Isla Aitken: The waters are rising – and so are the children

Isla Aitken (@IslaAitken) looks at government and media reaction to the global school strikes for climate, after attending the 3000 strong protest at the Scottish Parliament today [15 March]

“WHAT about the kids studying for Highers?” the adults said. “We shouldn’t be saying it’s ok to truant.” “It won’t change anything.” “Why don’t they protest on Saturday morning?” “They just want to be on the news.”

It seemed that the end of the world would be caused by students taking a morning off school, rather than by governments and industries failing to address the consequences of climate change, alter methods of energy consumption and pursue packaging solutions that didn’t involve plastic. 

But, though Police Scotland reports put the number of demonstrators at Holyrood this morning at close to 3000, and strikes around the world numbered more than 1700 in 112 countries… the world didn't end after all.

So were these adults’ views informed by a lack of understanding of the seriousness of climate change and the impacts it will have on, not just future generations, but our children right now; or by an apathetic British media, which, where they have bothered paying attention at all, have often reported on the global school strikes in vaguely derogatory tones?

READ MORE: 18 Scottish towns and cities set to join second global school climate strike

“Some of the teenagers in Westminster stood on the statues of former prime ministers David Lloyd George and Sir Winston Churchill!” the Daily Mail said of the February demo in London. “The pupils began to slope off at 3.30pm – the usual time for the school bell – after bringing Whitehall to a standstill,” continued the paper’s report, its tone a clear implication that those students who want the Government to take active steps to address climate chaos are nothing more that irritating pests.  

“The outlet for [students’] political curiosity should be debate in school,” claimed a Times newspaper leader. In a spectacular attempt to miss the point, the piece went on, “Would [parents] be equally understanding if it were a different issue? What if children were being encouraged to walk out in support of hanging, or legalisation of drugs?” Since The Times accused the parents allowing their children to demonstrate of being “liberal”, then yes, they would be equally understanding – because they’re liberal. The strikes have been about exercising a right to express opinions in a democracy. Although, if the kids did storm the streets demanding to see a return of capital punishment, you’d have to question the role of the media in forming such illiberal and violent ideologies…

Media on the continent, of course, responded somewhat differently. “German Chancellor Merkel has praised protests by school pupils urging more action on climate change,” reported Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, after a climate march in Hamburg last week. In Belgium, more than 65,000 demonstrators gathered across the country in December last year, protesting against inaction on climate change. The demos have continued almost weekly across Belgian cities; Gazet van Antwerpen, though repeatedly referring to the striking students as “spijbelaars” – truants – reported, “The ‘Youth for Climate’ tour went through the capital with a lot of noise and enthusiasm. In several places where the young people passed, people briefly stopped work to encourage them.” 

The activism of the Belgian youths did see an almost immediate reaction from politicians. In Antwerp, alderman Jinnih Beels came out to meet the protestors, saying: “I propose that in May we organise a climate day with all schools and pupils… Together with you, we want to try and make Antwerp the first city to score on climate.”

READ MORE: Analysis: Thankfully, #YouthStrike4Climate's hysterical critics have no power over the next generation

And what of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who began the protests last year, inspiring students around the world to follow her lead? From that first lonely day sitting outside the Swedish parliament with her placard, she has since been lauded a hero by policy makers and power brokers: “National presidents and corporate executives line up to be criticised by her,” as The Guardian put it.

Swedish daily newspapers Expressen and Aftonbladet both named Thunberg “Woman of the Year”. The schoolgirl was invited to address politicians, business leaders, celebrities and the global media at the World Economic Forum’s Davros gathering in January. “Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular, have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money,” she told her audience. “And I think many of you here today belong to that group of people.”

But while WEF founder Klaus Schwab and International Monetary Fund chairwoman Christine Lagarde were queuing to meet Thunberg – who has now been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize – the British media and Government have been much slower to recognise the message being spread by the student protestors. “It’s called truancy, not a strike,” tweeted Tory MP Andrea Leadsom of the climate demos.

