike For Climate

This is what it’s like to be a young person growing up with climate change.

School Strike 4 Climate

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One of the things motivating sixteen-year-old Imogen Viner to attend the School Strike for Climate Action this Friday is the ash that started falling on her house over the summer, as bushfires destroyed forests and houses near where she lives in Cygnet, Tasmania.

“We didn’t have to evacuate, but a lot of my friends did, and that was really scary,” she told Junkee. “That’s the first time I’ve experienced ash falling. But where I live is really close to a lot of forests, and so a few years ago every Friday we’d have smoke.”

We know already that Tasmania’s bushfire risk is increasing due to climate change. That made this summer’s catastrophic blazes particularly terrifying. As Amelie Hudspeth, another Tasmanian sixteen-year-old, put it, “it’s shown that climate change is now affecting us, whereas before maybe we saw it as something that was happening in the future, or not really happening to us. Maybe it was something that was happening in the Pacific Islands where people’s lives were at stake because their islands were sinking, but now it’s something that’s really happening in Tasmania, which is really scary.”

Amelie Hudspeth is part of the Tasmanian School Strike for Climate

Amelie Hudspeth is heading to the Hobart School Strike on Friday. “There are students all over the world who have decided that it’s really time for us to take matters into our own hands, because not enough is being done by adults,” she told Junkee. (Photo: Supplied)

Tasmania isn’t the only Australian state already feeling the effects of climate change. For Hugh Hunter, a fifteen-year-old Year 10 student from Gunnedah in northern NSW, the current threat is drought. “We’ve been in proper drought, or what we class as drought, for about a year now,” he told me earlier this week, describing the way his family has had to start selling off the cattle they farm for a living.

“We’ve had to cut down,” he said. “If it doesn’t rain in the next few months, we’ll sell all our breeding cows and just have the young calves left. We’ll have to fatten them up and sell them. And then after that, we’ll have nothing. If it still hasn’t rained by then, we’ll have to look for another source of income”.

Of course, it’s hard to pin a specific drought on climate change, and drought and bushfires in Australia are nothing new. What is new, though, is the experience of being a young person facing record-breaking fires and droughts, floods and fish-kills, and knowing that time is running out before this becomes the new normal. Today’s drought is a vision of what the future could look like, and Hugh was blunt in his assessment of it.

“I’m fearful for the future, really,” he said. “The world feels like it’s ending at the moment, you know? And then we’ve got more generations coming on. So it’s not just about our generation, it’s about the country. It’s about the whole world.”

The School Strike For Climate Is Getting Bigger. Much Bigger.

Given the kind of future they’re staring down, you might expect young Australians to have a pretty bleak perspective on climate change right now. Against all odds, though, they’re actually pretty optimistic. They know we have eleven or twelve years left to avert disaster, and they’re keen to get shit done.

Last November, thousands of students around the country skipped school and took to the streets to make that no-nonsense perspective clear. Since then, the movement has grown massively.

The November school strike took place in every Australian state capital, as well as close to twenty smaller towns and regional centres. This Friday’s strike is taking place in more than 55 locations around Australia, and it’s part of a global strike spanning more than 90 countries. Students around the world are demanding that their governments take urgent action on climate change, and they’re starting to become a force to be reckoned with.

Australia’s 55 strikes range in size and resources. 3,200 people have clicked “going” to the Sydney strike event on Facebook, and another 6,800 have responded as “interested”. Cairns, in tropical Far North Queensland, is expecting a few hundred people; Hugh’s hometown of Gunnedah, in north-eastern NSW, is expecting about four.

From the students’ perspectives, though, the tiny regional strikes are just as important — perhaps even more important — than the massive capital city events. “There’s a bit of a stereotype around regional towns in big cities, that we don’t know much about climate change, that we’re uneducated, I dunno,” Hugh told Junkee. “My strike in Gunnedah is mainly just hoping to let people know that we do care, and letting the people of Gunnedah know that there are people in the community who do care.”

Imogen Viner and Hugh Hunter are involved in the School Strike for Climate

Left: Hugh Hunter, 15, is organising the Gunnedah school strike. Right: Imogen Viner, 16, is speaking at the Hobart strike. (Photos: Supplied)

For Imogen, the Tasmanian strikes are an opportunity to highlight the fact that the summer’s deadly bushfires are still affecting Tasmanians. “All our voices matter, and currently we’re feeling the effects,” she said. “Our voices deserve to be heard as much as in Melbourne”. At the same time, she’s careful to clarify that she doesn’t want to speak over anyone.

“I definitely think our voices should be heard equally to people in big cities, but they shouldn’t necessarily be more important than the other communities that are being affected, especially voices from Indigenous communities that are most affected,” she said.

Many of this Friday’s strikes are being driven by new voices, often those of students who missed the November strike but were inspired by what they saw. Fifteen-year-old Narii Hamill-Salmon spent the last strike staging a sit-in at his Gold Coast high school with a few friends, after the school refused to let them leave to protest. Now, he’s one of the lead organisers for the Gold Coast School Strike, which is expecting several hundred attendees tomorrow.

