Students crucial for climate justice

Dr Sara Fuller
Fran Molloy
14 March 2019
Faculty of Arts


The global school strike on March 15 gives students who are too young to vote a platform to be heard -  and that can have powerful consequences, Macquarie University social research has found.

More than 10,000 school students from all over Sydney are expected to descend on Town Hall today, and from there march to Hyde Park, demanding that our political leaders take more action to mitigate climate change.

Support from university students: Macquarie law student Grace Vegesana, 19, joined the Australian Youth Climate Coalition in high school and is now their volunteer state co-ordinator for NSW.

Dr Sara Fuller is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography and Planning at Macquarie who has been exploring climate activism across a number of countries. She sees real links between what our school students are planning, and similar movements she has studied around justice and democracy.

“My research has explored the kinds of actions that different people take in response to these really big ethical challenges that we are facing, as a result of climate change, and what impacts these have,” she says.

“Once people start thinking about climate change as being an issue of justice, rather than simply being an issue for science or technology, it opens up new possibilities for activism to play a role in trying to change policy, and engage a broader audience of people who may not otherwise be aware of these issues.”

Is it a waste of time?

The big question is: are students wasting their time protesting?

Dr Fuller doesn’t think so. “Most of the people going on the school strike, are not able to vote – which in a democracy is one of the most critical mechanisms that people have to enact change, through making their views known to their politicians,” she says.

Students having their say: More than 50 protests are planned by school kids all over Australia on March 15, in towns of all sizes from Darwin to Denmark WA, from Yeppoon in Queensland to tiny Mirboo North in inland Victoria.

“Protesting plays a role in claiming a space to have your voice heard. If there is no space created for you to speak, then you have to go and create your own space. That raises awareness, and it puts pressure on people who hold power, to make change.”

School students are among the groups who will be most affected by climate change as they will be living a far longer time in a climate-impacted world than the people currently making decisions, she adds.

“My research in the UK, and also in Hong Kong and Singapore, has broadly looked at the way that different grassroots actors are taking action on climate change. This research shows that this kind of collective action is powerful, particularly for its capacity to potentially enable policy change.”

... education in schools can see kids changing parents' behaviours in the home, in relation to things like recycling

In the UK, grassroots collective action has led to the development of different forms of low carbon communities. “People move from an individual to a collective solution, and this kind of mobilisation then opens up lots of different opportunities for longer-term change,” Dr Fuller says.

“Framing climate action as a justice issue, up till now has often focused on the geographical inequalities, where people living in places likely to face the worst consequences of climate change are those that have contributed the least to the problem,” she says.

“But the school strikes are also raising the justice issues that apply across generations;  young people will have to deal with the growing impacts despite their low levels of contribution to the cause.”

Students have three things to say

At just 19, Macquarie University law and environmental science student Grace Vegesana is one of the older activists supporting the school strike movement. She joined the Australian Youth Climate Coalition in high school and is now their volunteer state co-ordinator for NSW.

“The school strike is being led by school students,” she confirms. “We’ve offered our help and we’re there to support them, but they do most of the organising.”

Positive protest: Climate change is about justice rather than simply being an issue for science or technology, says Dr Fuller.

She says that the school students have honed in on three key messages. “One, Stop Adani - a massive $16.4 billion proposed coal mine in central Queensland. It’s a powerful symbol of something that we want to see happen now. Two, Stop all new coal and oil and gas mining, we need to phase it out. And three, we need to switch to 100% renewable energy by 2030.”

Grace says that this strike is giving young people more hope for the future. “Even if you can’t vote yet, you can still have a voice; and this is the biggest mobilisation led by school students in history.”

Kids can change parents' behaviour

Dr Fuller says that having a positive message like moving to renewables is important. “The groups I have done research with think very carefully about how to frame their messages to engage people and garner support,” she says.

“While the school strike is becoming a global movement, what makes it successful is a local message, that people feel that they can actually connect with.”

That’s why the link with the Stop Adani movement has been important, she says.

“What the research suggests is that, many campaigns do mobilise around the world, and they often have different kinds of local messages, despite fighting for the same overall cause.”

Students have engaged their parents and university and union leaders and even some businesses in supporting the strikes, Dr Fuller says.

“There’s quite a lot of research done, about how education in schools can see kids changing parents behaviours in the home, in relation to things like recycling,” she says.

“The school strike is a great example of an activist movement that has framed their concerns around justice questions, and that's an important message that is likely to resonate more widely.”


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