Politics

Meet The Kids Who Are Skipping Schools Australia-Wide To Call For Climate Action

Here's what they'd like to say to Scott Morrison.

When I called Jean Hinchliffe at the time we’d agreed on for an interview, she was in class at Fort Street High School in Sydney. In the background, I could hear a teacher querying Jean as she stood up and said “sorry, I’ve got to do an interview,” and left the classroom.

Jean is fourteen years old, and she’s one of the lead organisers of the Sydney School Strike 4 Climate Action, which will take place tomorrow, Friday November 30. It’s one of a number of similar events around the country, where primary and high school students have committed to skip school or walk out of class and travel to their state Parliament or federal MP’s office to protest the government’s inaction on climate change.

So far, more than 4000 people have expressed interest in the Sydney event; a similar number have responded on Facebook in Melbourne. There are events planned for every Australian capital city, as well as close to 20 smaller cities and towns around the country. The Canberra event, which took place on Wednesday, attracted several hundred students to the lawns of Parliament House despite torrential rain. Earlier this week, the federal Senate voted in favour of a motion supporting the kids.

The events are inspired by and organised by the students themselves, with some help from organisations like the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. Once Jean made it out of her classroom, she told me that she first got involved after a friend sent her a text telling her about a strike planned for Melbourne. “I was really excited by it and thought it was a really excellent initiative, so I immediately sent an email and said I’ll organise a Sydney one,” she said.

Soon she was creating Facebook events, learning how to organise PA systems for a rally, publicising the event with media interviews, and spreading the word any way she could. “It was a lot of work,” she said. “But I personally see climate change as the biggest threat to my future, and that is really scary.”

“Most young people feel the same way about it, because it’s such an enormous issue that is just being completely ignored. If we saw politicians really putting in an effort to make change, then it wouldn’t be something I’m so concerned about. But it’s just being ignored, and I think that’s why I care about it so much.”

From One Girl In Sweden To Thousands Of Australian Kids

The idea for Australia’s school strikes came, surprisingly, from Sweden, where 15-year-old Greta Thunberg has been skipping school every Friday for months in favour of sitting outside Parliament with a sign calling for climate action. Down in Castlemaine, Victoria, some Australian teens read an article about Greta’s protest and were rapt.

“I thought she was just so brave and inspiring,” 14-year-old Milou Albrecht told Junkee. She told her friends Harriet and Callum, and they decided to start a strike of their own. The way they see it, they didn’t really have a choice. “We’re going to be living in this world longer,” Harriet told us. “I don’t think climate change matters as much to older people, because they’re not going to be dealing with the worst impacts.”

“They’re not going to be living in the world they’re creating for us, whereas we are. We’re inheriting their mistakes.”

Seventeen-year-old Jagveer Singh got involved in the school strike in a similar way, after seeing a video of Greta’s strike on Facebook. “I was like yeah, I should get involved, so I followed the Facebook, I went to the website, I clicked attending, shared it with my friends,” he said. “And yeah, that’s basically how you get involved.”

Jagveer cares about climate change for much the same reasons as Harriet and Milou: he knows he’s going to have to live with the consequences. “I guess as a young person, hopefully I’ve got many years to live,” he told Junkee, laughing. “But by the time I get to that age, climate change is going to get a lot worse. The latest IPCC report showed that we really don’t have much time left to act. So we’ve got to take some action, get our voices out there, and make change.”

Climate Change Is Terrifying, But We Can Beat It

Climate change really, really scares all the kids I spoke to for this story. Eleven-year-old Lucie Atkin Bolton, who is school captain of Forest Lodge Primary School in NSW and will be speaking at the Sydney rally tomorrow, summed up that fear very quickly when I asked her about it.

“I feel lots of fear,” she said simply. “It is killing our planet. Soon, there could be no such thing as Antarctica. The Great Barrier Reef could be black and white before we know it. There could be no such thing as polar bears. There are islands disappearing. It sounds like I’m being dramatic, but with the rate we’re going, it could definitely happen.”

But despite being scared, these kids are also impressively optimistic. They know we’ve only got a small window of time to turn things around, and they want to use it. The fact that one Swedish girl’s protest has already blossomed into a massive movement down under gives them hope — as Jagveer pointed out, the fact that the Australian Senate has already passed a motion supporting the kids is encouraging. “That just shows that we’ve got the support of some politicians,” he said. “We haven’t even started striking properly yet, and we’re already getting things done, in a way.”

