Student strike offers a way forward for climate action

Thousands of students walked out of school to demand action on climate change on 30 November, defying prime minister Scott Morrison’s argument that schools not be “turned into parliaments” and for there to be “less activism in schools”. Protests took place in all mainland state capitals and 20 regional centres.

Manjot Kaur, a 17-year-old from Ravenswood on Sydney’s North Shore, summed up the sentiment of many when she told 2,000 students in Martin Place, “If Scott Morrison wants children to stop acting like a parliament, then maybe the parliament should stop acting like children”.

Around the country, the mood of protesters was determined. Their key message: if politicians aren’t prepared to act on climate change, young people will. Their action demonstrates two important points. 

First, the climate emergency can’t be resolved by carrying on with business as usual. No matter how much we reduce, re-use and recycle, individual actions can’t halt global warming. The world order, based on maximising profits at the cost of people and the planet, must be upended and reordered. 

Second, strike action offers a way forward for the environment movement. Environmental non-government organisation lobbyists, pacing the halls of power and calling for “ethical investment” from corporations, have failed to curb rising temperatures and pollution. 

Direct action by students offers a positive example of the actions that might work. As the old Builders Labourers Federation motto goes: “If you don’t fight, you lose”. And we have much to lose.

A global movement

Australia’s Student Strike for Climate Action was inspired by the action of 15-year-old Swedish school student Greta Thunberg, who has missed school every Friday since the beginning of September to protest outside parliament in Stockholm. Writing in the Guardian, Thunberg explained:

“When school started in August this year, I decided enough was enough. Sweden had just experienced its hottest summer ever. The election was coming up. No one was talking about climate change as an actual consequence of our way of life.”

Thunberg’s action challenged the myth that Sweden is leading the world on climate action. In 2017, the country adopted a target of zero emissions by 2045. Yet “Sweden is not a green paradise”, Thunberg said in an interview. “It has one of the biggest carbon footprints.”

Thunberg insists that the industrialised states must take the lead on climate change action. And Australia, as the biggest emitter of greenhouses gases per capita worldwide, must act now.

“Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of coal, one of the leading causes of climate change”, wrote Thunberg. “Your politicians want to help Adani build one of the biggest coal mines in the world. Right now, there are no policies to change this. There are no rules to keep coal in the ground.”

Inspired by Thunberg’s stand, 14-year-old Victorian students Harriet O’Shea Carre and Milou Albrecht called on fellow students to join a national student strike: 

“Just going to school isn’t doing anything about climate change. And it doesn't seem that our politicians are doing anything, or at least not enough, about climate change either.”

Waste

For more than three decades we have been bombarded with the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle”. The accepted wisdom has been that if we all take individual action to curb consumption, repurpose used items and reduce waste, we can leave the planet in a better state for future generations. 

This message was echoed recently on the popular ABC documentary, War on Waste presented by former Chaser comedian Craig Reucassel.

“The countries around the world where genuine recycling works better are countries where … it’s taught in school and the kids and the adults work together on it”, he told the Guardian.

Reucassel’s message: that if we say “no” to plastic bags and recycle our waste we can save money and (possibly) feel better about ourselves. Yet it fails in one important respect. In a capitalist society, the vast majority of us have no control over how products are made, distributed or disposed of. 

The failures of a DIY approach to saving the planet are borne out by the facts.

In Australia, 50 million tonnes of waste are produced each year, around 40 percent of which ends up in landfill. Waste has increased by 170 percent over the last two decades, while population has increased by only 28 percent. Households produce less than 30 percent of this waste; one-third is generated by industry and an additional 40 percent comes from construction and demolition. 

Most alarming is the rise in electronic waste, such as computers, televisions, printers and mobile phones. According to Clean Up Australia, fewer than 10 percent of the 17 million televisions discarded in Australia each year are recycled; the remainder end up in landfill. “E-waste”, as it is called, is responsible for 70 percent of the toxic chemicals such as lead, cadmium and mercury in landfill. 

Greenpeace has reported a worldwide increase in the export of e-waste to developing countries where laws protecting workers rights and the environment are inadequate or not enforced. Recycling in these places is typically done by hand in scrap yards, often by children. 

Child labourers picking over computer parts and suffering from skin, blood and respiratory diseases due to exposure to heavy metals is not an image we often associate with the “reduce, re-use and recycle” motto. Yet the logic of capitalism drives the export of hazardous waste to destinations where it is more profitable to recycle precious metals using cheap labour. 

