I’ve worked in the environment movement for more than two decades. Without a doubt, the current wave of high school student strikes fills me with more hope about our chances of solving the climate crisis than I’ve felt in years.
This week when thousands of these thoughtful and brave young people take to the streets all over the country, I will be filled with pride at their courage and resolve in doing so.
But that pride will be mixed with a sense of shame because the reason that we are now seeing young people taking their own futures into their own hands is because, to be brutally honest, we adults have failed them. Their actions are a stinging indictment on the failure of adults to show leadership.
In truth we adults failed to recognise the urgency of this challenge and to make the required changes to our lives. We’ve failed to apply enough pressure on our political leaders to set the policies we needed to lower our emissions.
And (I include myself in this) we all keep living as though nothing is really wrong — driving cars, flying planes, living way beyond our carbon budgets.
Now in 2019, as we just get over our hottest summer on record, see the destruction of forest fires in Tasmania and Victoria last week, witness the flooding in Townsville and thebleaching of the Great Barrier Reef — it’s hard to get past the fact that we knew this was all coming and failed to act.
Let’s remember, like many of the world’s great protests in history, this was a movement that was started by a single teenager, a 15-year-old schoolgirl in Stockholm named Greta Thunberg, who skipped a class last August to sit in protest at the steps of the Swedish parliament.
What followed was a wave of high school protesters all over the world following her lead — including here in Australia where thousands of students took to the streets last November and will again this week demanding government action.
When we look at the history of bipartisan climate policy failure in Australia — who could possibly blame them?
As revealed in recently released cabinet papers, way back in 1996 (yes more than two decades ago) the Howard cabinet agreed on “the need for effective global action on climate change”.
But even then it was always contingent on forging an international agreement that is not legally binding and won’t harm Australia’s economic interests. In other words our government was saying, yes, we see the problem but we won’t do anything meaningful about it.
Since then little has changed — we have been on a policy merry-go-round that has seen one prime minister after another unable to enact meaningful climate policy.
Kevin Rudd was elected in 2007 describing climate change as “the most urgent moral challenge of our generation”. However, failing to get agreement from the Greens on his Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS), it was a challenge he was unable to rise to.
Soon after, Tony Abbott (running as a climate skeptic whose remark “climate change is crap” was widely reported) closed ranks within the shadow cabinet and defeated the bill.
By 2010 leader Julia Gillard said her government was committed to climate action, but when pressured stated that there will be “no carbon tax under a government I lead”. However, once elected with support from Independents Tony Windsor and Robb Oakeshott, she agreed to a carbon pricing scheme, which then became a weapon seized on by Tony Abbott, who launched a fevered campaign to “axe the tax”.
The rest is history — with Malcolm Turnbull also unable to even negotiate a modest National Energy Guarantee in 2018 before being turfed from office by his own party, spearheaded by climate denier Abbott and Peter Dutton.
So, now we find ourselves in 2019, with a prime minister in Scott Morrison who only two years ago appeared in Australia’s parliament brandishing a lump of coal and telling people: “This is coal. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared…” in a stunt that spoke volumes to the young people who will take to the streets this week.
What this demonstrates is that the current crop of Australian politicians simply don’t get it.
How they can so blithely alienate a whole generation without understanding it will have political ramifications is hard to understand. Yet these heroic student protesters have already been demonised and threatened by the government leaders they are appealing to.
The Prime Minister’s response was: “We don’t support our schools being turned into parliaments,” suggesting that students shouldn’t be allowed to exercise their own democratic rights. Resource Minister Matt Canavan patronisingly said: “The best thing you learn about going to a protest is how to join the dole queue.”
These demonstrations are an inspiring and an vital response to the fact that we adults and political leaders in Australia have failed the younger generation in providing climate leadership.
I salute you, and will be with you all the way.