“But obviously the government hasn’t yet committed to doing those things, so we’d like to see them move to one hundred percent renewable energy as soon as possible. We want a commitment to no new coal, to stop Adani’s coal mine, and on a smaller scale I suppose we’d like to see MPs have a chat to kids, asking them: what do you want?”

“I think it was just something waiting to happen, because so many people care so much about this and just weren’t really sure where to channel their worries.”

And make no mistake, these kids know what they want. As Lucie told me, “the biggest thing I’d like to see is definitely one hundred percent renewable energy. Things like solar panels, wind energy, hydroelectricity, wave energy.”

“Obviously I’m not the one that made this up, but something I thought was a very good idea for Australia is solar panel farms. We have so much space in Australia which is desert — it’s really sunny, with so much space, and it’s absolutely perfect for solar panel farms.”

“And obviously, we have to think about the Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders who own the land, but we could always negotiate with them,” she went on. “They could get some of the profits. Really, I think it’s stupid that no one has really brought it up in Parliament or thought about it. It’s such a simple, easy idea — I just explained it, and it works perfectly, so why can’t the politicians do it?”

Milou, similarly, is determined and optimistic. “I mean Greta, one girl going on strike for a few days, or a few weeks, has made headlines,” she said. “We basically created this whole thing. I think it was just something waiting to happen, because so many people care so much about this and just weren’t really sure where to channel their worries.”

“Now that someone has taken the initiative and come up with an idea that could help solve this, everyone has just jumped into it. I think it should make a big impact.”

A Message To Scott Morrison: Respect Your Future Voters

On Monday in Parliament, Greens MP Adam Bandt called on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to support the strike, and to meet with and listen to the kids involved. Morrison was not a fan.

“Kids should go to school,” he said at the time. “We don’t support the idea of kids not going to school to participate in things that can be dealt with outside of school.”

“We do not support our schools being turned into Parliaments,” he continued. “What we want is more learning in schools, and less activism in schools.” By the end of his brief speech, he was yelling.

All of the students I talked to for this story had seen a video of Morrison’s comments — some even brought it up before I asked about it — and they all had opinions to share. Overwhelmingly, they were disappointed: disappointed that their Prime Minister was speaking down to them, disappointed that he was point blank refusing to listen.

“I thought it was quite rude, actually,” 17-year-old Jagveer told me. “He’s our Prime Minister, he’s supposed to listen to the kids. He’s supposed to represent everyone. And that means listening to what the kids have to say, and he’s obviously not done that.”

“You know, we’ve got thirteen, fourteen-year-olds who are more concerned about this than him. He should be learning a lesson from kids. But instead of engaging with them he’s full on having a go at them.”

Kids with a Stop Adani sign at the School Strike for Climate Action.

Photo by Olia Balabina (Supplied: School Strike 4 Climate Action)

Jean, the 14-year-old organiser of the Sydney protest event, agreed with ScoMo — to an extent. “I do agree that this should be dealt with outside of school,” she told Junkee. “But the problem is that it’s not, which is why we’re resorting to this action.”

“We’re not going to just sit around and wait until something happens, because it’s not happening. I think it’s ridiculous to say we need less activism in our schools and more learning because I find activism is a great way to learn, and it’s a great way to be more educated about the world and really actively participate in democracy.”

Even 11-year-old Lucie wanted to give the Prime Minister a piece of her mind. “I’m completely outraged,” she said. “This is the Prime Minister we’re talking about, he’s supposed to be thinking about everybody in Australia, and that means young people as well. That means thinking about our future, right?”

“I’d say to him to give me one reason why [we shouldn’t strike],” she added. “Because if missing out on school means helping save the environment, it’s definitely worth it. Like, nothing else could be more worth it than that. It’s a good deal, a really good deal.”

She’s right about that, and she’ll be at NSW Parliament tomorrow telling the crowds exactly why. If you’re free, you should join her, or join the strike closest to you. You can find all the information you need on the School Strikes happening around the country here.


Feature image supplied by School Strike 4 Climate Action.