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The problem with students' climate change activism

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We should applaud the striking students' actions on climate change, but if they want a green future they need to stop seeing things in black and white.

Schoolchildren have every right and incentive to march for urgent action on climate change. We should applaud their advocacy. It may indeed give adults an extra prod of guilt to back meaningful change.

Yet the students’ demands for immediate action would mean a very bleak future if suddenly implemented. They’re right that it has taken far too long to address the planet’s catastrophic climate trajectory. However, there’s a reason climate action needs careful consideration: governments must work out how to save the planet without destroying the fabric of people’s lives, creating poverty and perhaps even endangering civilisation as we know it.

Advocates such as Sweden’s Extinction Rebellion heroine Greta Thunberg need to understand where black-and-white advocacy could lead. Many of the things young people enjoy as their entitlements would be heavily proscribed, even prohibited. Very high on the priorities list for strict rationing or banning is air travel, with its burning of aviation fuel. Yet younger generations have experienced international school trips and holidays abroad far more than older generations did, and there are some hard decisions ahead if they wish to act with moral authority.

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Yes, it might be difficult for some of today’s students to safely bike or walk to school instead of being dropped off in gas-guzzling vehicles. However, older generations safely used a whole range of planet-saving devices. These include such things as push mowers. Push mowers? They’re contraptions devised by adults to consume teenagers’ entire weekends keeping lawns trimmed and, as a result, fit for backyard cricket. Backyard cricket? That’s what neighbourhood kids once did in lieu of holidaying in Fiji.

And how would today’s youngsters go with rationing of IT devices? They’re affordable and disposable must-have items, but would become scarce and expensive if we’re to reduce the massive use of both plastic and other manufactured materials and mined resources such as metals and minerals.

Fast fashion and its sister, cheap fashion, both cause huge inorganic waste, including micro-particle ocean pollution. Much of today’s cosmetic and sparkly fun merchandise would be banned, since their production and later dumping are harmful. As for getting a puppy, pony or kitten for Christmas, some climate-change experts advocate outlawing domestic pets because of their carbon footprint.

Food production is another minefield. There would be far fewer foods on our shelves if we counted all air miles and ate only items that were produced locally, seasonally and carbon-neutrally. Fast-food steak burgers could be off the menu altogether.

Sure, we would all benefit from fewer processed foods. But the modern, youthful habit among the more privileged of curating one’s food “lifestyle” would become quite the mission. No more imported quinoa, tofu and other vegan protein staples.

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Our own food production would likely fall and become costlier, given restrictions on petrol, fertiliser, pesticides and imported machinery. A rapid transition here to a minimal dairy industry and vastly reduced tourism sector would beggar our economy and leave few households unscathed.

Even if our young future voters were willing to put themselves and their families through that, what of other countries with fewer options and natural food-growing resources than our own?

Which brings us to geopolitics. Would protesters demand, for example, that the Chinese Government put its children’s drastic improvement in living standards into backward thrust to curb China’s massive carbon output?

The protesting students do us proud with their social awareness and willingness to think deeply about difficult issues. Yet the toughest lesson is that – short of brutal totalitarianism – difficult or painful economic and policy changes can take place only in stages, and are effective only if they come with a degree of consensus, incentives and transitional assistance. If not carefully managed, they can create gross new inequalities, hardship and even warfare.

In the end, a quality education is the surest way to ensure the innovations we need for a new energy future. We want well-educated students to research such things as hydrogen-based cars and the new-era batteries essential for air travel with, perhaps, lightweight energy cells capable of turning tiers of small propellers for high-altitude cruising. Taking vocal action to ensure students have high-quality, well-paid teachers is one of the best ways to ensure the future of the planet.

Sacrifices will still need to be made. But let’s be clear that the sacrifices students are demanding of adults will affect all lives. And not least their own.

This editorial was first published in the June 8, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.