Shellie Joseph also missed the last strike — in her home town of Gympie in Queensland, she just didn’t think there’d be enough support to get a strike going. “And then afterwards, I learned about the amazing global repercussions the strikes have had, and I really regretted not taking part,” she said. “As soon as I heard that there was another one this March I rang up the AYCC and said look, I’d love to help my region get involved in this — like get people down to Brisbane, organise train cars, whatever I can do to help. They were like, why don’t you organise one for the Sunshine Coast? So I did!”

Say It Louder For The People At The Daily Telegraph: The School Strike Is Run By Students

Lots of the students we’ve spoken to had similar stories to share. Most of them have no prior experience organising protests, but after watching the success of the November strike, they figured they might as well give it a go.

The experience has produced some unlikely alliances. In Bunbury, Western Australia, 17-year-old Lachlan Kelly decided to get involved, and found himself put in touch with a bunch of other students in his area, including 13-year-old Bella Burgemeister. When I spoke to Bella, she introduced herself to me as an author and presenter — when she was ten, she worked with her mum and a book incubator to write Bella’s Challenge, a kid’s take on the 17 UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. “I got really passionate about it and I just wanted to help,” she told Junkee.

“She’s very knowledgeable, I was surprised by it — she’s only thirteen years old!”, Lachlan told Junkee. He and Bella have been working together in Bunbury with a group of other kids, meeting to plan and send off emails, and spend afternoons putting up posters around the CBD.

Lachlan Kelly and Bella Burgemeister have been working on the school strike in Bunbury.

Lachlan Kelly (left) and Bella Burgemeister (right) have been working together on the school strike in Bunbury, Western Australia. (Photo of Lachlan by Natalie Sawyer, Photo of Bella via Facebook)

The strike has been a learning experience for lots of the students involved, which they pointed out when we discussed Scott Morrison’s comments last November about how kids should stay in school instead of protesting. “Being part of this movement has helped me learn so much,” Narii said. “It’s basically the exact same as school — you go to school to learn new things and build yourself as a person. I’m kind of a shy person, and being able to help organise a strike and talk to MPs has really helped me become a much more confident person.”

For quite a few of the students involved, this organising work is taking a fair bit of time. “I’m in Year 12, so I’m probably spending a bit too much time on this,” Sara McKoy, a sixteen-year-old from Brisbane, admitted to me, estimating that she’s been spending about 15 hours a week organising in the lead-up to the strike. She was very quick to make it clear she wouldn’t have it any other way, though. “I think it’s a really important part of my life, being involved with this, and I’m very happy to help,” she said.

The amount of work students like Sara have been putting into the might come as a surprise to readers of The Daily Telegraph, which recently published an article claiming that “taxpayer-funded eco-worriers are coaching children to skip school again next month”.

“One of our defining characteristics is that we question authority, and we don’t really let people tell us what to do”

“I think that people who are saying that students aren’t really running this are just trying to discredit our movement,” was Sara’s response. “This is a student movement, we’re striking for our own futures. Some adults are helping and facilitating, but ultimately students are the foundation of our movement”.

“But we generally ignore people who are trying to discredit us. We know we’re working hard, so that’s all we need.”

Doha Khan, the seventeen-year-old lead organiser of Adelaide’s school strike, was blunter. “Anything that kind of implies that we’re told by our teachers or told by our parents to do this is absolutely stupid, because that kind of rejects who teenagers are and what we do,” she told Junkee.

“One of our defining characteristics is that we question authority, and we don’t really let people tell us what to do. We have this fresh perspective on life, and we do what we think is right.”

These Kids Know What They Want, And They’re Not Interested In Compromises

As for what they think is right, the school strikers are very clear: they want the government to block Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine, stop approving new coal and gas projects, and transition Australia to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.

Compared to the kind of climate policies the major parties have been kicking around, these are big demands. The students know this, but they’re also not interested in negotiating.

“The fact that there are 11-12 years left to stop [climate change], that’s terrifying,” Sara pointed out. “It’s scary how little people seem to care about it, and how easily it’s disregarded by people who are in power, the people who need to be doing things about it. It’s very terrifying that it’s being left up to kids”.

It’s particularly terrifying for the kids themselves, who know they’ll probably be around to see some of the worse consequences to come. Despite their optimism, every student I spoke to had a story about their own fear of climate change, which has been with them for most of their lives. It’s not always easy to convey this fear to older generations — as Lachlan told me, “I guess it’s because they’ve already had their life and their youth. They don’t really see how this is going to affect them, and they’re not really realising how it’s going to affect the younger people”. Or how it already is affecting them.

“It’s scary how little people seem to care about it, and how easily it’s disregarded by people who are in power, the people who need to be doing things about it. It’s very terrifying that it’s being left up to kids”.

“When I was younger, I was really, really terrified of climate change,” Imogen told me by way of example. “I would run out of the room if stories about it came on the news, because I would hear all these things about the ice caps melting and sea levels rising and I would just be like, why aren’t people doing anything about this? I don’t want to hear more about this if they’re not doing anything.” Claire, a first-year uni student from Cairns, told me that when the IPCC’s special report on what 1.5 degrees of global warming would look like came out last year, she read it and cried.