“It is important to emphasise that disruption increases teachers’ workloads and wastes lesson time that teachers have carefully prepared for,” added a Downing Street spokesperson. “That time is crucial for young people, precisely so that they can develop into the top scientists, engineers and advocates we need to help tackle this problem.”

One of the nearly 10,000 scientists who are banging on about man-made climate change and being ignored by successive British governments, one presumes. 

READ MORE: Robin Mcalpine: The Green New Deal and the Growth Commission are from different planets. Literally.

Compare the British Government’s patronising take on student activism with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s reaction. “It’s a cause for optimism, in an often dark world, that young people are taking a stand on climate change,” Sturgeon tweeted in February. “[The Scottish Government] is a world leader but, given the urgency, it is right that we are all challenged to do more and that we hear the voice of the next generation.” Of course, that was easy for her to say, since Scottish schools were on half-term holiday, so no bunking off was necessary. 

But one can’t help thinking that Sturgeon felt confident enough in her devolved Government’s actions to mitigate climate change to know that the students surely wouldn’t be demonstrating against them; whereas one of May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to abolish the Department for Energy and Climate Change and move its responsibilities to a new Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. 

The May Government’s woeful environmental record includes promoting unconventional gas extraction, diverting funds away from clean energy in order to invest in the controversial industry; slashing renewable subsidies, sinking small-scale renewable energy projects; handing the role of environment secretary to Andrea Leadsom, who once asked “is climate change real?”; and, in January 2018, launching a 25-year environment plan with targets to eliminate avoidable waste by 2050 and plastic waste by 2042, but without detailing the legislation necessary to implement these targets.

(Incidentally, it was necessary to wade through five pages of online search engine news before arriving at any mention of Theresa May and the environment in the same sentence. Her attention, it seems, is currently being diverted by a determination to push through Brexit – which, ironically, would threaten environmental standards of, for example, emissions, conservation and air quality.)  

All of which would add up to a very good reason for the next generation of voters to be very annoyed.

READ MORE: Environmentalists call for fossil fuel transition following forecast for major increases in North Sea oil & gas extraction

When it was reported that Chancellor Phillip Hammond would use his Spring statement to unveil a series of new environmental policies, allegedly in response to the school strikes… nobody seemed to notice. It was claimed he had “heard calls” from students, and would react with policies to pacify them. One can only imagine the terse messages civil servants posted to Hammond on the subject, since last week the House of Commons held its first debate on climate change in two years – and only a handful of Tories turned up. What made parliamentary debates on climate chaos so unimportant last week, but listening to striking students this week essential? 

And when it came, the Spring statement was all but buried underneath endless Brexit rhetoric, so students could be forgiven for not even realising that Hammond has promised to “build sustainability into the heart of our economic model”. This could be done, he said, by considering whether travel companies should provide passengers with a “zero carbon travel” option; cutting energy bills for small businesses; calling for an increase in green gas in the grid; ending fossil-fuel heating systems in new houses from 2025; consulting on regulatory measures to limit plastic waste; and launching a review of the link between biodiversity and economic growth. What a shame that last item has never been done before.

If Hammond had hoped or believed that the announcement of his policies would deter today’s student strikers, he was very much mistaken. The message sent by these youngsters is that policies such as Hammond’s are on course to be too little too late. According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), governments must act faster and much more radically if there is to be any chance of avoiding the disastrous 3˚C of warming that the planet is currently on course for.

