Student mobilisation on climate change is a strong call on democracy to deliver for the planet. It is a rejection of “climate deniers”, but also of “business as usual.” Its ultimate success will depend on expanding the mobilisation while graduating from protest to politics, including by linking lower carbon emissions with progress on equality, social justice and human rights.
Several polls and studies in the last decade have shown dropping support for democracy among young people and growing cynicism about politics and politicians in long-standing democracies. The feeling that elections do not matter and that the non-elected are calling the shots has been fertile soil for authoritarianism.
Young people have contributed significantly to the election scores of Extreme Right parties in Austria, Germany, and France. Young people helped elect President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. However, in the United States, while the authoritarian temptation clearly played a role in the 2016 election, surveys show that attitudes of young people are beginning to change on democracy since President Trump was elected.
The mobilisation of young people on climate change is a healthy sign for the present and the future of democracy. If paralysed by cynicism or apathy, one does not act collectively and go to the streets to demand action by elected leaders.
A well-functioning democracy needs a minimum of respect for the truth. By marching, students are rejecting “climate deniers”, including the President of the United States. The ability to separate truth from opinion is not automatic, especially in the internet era. The students who are joining together are clearly not fooled. And, as George Orwell wrote, “In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
From Protest to Politics
The American civil rights leader, Bayard Rustin, the organiser of the March on Washington in 1963, wrote, an essay following the march, “From Protest to Progress”. Rustin argued that, although progress had been made through demonstrations, sit-ins and other direct actions, it could only be sustained and developed through government. He wrote that in the course of that effective, but complex struggle, what became clear is that, “all these interrelated problems, by their very nature, are not soluble by private, voluntary efforts, but require government action – or politics.”
The student movement to save the planet from climate change seems to have appeared suddenly and spontaneously. Social networking made it possible to move rapidly. However, experience shows that such mobilisations can also disappear quickly. Nobody should be deceived into thinking that the positive responses received from a wide spectrum of political leaders means victory.
The mobilisation, like the civil rights movement in one way or another, needs to be sustained. An example of young people connecting protest with political action was the “March for our lives”, organised by young people against gun violence in the US following the killings in Parkland, Florida. That march, beginning in Washington, DC and spreading to nearly 1000 other sites, focused on voter registration of young people. That effort contributed to the fact that in the bi-elections in 2018, 47 per cent more young people voted than in 2014.
With climate change, among the challenges of connecting protest with politics are:
- The need to overcome market dogma that has dominated public policy for decades. The market alone will never solve climate change. That means that advocating purely “market solutions” signals gross irresponsibility by governments;
- Industrial/investment policy is needed, just as it is for any major effort, whether it is a war, an economic crisis, fighting HIV/AIDS, or exploring space;
- Some political leaders are beginning to respond. A good example is the proposed “Green New Deal” in the United States which, adopted or not, forces a discussion and will help to sustain student mobilisation;
- Social measures are required to cushion the blow of structural changes in employment related to climate change. “Just transition” efforts, linked with industrial policy, need to include good labour standards and enforcement to ensure that workers have the right to organise and bargain throughout the economy. Losing one’s job does not mean losing representation. New jobs should also have futures for workers; and
- Growing numbers of “climate refugees” are forced to leave their homelands. Even if governments reduce carbon emissions, in the short and middle term, many millions of refugees will need to be accommodated and integrated and have their rights guaranteed in other countries. That means that the persistent political exploitation of the fear of “outsiders” will have to be contained and reversed.
Quality education is critical to dealing with climate change and its impact. That means supporting democracy by developing all those competencies, including critical thinking, that enables active citizenship, including global citizenship.
However, sound, quality education is vital not only to close the democracy deficit. If climate change is to be curbed and brought under control, today’s students will need to adapt to changing employment in a changing world. That requires a response far beyond limited skills training. A narrow approach to education directed at passing standardised tests is already becoming a hindrance in the real world. One needs to learn how to learn, develop creativity, self-confidence and a deep, rather than superficial, capacity for thought and judgement in order to cope with and benefit from change.
Greater attention will need to be devoted to lifelong learning, but of a quality and reach that goes beyond much of what we have yet achieved. Some of it will be in educational institutions and some of it will be developed by social partners and others, but it all needs to be good and comprehensive.
At a time when so many people are alienated from politics and are losing a sense of community, it is too easy to give up on governance.
The global student mobilisation on climate change is a source of great hope for democracy; democracy that will advance equality, social justice, and protection of the environment.
Lower carbon emissions can mean the survival of humanity. But decent lives and justice for survivors must be part of that struggle.
If this student movement can be sustained and expanded, and if it can be organised and structured in civil society, including in political parties, it can be a catalyst for a sweeping, transformation for people and the planet.
As teachers, trade unionists and citizens fighting for a well-rounded education for decent societies, well-being, and the democratic process, we will contribute to accomplishing that mission.