The idea that our individual actions can save the planet is therefore built on a lie. The inner logic of capitalism compels capitalists to look for ways to sell an ever increasing volume of commodities to a growing global market, despite the inevitable consumption of fossil fuels this entails. 

To do otherwise is to lose ground to competitors. As consumers, we have virtually no control over this process. In the end, corporate boards answer not to consumers or the planet, but the calls of their shareholders, determined to hold their own in the global marketplace.

Market solutions fail

Over the last decade, federal governments have offered wholly inadequate solutions to address global warming. In 2011, the Gillard government introduced a carbon tax with Greens support. Despite the fanfare, the tax proved an unmitigated disaster, failing to bring about greater investment in renewables. 

Setting a price on carbon was meant to make pollution more expensive and clean technology cheaper. Yet the billions of dollars given out to big polluters sent an entirely different message: it rewarded bad behaviour. 

The government’s own modelling indicated that a carbon tax would do little to reduce domestic emissions. Australian investors predictably looked elsewhere for carbon offsets, rather than cut emissions. As a consequence, it was business as usual for Australia’s coal industry: spending on mineral exploration rose to an all-time high of more than $1 billion in the first quarter of 2012, according to the International Business Times. 

The carbon tax provided a windfall for power companies, which used it as a convenient excuse to jack up prices. Five years later, household power bills remain sky high.

Supporters of market-based solutions advocate bribes to persuade polluting industries to adopt cleaner technology. Since gaining government in 2013, Liberal federal government ministers have been spruiking “clean coal”. Essentially a marketing ploy by the coal industry, “clean coal” refers to plants that operate at a higher temperature, reducing emissions by around 25 percent.

Yet these “ultra-supercritical” plants still produce around 740kg of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity. By comparison, an efficient gas plant produces 400kg and a wind or solar plant produces zero carbon dioxide. 

According to the International Energy Agency, developed nations must reduce emissions to 15kg per megawatt hour to keep global temperature rises below two degrees.

Moreover, the cost of building new coal fired power plants is exorbitant. According to the US Energy Information Agency, the new breed of coal power plants costs twice as much to build per unit of energy compared to a wind farm, and is almost 40 percent more expensive than solar. 

So, if renewable energy is cheaper to produce, why are our politicians to committed to fossil fuels? 

The answer lies in the irrationality of the capitalist market. Subsidising an existing technology, no matter how polluting, boosts the profit margins of the corporations that own and control the resource extraction and power production industries. The capitalist market is the source of the climate crisis. A system that puts profits before all else cannot hope to solve a problem it created. 

What kind of movement do we need?

The Student Strike for Climate Action echoes the critical role high school students played when the environment movement first emerged half a century ago. 

Ten thousand high school students and thousands of college students were among the 20 million Americans who took to the streets in the first Earth Day protest on 22 April, 1970. Six months earlier a front page article in the New York Times observed:

“Rising concern about the ‘environmental crisis’ is sweeping the nation’s campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam. A national day of observance of environmental problems, analogous to the mass demonstrations on Vietnam, is being planned.”

Among the protesters were US labour unions, which took a fighting stand in opposition to oil spills, factory and power plant pollution and toxic waste. In 1972, when Shell Oil workers went on strike over health and safety issues, environmental organisations offered their support. 

In Australia in the 1970s, the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation forged an alliance between conservationists and trade unionists that saved much of Sydney’s inner city housing, heritage buildings and green space from developers’ bulldozers. 

Australian high school students have also been in the vanguard of environmental activism in decades past. In 1989, in response to alarming new data on global warming, school students, under the banner of the Environmental Youth Alliance, organised conferences and protested. And in 1994, tens of thousands of high school students walked out of school against French nuclear testing.

Today, there is an urgent need to reclaim this radical tradition. The 1 percent that owns half the world’s wealth have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo – even if it spells death and destruction for future generations. 

For the rest of us, the challenge is how to end this madness and build a society that offers a sustainable future for all. Mass radical action, like that which young people are beginning to take, is urgently needed. Thunberg puts it simply:

“The adults have failed us. And since most of them, including the press and the politicians, keep ignoring the situation, we must take action into our own hands, starting today.”