Of schoolchildren and climate change: a personal view

Students on strike: A promotional poster for the Perth leg of the global schools' strike for climate action on 20 September

Years ago, few people heard of climate change, let alone the terms “global warming” or “greenhouse gases”. Our main environmental concern was the thinning ozone layer.

Fast forward to the present day. In addition to the hole in the ozone layer that is letting in harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun, we also have to contend with rising sea levels, decreased rainfall and abnormal weather patterns. The latter three are often associated with global warming, a phenomenon caused by excessive emission of greenhouse gases, most notably carbon dioxide, as a result of human economic activities. Most carbon dioxide is produced by the burning of fossil fuels or from deforestation. As light energy from the sun warms the surface of the earth, heat is emitted which warms the atmosphere and is then re-emitted as heat by greenhouse gas molecules. An excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere means more heat is trapped, causing a rise in temperatures. This phenomenon is known as global warming and has been implicated as a key factor in changing weather patterns. Rising sea levels, frequent heatwaves and desertification are among the key aspects of it.

Students on strike: A promotional poster for the Perth leg of the global schools’ strike for climate action on 20 September

For many years, environmental scientists have been warning us that our current lifestyles are unsustainable as it would only hasten the destruction of the natural environment. We thus have had to explore alternative sources of energy apart from fossil fuels, which are themselves non-renewable and produce a lot of carbon dioxide when combusted. These days, electric buses have become a reality and can be seen plying the streets in several Chinese cities. They have also been exported around the world. Technological billionaire Elon Musk has also developed electric cars under the Tesla brand. Musk has also thrown his weight behind teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, whom I will discuss later.

While the experts have had limited success in getting their message across, a 16-year-old schoolgirl from Sweden is taking the world by storm with her passion for environmentalism. She is none other than Greta Thunberg, the pioneer of the School Strike for Climate (SS4C) movement. In 2011, at the age of eight, she heard about climate change, but could not comprehend why so little was done to address it. She later convinced her family to reduce their carbon footprint by making major lifestyle changes. In 2018, she began a one-person protest in front of the Swedish Riksdag building holding a sign that read “School Strike for Climate” in her mother tongue. Such action meant she was missing a lot of classes, and her teachers’ opinions were split down the middle. Soon, other students in various communities were inspired to take up similar action, and the SS4C movement that originally began in 2015 began to gain momentum. Thunberg soon became a central figure in the movement just as Joshua Wong became the face of the Hong Kong protests.

Overnight, she became a public figure, making her a target for online abuse. Following the Swedish elections, she would only strike on Fridays, and the global SS4C movement took the cue from there. Social media allowed her message to spread far and wide, and as at 27 September 2019, there are two million participants around the world. This was half the number from the previous week, in which four million climate activists took to the streets in many major cities worldwide while Thunberg herself was visiting the United States of America. Perth in Western Australia was one of the locations. Other Australian cities involved were Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. In Melbourne, members of the hospitality industry union Hospo Voice took an active part in the strikes, standing shoulder to shoulder with the schoolchildren. Footage from the Perth strike shows the presence of the Greens political party as well as the activist group Extinction Rebellion at the scene.

Some disturbing comments had appeared in the comments section of the video. One particularly virulent person likened the strikes to a form of child abuse. She pointed out that Thunberg suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and insinuated that the girl’s parents were encouraging her actions rather than seeking professional help for their daughter. Such views are actually more common than we think. Many conservative commentators feel that George Soros may have financed Thunberg’s voyage to New York where she addressed the United Nations summit on climate action with her now-famous “How dare you” speech. The speech appeared to be well-rehearsed and scripted, leading many to compare her to a Broadway performer. If I had to give a similar speech before all the world leaders, I probably would have freaked out.

As for SS4C, many critics feel that whoever is managing the movement is using schoolchildren as political pawns. Most children have absolutely no idea what climate change is all about. They are like blank slates in a way, brimming with innocent enthusiasm ripe for exploitation. Being out on the streets instead of in the classroom would seem like something of a breath of fresh air to them. Much of the training was conducted by militant unionists. If you are from Singapore, this might seem like history professor Dr Pingtjin Thum’s idea of a “democracy workshop”. The alliance between trade unionists and high school students is reminiscent of what went down in 1950s Malaya and Singapore during the anti-colonial struggle. Such sessions require a lot of organisation and logistics, not to mention financial backing. If we follow the trail of money, we may not like what we see.

With regards to the presence of hospitality workers at the Melbourne leg of the global climate strikes, many of them may not be in the industry by choice. If they were offered cash to take part in a strike, many of them might be enticed by it. Personally, I would take the cash in return for making a stand on a particular cause. The question of what it is would not be relevant. All that matters is someone is willing to recognise my real talent and overlook my professional shortcomings.

You can argue that the climate protesters are like sheep but many of them are on strike because it is their conscious choice. They know fully well what they have gotten themselves into and are prepared to face consequences like martyrs for their faith. While we may not see eye to eye with their actions, we should at least give them credit for their fearlessness in doing what they did. How many of us are prepared to speak up when we see a wrongdoing being perpetrated by someone in a high place? That being said, SS4C is mostly blowing hot air at the moment. In the same vein, Thunberg’s speech is merely empty rhetoric if she does not live by example.

While climate change is indeed an actual phenomenon exacerbated by high-level economic activity caused by unregulated capitalism, much of the literature on the subject may have been spiced up in such a way as to create panic. Sure, the world may not end in the next decade, but by changing our behaviour, we can delay the inevitable end by many more decades. Using schoolchildren to spread the message, however, is highly suspect. It makes others think the children are used as mere human shields by adult protesters. After all, nobody will ever have the stomach to set the tanks on children.