Several of the students I spoke to had trouble picturing their futures because of climate change. Hugh sees the stress the drought is putting on his dad right now, and readily admits that he feels lucky that the responsibility isn’t on him. He’s not sure whether he wants to stay in the country after school, but he admitted that it’s hard to picture a future where the drought could get worse than it is now.

“It feels like the drought can’t go on that long,” he said. “It just doesn’t seem real that it could go that long. But I suppose there’s no reason why it couldn’t. And if it’s still going on by then, what can you do?”

Doha Khan is helping run the Adelaide School Strike.

Doha Khan is organising the Adelaide School Strike. “I think the government’s really, really ignoring the voices of the people that don’t have as many resources, don’t have as much political power, but will still be affected by climate change,” she told Junkee.

For Imogen, it’s kind of like she pictures two futures when she imagines her life. “It’s like I see all these things that people are telling me that I’ll do in the future — that I’ll get a great uni degree, I’ll have this wonderful job — and then I think for a second, well it won’t be that wonderful, because I might not be able to go outside.”

“It’s like, I’m all optimistic and then I realise what the environment’s going to be like and it just brings me back down”.

Doha’s fear, meanwhile, is tempered by the realisation that she might actually be one of the lucky ones. “I come from an immigrant background, and my dad, he grew up in this very underprivileged area and my mum grew up in a farming village. And I went back to that village just last year, and I saw the conditions that they live in, and the situation that they experience when it’s hot. I remember my cousins telling me how awful summer is. They all have to go sit in the basement — they don’t really have air conditioning so that’s the coolest part of the house.”

“It’s pretty bad for them, because they don’t have the resources to handle it. And that kind of applies even in Australia, in regional communities and rural areas where the resources to cope with the effects of climate change just aren’t there,” she said. “I care about how other people suffer under this thing more than I really see it as affecting me directly. It’s more like my community, my humanity, I suppose.”

“I Don’t See Any Change Happening Soon, So I Might As Well Be That Change.”

When you feel that strongly about climate change, it really hurts to hear politicians like Scott Morrison tell you to stay in school. It also hurts to hear the people in power say nothing at all — Imogen described writing to Scott Morrison’s office without reply, and receiving a bunch of replies from other major party MPs that basically amounted to “well done, here’s what our policy is”.

“It’s completely blowing it back in your face,” she said. “It’s like, they’re hearing the premise and what I’m talking about, but they’re not hearing what I’m saying. It’s like ‘oh yeah, they’re talking about climate change, I’ll just send them what I send everybody else about climate change, I’m not going to listen to what they’re saying’. It makes me feel ignored. Like they don’t trust us, or they don’t care about us.”

It’s little wonder, then, that young people are planning on taking to the streets in their thousands to protest tomorrow. What other choice do they have? “I would let adults handle it, but it hasn’t really been handled,” is how Sara puts it.

“I don’t see any change happening soon, so I might as well be that change.”

“I get the strong feeling that we’ve been left to clean up a mess that’s been given to us by our previous generations,” Shellie told me. “It’s really sad that it’s come to this extreme. I think that it shouldn’t be up to children to have to do this, to tell our adults and leaders that enough is enough.” Imogen agreed. “I’d like to be enjoying life like young people in the past have, being able to do what they want, instead of having to do something to ensure that the future is liveable,” she said.

Claire Galvin and Shellie Joseph school strike

Left: Claire Galvin, 17, is involved in the School Strike in Cairns. Right: Shellie Joseph, 16, is helping lead the school strike on the Sunshine Coast. (Photos: Supplied)

The kids are up to the task, though. They’re excited to hit the streets tomorrow and show the government what they’re made of. And whatever the result, they’re determined to stay upbeat and keep going.

“And you know, the bigger the turnout, the more the government and the political parties will realise that if they don’t act now — if they let us down right now — we will not forget, and we will not forgive,” Doha said.

“The power’s shifting to young people,” Imogen added. “I can’t vote in this election, but when I get out to the next one they should be afraid. We’ve got this massive movement of people who are not going to forget about climate change, and what we felt about it when we were young.”

And while the students hope that tomorrow’s strike will make an impact, they already have plans to follow it up with more action in the future. They’re guided by the example of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish sixteen-year-old who inspired the global school strike movement by skipping school each Friday to sit outside the Swedish parliament and protest.

“If you’ve ever heard Greta Thunberg speak, she says ‘we don’t expect to be listened to’,” Shellie said. “We know that the government hears things like this and just keeps going. So we’re going to keep making change.”

When I asked Imogen if she’s optimistic about our chances of beating climate change in the next twelve years, she paused before answering. “I don’t know if I’m optimistic,” she finally said. “I hope we will, I really, really hope we will. But in my heart of hearts, I’m not telling myself that we will, because if we don’t it’s going to crush me.”

“But I can see us starting to make a bit of progress. So if we can keep this momentum going and keep making this progress, we will. But we’ve got to keep doing that.”

If you want to help the School Strikers do just that, you can find a list of strike locations around the country here.

Sam Langford is Junkee’s News and Politics reporter. Follow them on Twitter @_slangers, or get in touch at [email protected].