Climate Change: Young People Striking From School See It for the Life-Threatening Issue It Is
By David Rousell and Amy Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles
Students around the world are walking out of school once more, as part of ongoing strikes to protest governments' inaction on climate change. Since August 2018, tens of thousands of young people have taken part in strikes across Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Canada and Australia. The movement continues to grow, with fresh protests occurring in the UK and elsewhere.
Today's young people are the first generation to have lived their entire lives under the threat of catastrophic climate change. They're now positioned as future leaders, forced to take urgent action on an issue which older generations have lacked the political will, organization and authority to address.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg called on the young people of her generation "to hold the older generations accountable for the mess they have created, and expect us to live with."
“We must hold the older generations accountable for the mess they have created. ... and say to them you cannot cont… https://t.co/yhQU3D50gP— CNN (@CNN)1546173060.0
During the school strikes, young people have emphasised their concerns about the Earth's future. But the fact is, many children and young people are already living with the effects of global climate change, which include forced migration, food scarcity, drought, rising sea levels, extreme weather events and toxic contamination of water catchments.
Political debates about climate change manipulate environmental facts, values and concerns, which is contributing to a state of fear and anxiety among children and young people in many parts of the world. For example, neo-conservative and populist movements in the United States, Europe and Australia spread messages denying the scientific evidence for climate change, and challenging attempts to address it on moral, religious or political grounds. At the same time, young people are exposed to apocalyptic visions of the disastrous impacts of climate change through the internet, social media, literature and films.
Overlooked and Underestimated
As far back as 2007, an Australian study of children aged ten to 14 found that half were deeply concerned about climate change, while a quarter were worried that the world would end within their lifetimes. In spite of all the anxiety and divisiveness in the world today, the climate strikes reveal a growing international movement of young people, committed to political resistance and hope for a better future.
Political leaders have scolded young people for skipping school to strike. And while it's true that education can and should help young people to engage with the environmental, social and political dimensions of climate change, our new review of academic literature from around the world suggests that this vital issue is rarely addressed with any depth, nuance or rigour in schools.
In many cases, climate change only makes a brief appearance as a minor topic in the science curriculum. What's more, we found that schools, communities and governments rarely engage with young people's ideas, experiences and understandings of climate change. In many cases, young people are simply left to cope with the overwhelming threat and responsibility of climate change, without support from the wider community.
A Creative Response
Another research project called Climate Change and Me, which ran from 2013 to 2017, helped to establish a platform for children and young people to express and connect their attitudes, awareness and understandings of climate change in New South Wales, Australia. We worked with 135 children and young people, aged nine to 14, and encouraged them to generate their own lines of anthropological and creative research.
Making a statement. Climate Change and Me., Author provided
Their responses ranged from ethnographic studies within their own communities, to artworks, photo-essays, science fiction stories, poetry and films. Through this project, we found that young people's lives were deeply affected by climate change, and that they were politically and creatively motivated to take action. As one 11-year-old said, in an interview with one of their peers:
It's quite scary, the effects of climate change are occurring now and it's very devastating. It's selfish and horrible how humans are causing animal and plant species to die.
This sense of a combined ethical and existential crisis was echoed in young people's interviews, stories, poems and films over the course of the project. One ten-year-old envisioned a near future "in which humans fulfil every one of their selfish desires, a world that I would not want to live in". Another created a photo-essay featuring felled trees in her local neighbourhood, with the caption:
We kill many things. We are malicious killers. We do not realise that we are destroying our homes and the homes of all other organisms.
Yet these dark perspectives were accompanied by expressions of empowerment and calls to action. A 12-year-old participant in the research argued:
The difference must begin with us. We must change our values and what we believe is important to us. We must make drastic changes to how we think and make choices about our everyday activities.
As one nine-year-old in our study simply put it, "only people who care can help". Our study helped young people translate this sense of ethical care and responsibility into social actions, including a travelling exhibition viewed by over 10,000 people, and an interdisciplinary Climate Change Curriculum which has since been adopted by over 30 schools in Australia.
This contagious sense of young people caring and daring to stand up against climate inaction became one of the most salient and hopeful findings of the Climate Change and Me project. And now, we see this finding playing out on a larger scale: while climate change is darkening young people's lives, along with their prospects for a liveable future, we see children and young people using powerful and creative tactics to claim a voice and a political platform in society, and confront the greatest challenge of our age.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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