Schoolchildren call out our inexcusable climate change negligence

Schoolchildren call out our inexcusable climate change negligence

Millions of students boycotted classes to protest over climate change. (File/AP)

In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” it took a young boy to expose the folly of a leader and the collective denial and fear of his subjects to speak the truth that was staring them in the face — that their emperor was parading in public with no clothes on. A not-that-bright emperor was fooled by deceitful weavers, who took advantage of his vanity and the people’s conformity to turn a profit for themselves. 

Today, the existential threat of climate change is staring us all in face, but our political leaders, in cahoots with big business and helped along by public apathy, are neglecting their duty to address it, and to do so with a sense of urgency. However, as in Andersen’s tale, we now seem to have a young generation that is taking the older one to task for neglecting the safety of our planet. Last Friday, hundreds of thousands of school students in 100 countries worldwide abandoned their studies for one day in favor of marching in protest against the apathy of governments and international organizations and their ineffective steps to combat climate change. 

It was refreshing to see so many teenagers across the world, including in developing countries such as India, Uganda and the Philippines, protesting peacefully and expressing their frustration with the world of adults that is compromising their future. It was especially encouraging because there is a recurring theme among the older generation that young people are self-centered and hardly interested in the big issues facing the world. But this is far from being a universal truth. 

Take, for instance, Malala Yousafzai, whose eloquence and confidence belie her age. She has been highlighting the plight of young people, especially girls, in their attempts to pursue their education, particularly in more traditional and less developed societies. Violent attempts to silence her have only encouraged her to continue her campaign for education for all. She has become an inspiration to us all, reminding us of the great significance of youth battling for their rights. 

Then there is Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish student who has recently been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Last August, she went on strike, refusing to go to school until September’s general election — an action aimed at drawing attention to the global climate crisis. She may not have greatly influenced the result of that ballot, but she certainly drew attention to the lack of any genuine and concerted efforts by politicians to address the threat of climate change with the vigor and urgency required and, no less importantly, to the role that youth activism can play in such efforts. 

Greta and Malala have captured the imaginations of adults and young people alike as heroines of our times thanks to their readiness to fight for just and important causes, on which society is failing to provide adequate answers. In her very straightforward way, day after day for two weeks, Greta stood in front of Stockholm’s Parliament House handing out leaflets that plainly expressed how she felt about the negligence of her government in dealing with climate change. Since then, she has become something of a celebrity and the strikes last week were organized and inspired by the “Fridays for Future” movement she started.

To explain why it is better for schoolchildren to be protesting on the streets rather than sitting in their classrooms, the movement’s website suggests that: “Schoolchildren are required to attend school. But, with the worsening climate destruction, this goal of going to school begins to be pointless — why study for a future which may not be there?” In one succinct statement, she and her movement have encapsulated young people’s resentment of the world of adults, which is ready to sacrifice not only the welfare of future generations, but also their very existence. 

For scientists, activists and advocates of green policies, the schoolchildren’s marches must have given them a tailwind to continue their work

Yossi Mekelberg

In her appearances on such prestigious world stages as the UN Climate Change Summit and the World Economic Forum, she has been telling world leaders that, “on climate change, we have to acknowledge that we have failed.” Who can contest this assertion and the power of it being delivered by a youngster with such conviction? 

It is not that there is no active and vibrant civil society or scientific community focusing on climate change, warning of its disastrous consequences and recommending courses of action to avert it. We are being provided with ample scientific evidence that the planet is heating up at an alarming rate, much of it due to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, the increasingly frequent episodes of freak weather conditions are for everyone to experience and somehow endure. 

Last year’s UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report on global warming stated categorically that we are reaching the point of no return, with calamitous implications for our health and the prospect of even more natural disasters resulting in death and destruction on a huge scale, which will turn many millions of people into climate refugees and cause further related conflicts. For scientists, activists and advocates of green policies, the schoolchildren’s marches must have given them a tailwind to continue their work, knowing that the future generation is supporting it.

Some of the slogans on the placards that these school students were carrying in places as widespread as Sydney, Washington and Nepal made it clear that they are united in expressing the fear that their planet is being compromised by politicians and the business community for their own selfish vested interests. “Stop selling our future,” “There is no planet B,” and “The earth is what I stand on and what I stand for,” were all seen. Such statements show how concerned and how right young people are to highlight our inexcusable negligence in addressing climate change. 

This youth activism, if it can remain consistent and gather momentum, has a good chance of getting the elites to listen. After all, our children are the voters, leaders, consumers and employees of the future and these young marchers are pointing out the naked truth: That our leaders must act quickly to prevent a climate change catastrophe, or continue to face their anger in the streets.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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