<p>On Wednesday March 15, an estimated 150,000 primary, high school, and tertiary students across the country walked out of class to protest the Australian government’s persistent inaction on climate change.0</p>
On Wednesday March 15, an estimated 150,000 primary, high school, and tertiary students across the country walked out of class to protest the Australian government’s persistent inaction on climate change.
Ignoring calls from politicians, principals, and university leadership alike to remain in class, around 40,000 people in Melbourne joined approximately 1.6 million students across more than 100 countries in “sacrificing our education to save our future,” said 17-year-old Northcote High School student Marco Bellemo.
National Union of Students (NUS) President and University of Melbourne student, Desiree Cai, told Farrago that “school students have really taken the lead in ways that politicians and others haven’t.”
For Cai, the role of university students in the School Students 4 Climate (SS4C) protests is “to back up the movement that school students have created” and reinvigorate the need for students to get informed and involved in climate action.
Anger towards politicians and the systemic barriers to climate action were common themes throughout the day. The much-publicised derision of Prime Minister Scott Morrison was a source of frustration for school and university student strikers.
In advance of 2018’s November school climate strikes, Morrison said during Question Time that “kids should go to school… We do not support our schools being turned into Parliaments… What we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools.”
Federal Labor leader Bill Shorten also urged students to protest outside school hours and on weekends.
Cai told Farrago that the responses from the two major political parties were “really disappointing” and “out of touch” with the current political climate. The politicians’ responses proved that “direct action is what young people need to continue to do to hold politicians to account,” she said.
Speaking on behalf of the Australian Student Environment Network (ASEN) on March 15, University of Melbourne alum Tori Ball said, “If the government cares so much about education, they won’t keep cutting its funding.”
University and school leadership were also condemned by striking students as indecisive and cowardly in the face of climate crisis.
University of Melbourne students sent an open letter to Chancellery ahead of the strike, invoking the University’s own Sustainability Plan, and its commitment to “lead strongly and act decisively” on climate change. The letter requested Chancellery’s support for the climate walk-off, and further demanded: “i) a public commitment that no student or staff member will be penalised for joining the climate walk-off. ii) an official email to all staff and students advertising the 10:30am meeting point outside the Sidney Myer Asia Centre.”
Acting Vice-Chancellor Mark Considine responded to student demands by stating succinctly over email that “the University has agreed protocols which govern the use of [official communications]” and as such “this request falls outside those guidelines.
“It’s disappointing that university management haven’t come out in clear and explicit support of the students striking for climate justice,” UMSU President Molly Wilmott said in a previous statement to Farrago.
In contrast, the University of Sydney’s Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence wrote a campus-wide email in support of the climate strike, and agreed not to penalise staff or students leaving class to participate in the strike.
Similarly, the University of Technology Sydney asked “staff to make accommodations where possible, [sic] for students who miss classes,” citing its signatory status to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, to which the University of Melbourne is also a signatory.
Dozens of trade unions, including the Australian Education Union and the National Tertiary Education Union, the union for university staff, publicly endorsed the school students’ strike.
An open letter penned by Australian university students received over 250 signatures from academics, with 75 signatures from University of Melbourne staff offering their “support as academics to the school climate strike on March 15 and all those taking a stand for the future of the planet”.
Capturing the movement’s complex feelings of anger and hope, school student Bellemo made a point of acknowledging “all the voices of the people who have been silenced” in the international struggle for climate justice.
The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations- sponsored climate change research body, emphasised that even limiting temperature increase to 1.5 °C from pre-industrial levels would see a rise in extreme weather events such as droughts and flooding, and species and ecosystem extinctions.
Even this level of warming would trigger “climate- related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, [and] human security,” especially for the most vulnerable populations, the 2018 report read.
“We are demanding that our future is no longer exploited by the rich and powerful, and that we have clean land, air, and water,” Bellemo said.
For the student activists, in response to climate disaster “there’s nothing like a good yell,” Ball said, citing protest as one part of a “complex web of resistance”.
Speaking at the State Library on March 15, they said that tertiary students were “honoured to be following the lead of the primary and high school students who are taking the future into their own hands today.”
University students joined the strike in solidarity with, and upon invitation from school students. However, there was some confusion and conflict around the roles of university students and organisations in the organising and promotion of the March 15 strike.
In a Facebook group independent from the NUS, set up for “spreading the climate strike” to universities, members wrote about school student organisers’ disappointment about “prominent NUS Facebook pages and NUS posters that have appeared at O-weeks.”
“[They] look like they are calling a Uni Student Strike [sic] over the top of the school kids [sic] event on March 15, despite the fact it is clearly a uni student contingent to a pre- existing school event,” Adam Adelpour wrote after requests from school student organiser Jean Hinchcliffe for university groups supporting the strike to amend their messaging.
NUS Ethnocultural Officer and former University of Melbourne student Hersha Kadkol conceded on Facebook that the event with inaccurate messaging was “meant to be taken down.”
University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) Environment Officer, Will Ross, told Farrago that the university-level base-building for the SS4C strike was complicated by the differing agendas of student groups.
“It’s always a bit of a juggle between these groups,” Ross said, referring to both the campus and national student organisers.
Ahead of the Melbourne strike’s commencement at the Treasury Building, a contingent of university students gathered at the State Library of Victoria for speeches and to march down Swanston Street to the main rally.
Some attendees raised safety concerns around the University of Melbourne contingent’s march from campus to the State Library, which entailed marching down Swanston Street, with participants unexpectedly directed to sit down and block the busy Latrobe Street and Swanston Street intersection.
University of Melbourne student Matilda Elliott said that during the impromptu walk down Swanston Street “cars were narrowly driving around people, I personally didn’t feel safe there and I was worried for any new students who might have been too nervous to voice their safety concerns,” Elliott told Farrago.
“Next time we will do things differently,” Ross said, referencing the “unplanned” route. “There needs to be an easy way to get out of… this kind of improvised activity.” He also said that informed consent needs to be a priority in future actions.
Aside from the safety issues, Ross and Cai were both “blown away” by the strike’s attendance and high energy.
“I think the school-kids have the advantage of optimism and hope,” Ross said. University students are often “juggling too much” and instead feel a lot of “frustration around lack of action and justice” on climate change and student welfare. For young people, “looking forward to the rest of our lives,” there is often a sense of “terrifying hopelessness,” Cai said, citing government cuts to welfare, as well as the threat of runaway climate change. “Often in the student space, there are barriers [to protest]… 150,000 people is just a whole lot for students,” she said, referring to national attendance estimates for the strike.
Empowering students ahead of May’s federal election is a priority for the NUS, Unimelb Enviro Collective, and the SS4C movement. Getting “the university administration on board” with climate action is important for the Enviro Collective, with enrolling first-time voters a key action for NUS.
The SS4C movement will campaign to make the federal election a “climate election,” with the goal to elect representatives who will fulfil student demands of 100% renewable energy by 2030, stopping the Adani coalmine, and preventing all new coal and gas projects.
As a Castlemaine Secondary School student told the Melbourne crowd at the Treasury Building on May 15, “this strike is a representation of just what young people can achieve… But it’s not the end.”