The fight of their lives

14 February 2022

Student climate activists have held thousands of demonstrations around the world to make their presence felt in the lead up to the 26th annual UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). Held in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November, COP26 was one of the largest gatherings of global leaders in history.

Capping a year of catastrophic “once-in-a-century” wildfires, floods and storms that foreshadowed an uncertain and frightening future, the student-led School Strike 4 Climate (SS4C) kicked off on 15 October in Australia with 10,000 people attending virtual meetups and rallies in 40 locations across Australia.

The students are supported by teacher unions around the world.

Education International (EI) launched a toolkit for teachers (Teach for Climate Action) after its Mobilising Educators for Climate Change Education conference. EI called on member organisations in the Asia-Pacific to urge governments and delegates to COP26 to ensure quality climate change education for all and to recognise its role in a just transition to a more sustainable world.

In Australia, the AEU, together with the NTEU and IEU – representing almost 300,000 educators – commended the aims of the SS4C movement.

“We know students are counting on us to support their democratic right to express their views and take direct action on the impacts of climate change and to put pressure on the Morrison government,” says AEU Federal President Correna Haythorpe.

For young activists who became involved in SS4C in 2019, in the wake of Greta Thunberg’s sit-in outside the Swedish parliament, being part of a global movement brings benefits. There’s an opportunity to be part of an enormous and valuable network of like-minded collaborators, sharing strategies and goals, and well-founded fears and pessimism.

Bella Burgemeister heard the call to action at age 10, inspired by The World’s Largest Lesson, a video about the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals featuring Pakistani activist Malala Yousufzai. She was so moved, she wrote the book Bella’s Challenge to encourage other young people to act on climate and sustainability.

Three years later she joined SS4C, campaigning alongside a phalanx of student activists in an enormous global movement. Now 15, Burgemeister deftly handles the daunting task of climate activism as the powerful dither, while finding time to play sport, hang with friends, and study at TAFE in a university pathway she hopes will end with a degree in social work.

She’s incensed by the government’s recalcitrance on setting targets for zero net emissions by 2050.

“There’s a lot of anger and sadness to see them so interested in money from the fossil fuel companies that are destroying the planet, and not thinking of the Australian people, their citizens, and what’s going to happen to future generations,” she says.

But amid the frustration is a growing appreciation that as the SS4C movement evolves, so too do its members. “A lot of them can now vote and we’re going to start putting the pressure on,” she says.

No, minister!

The SS4C goals include an end to new coal, oil and gas projects, including the Adani mine; 100 per cent renewable energy generations and exports by 2030; and obtaining funding for a just transition and job creation for all fossil-fuel workers and their communities.

Underlying those demands is a focus on duty of care “to make sure our governments are accountable to the people”. One person feeling the pressure is federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, who faced a class action from a determined group of indignant teens, including Burgemeister.

They argued that Ley had a duty of care to stop the approval of an extension to the Vickery coal mine in NSW because of the risk that it would exacerbate climate change and cause them serious harm in the future. The Australia Federal Court found in the students’ favour, but the minister appealed the ruling. A decision was still pending at the time of publication.

Regardless of the outcome, Burgemeister says it was a “powerful” experience to be part of. “Amazing lawyers took us through every part of the process and so many people around the world got involved in helping us as well.”

She says teachers, too, are welcome to lend their support: “If you’re passionate about this, if you want action, join us. Because the bigger the numbers, the more voices we have, the more powerful we become.”

By Cyndi Tebbel

This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Summer 2021