READ MORE: 'We need to stand up': The Scottish kids taking part in historic global school strikes

And, despite Sturgeon’s relaxed attitude towards the protests, there is room for improvement in Scotland too – it’s hard to understand how a Government can call itself truly progressive when it remains perched precariously on a moratorium on unconventional gas extraction (aka fracking), rather than enforcing a ban; considers it an achievement to spend £4.85 billion on roadbuilding (including M8, M73 and M74 motorway improvements; a new A8; Queensferry Bridge crossing ;and A9 dualling), which will do nothing to mitigate the number of cars on Scottish roads – the fastest growing in the UK, up 5 per cent between 2006 and 2016; and is still relying on the sale of oil & gas as a feasible financial foundation for Scottish independence. (When the Oil and Gas Authority predicted that 11.9 billion barrels of oil will be extracted by 2050 – almost 50 per cent more than forecast four years ago – Aberdeen South SNP MSP Maureen Watt said: “Scotland is a hugely wealthy country even without oil and gas. But the only way to ensure that Scotland’s valuable natural resources are invested here in Scotland is through independence.”)

These students might actually be doing the right thing. Students on today’s climate strike told me:

Rab, 11: “We’re poisoning ourselves with pollution and damaging the environment, and we can’t survive. The demo will get politicians to stop arguing among themselves, and hopefully this will encourage other people to do something, which will put governments all over the world under pressure to do something about it. They’re doing everything very slowly. We might as well have sloths in government.”

Emily, 11: “My mum showed me a video from Sweden that Greta Thunberg had done, and it was really inspiring what she said; when she has kids in the future, they’d ask her why she didn't do anything about [climate change], and she’d say that she tried but she couldn’t do anything, and that made me feel quite sad, so I’m here at the demo with my brother.”

Poppy, 11: “A boy in my class did a presentation about this demo, so he told us about it, and about climate change, and I decided I really wanted to join the demo because I love the planet and nature, and I don't want it to be destroyed.”

Dido, 14: “Earth is dying and it’s time the Government did something, because they haven’t done anything yet to make changes. Plastic, for example: there’s so much in our supermarkets that it’s hard for us not to consume it, so it’s up to Governments to pass policies to make plastic less available to consumers. We don't know if going on this demo will change anything, but it’s showing how much support there is for this movement, and how frustrated we are at the Government at the moment, for not making changes.”

Zoe, 14: “This has been a chance for us to be heard, and a chance for people who have been saying, I care about it but there’s nothing I can do, to go there and show just how many people do care about it.”

Poppy, 14: “I watched Greta Thunberg’s video this morning; it was intense, but I loved it, it was great.”

Isla, 14: “I want the Government to understand that we all care about this issue, and it’s something that has to be changed, we have to do something. I do have fears for my own future, because we’re the ones who’ll be raising families on this damaged planet, and if we don’t do something now, it’s our future.”

Innes, 12: I heard about the demo on the news and in newspapers; I wanted to join because I really like animals and nothing’s being done [to protect them], and if more people go on the demo, it might force the Government to change its policy.

Louis, 11: “Hopefully, in the face of this action, the Government will reduce CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases. They haven't been moving fast enough so far.”

Christopher, 11: “I see a lot about climate change on the news, and programmes like documentaries; and it’s quite important that we do something otherwise our climate’s going to die. Not enough is being done about it now. The Government has promised that it will reduce CO2 emissions by 2040 but that will be too late. Hopefully this demo will make them act faster.”

Campbell, 11: “I know that even though the rise in temperature might seem small – like, 2 degrees – it will have a massive impact. Already there are several species that have been made extinct, and polar bears are struggling because the ice caps are melting. Something can be done but only if we take action now, not in 10 years.”

Grace, 14:  “My dad showed me a video about Greta Thunberg, and since then it’s been a constant topic of conversation at dinnertime. Action needs to be taken on climate change, and taken now – Governments are doing nowhere near enough to combat it. This demo will make them see that the young people won't change and if it happens enough, they will have to do something about it. This won't be the only demo I do. Unless the Government takes action – which I doubt they will – there will definitely be more demos.”

Brigitte, 14: “I heard about Greta Thunberg, and thought she’s a really good role model, and I found her quite inspirational. Hopefully this demo will make the Government realise how much people care. Even just my home town has loads of people going. This is quite a big issue for children; it’s quite a big concept for children to understand, but it’s something that they feel is important.”

Pictures and videos courtesy of Isla Aitken

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