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Will the 'Greta Thunberg effect' influence election day 2020?

Could youthful climate strikers and their supporters prove a force at the ballot box?

For a few days there, it almost felt like climate activists had our attention.

It would have been hard to miss the appearance of Greta Thunberg at the United Nations, where the Swedish 16-year-old berated world leaders over their climate-change inaction. Thunberg’s angry glare and strident language cut through the usual diplomatic niceties, and even the ever-escalating political firestorms raging on either side of the Atlantic.

Something special was required to divert the world’s media even briefly from the unpredictable antics of Donald Trump in the United States and Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, as tides seemed to be turning against them both, but Thunberg’s super-charged indignation did the trick.

A week later, many thousands of our own indignant young people and their supporters flooded the streets on a day of climate-strike protests across the country, though few locally seemed to share the Swede’s physical manifestations of pent-up fury: that pursed mouth and thousand-watt stare. High spirits were predominant and smiles common among the teens seen dashing to the march in Auckland, and in the television pictures and news photos. Many of them seemed particularly delighted with their handmade placards, although some of the pop-culture references would have flummoxed most of the fogies who the marchers want to jolt into action.

The sheer weight of numbers cascading through city centres was impressive, whether or not you accept the organisers’ claim that 170,000 marched nationwide. And together with Thunberg’s rhetoric, the protests drew a wide range of responses.

Predictably, much of the older commentariat wasn’t going to be lectured to by a bunch of kids. Here in New Zealand, one broadcaster critiqued Thunberg’s performance as “too dramatic”, and a columnist compared her to Pippi Longstocking. The latter’s piece on Stuff was headed “I’ll listen to teens on climate change when they do the dishes”, a line that deserves to go in the Things Dads Say hall of fame, alongside that classic relating home-ownership rates to wanton consumption of smashed avocado.

National’s Judith Collins, who reportedly plans to vote against the Government’s Zero Carbon Bill, reckoned the activists’ “little protest is not going to help the world one bit”, and suggested they would grow out of their concern. “Every generation has its thing,” she sagely observed.

Related articles: Misogyny, male rage and the words men use to describe Greta Thunberg | Thousands around NZ take part in Climate Strike | Bill Ralston: Give Greta Thunberg the Nobel Peace Prize

Climate strikers on Queen St, Auckland, 27 September 2019. Photo/Ken Downie.

Others of us with a few years on the clock well understood the reflex inclination to pooh-pooh what Thunberg and the climate-strike marchers had to say. As grumpy old men and women, we’re duty-bound to pour cold water on whatever latest fad the young people are excited about.

But in this instance, some of us were instead left with wrinkly lines where our mouths used to be.

That was for two reasons. Firstly, because we realise that in this case the young people are right to be raising a ruckus, no matter how much we wish it were otherwise. (As if on cue, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had arrived on the eve of the climate-strike protests, relating the latest grim analysis on the future of the planet’s oceans and frozen regions. It showed sea levels are rising at 3.6 mm a year – more than twice as fast than during the 20th century – and the rise is accelerating.)

Secondly, we have an idea how hard it will be to bring about meaningful change, knowing too well how reluctant our generation has been to embrace environmental measures – or any measures, really – that carry any kind of immediate economic cost, and the strength of the well-funded lobby groups that so stridently oppose them. The fear of something hitting us in our own wallets has a powerful electoral influence, particularly when stoked by politicians and others with their own interests to protect.

We also know that any government getting really serious about climate change can expect not crowds of teenagers but the throb of John Deere machinery in our main thoroughfares, as the rural sector, among others, makes its opposition forcefully known.  

But should the climate-strike crowds give us cause for hope that priorities are about to shift? Maybe. By one analysis, on the Bloomberg site, there might already have been a “Greta Thunberg effect” in Europe, where the European Commission has made the climate crisis its top priority, Germany’s Angela Merkel recently backed a $US60 billion package of climate policies, and Austria’s Green Party enjoyed a tripling of election support, winning 14% of the vote.

Conversely, it’s been suggested youth-adjacent Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a polling hit among younger voters of more than 10% after a meeting with Thunberg, who said he wasn’t doing enough on climate change.

Greta Thunberg. Photo/Getty.
You can assume the kombucha corks would be popping big-time at the New Zealand Green Party headquarters if it could ride a Thunberg-effect or similar to the giddy Austrian heights of 14% or more.

One change that might help the Greens boost their support beyond last election’s 6.27% and thereby carry more sway over climate policy would be a lowering of the voting age to 16, enfranchising more of those climate-strike hordes.

The idea has been promoted in a Make it 16 campaign supported by the Children’s Commissioner, Judge Andrew Becroft, among others, and included in a member’s bill being put forward by MP Golriz Ghahraman.

“They’re allowed to leave home, learn to drive, work and pay taxes; they should be allowed to elect politicians making decisions about their future,” said party co-leader James Shaw, while naturally insisting the Greens’ stance isn’t about expanding their voter base. 

He claimed to want other parties competing for the youth vote. “Because that’s where you get the shifts in policy – not from a small party like the Greens,” he said, striking a surprisingly unaspirational note. Even if the big parties aren’t going to support a lowering of the voting age, can he not envisage the Greens growing into a, say, medium-sized party if views on climate change start to swing?

Some reluctance to start counting on demographic shifts to deliver ballot-box bounty might be understandable. Hopes on the left of a “youthquake” surge of voting by young people in the 2017 – after Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party benefited from just that in the UK – proved unwarranted, when only just over half of young New Zealanders bothered to vote. 

And however much the Greens might hope for a “Thunberg effect”, nobody knows whether the spike of attention won for climate change in late September 2019 will have a sustained effect through to polling day 2020. 

In the meantime, politics goes on as usual.

On the other side of the aisle of the broad-church Ardern Government, for example, Winston Peters bounced back from a surgery-related absence to continue his wooing of a different demographic entirely to the one preoccupied with climate change.

His cantankerously unwoke views on subjects such as the allegations of sexual assault against a former Labour staffer (“a disgraceful orgy of speculation and innuendo”) and, when the British expressed formal regret at Māori deaths during first encounters 250 years ago, the Māori track record regarding loss of life in bygone eras (“not … as pure as the driven snow”) are music to the ears of his customary target audience.

His older supporters will also have lapped up his re-announcement of a $7.7 million website upgrade and app for the SuperGold Card for over-65s, even if all the relevant details had already been revealed before May’s Budget, and one of the attendees interviewed by TV3 at the launch had trouble remembering what a smartphone was called.

It’s not always subtle, but perhaps the Greens could learn a bit from Peters’ well-honed strategic pursuit of a group that feels disregarded – patronised, even – by the two big parties.

If Shaw and co could similarly motivate the young climate-strikers, their supporters and their contemporaries to turn out in force come election day, maybe there’s a chance the action demanded on all those placards really could become the non-negotiable “bottom line” that everyone’s talking about when the votes are counted. 

This article was first published in the November 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.