Strongest hurricane in recorded history, hottest summer, unprecedented mass bleaching of the coral reef… we have grown accustomed to deal in superlatives. Since 1970, the number of natural disasters worldwide has more than quadrupled to around 400 a year. Scientists have warned us about the extreme weather phenomena climate change causes, but we have become desensitised, numb to the impending disaster.
If we do not change course, it is estimated that 122 million people will be driven into poverty by 2030. By 2050, some 200 million people worldwide will be driven from their homes by climate change. But there is also hope, as our students in particular demonstrate the leadership that too many world leaders are refusing to show.
This is not a one-country problem. We see worrying changes all over the world. In my native Australia, the weather has become a procession of extremes and records. We experienced temperatures over 48 degrees last summer – that’s 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The Great Barrier Reef, one of the natural wonders of the world, suffered unparalleled destruction in 2016 and 2017. This resource is critical to ocean life and food production and now there are serious concerns about saving the reef at all.
Politicians have failed. In the face of this greatest crisis of our times, our leaders have utterly disappointed. In Australia, emissions from fossil fuels and industry are increasing rather than the 15–17 percent decrease required to meet our global commitments; in the United States, the Trump administration has withdrawn completely from the Paris Agreement; in Brazil, the Bolsonaro administration rolled back environmental protections and passively watched as the number of illegal fires in the Amazon rainforest grew by more than 80 percent in just one year. All for profit.
The short-sightedness, the inaction of politicians and governments in the face of profiteering is not neutral. It is deliberate. It is reckless, especially by high-income countries like my own. Their failure and thus their complicity are our responsibility and our challenge.
But our young people are rising to this challenge; the generation whose futures politicians refuse to think about. They paid attention to the science, recognised the danger and came up with the Fridays for Future movement. They mobilised, organised, persisted. They are leading the way, pushing politicians to stop prioritising profit over people.
Greta Thunberg, the climate activist and student from Sweden, who took her own stand and is now a leader of the student movement, challenged us all, and our politicians in particular, when she recently said: “Hope is something you need to deserve… If we decided today that we were going to go through with combating climate change, then we definitely could do that. But only if we choose to and if we take the measures required.”
In March, an estimated 1.4 million people in 120 countries, most of them teenage students, participated in a global strike demanding politicians take action against climate change. In May, a Global Climate Strike involved more than a million people in more than 1,600 cities, again, a significant number being students.
For the next seven days, the movement will mobilise all over the world for the Global Week of Climate Action. With the United Nations Climate Summit taking place on the 23rd of September, it is crucial that politicians feel the pressure, the voices that will not be ignored or silenced, the will that refuses to bend to short-sighted commercial and political interests.
As educators, we could not be prouder of our students for their civic mobilisation, the solidarity and maturity they have demonstrated, the example they have set for all of us. We cannot leave them alone in this battle. We must add our voices and make politicians listen and put people and the planet before profit.
The fight begins in the classroom. At Education International’s World Congress in July, representatives of 32 million educators made combating climate change one of our top priorities. Delegates passed resolutions reaffirming the essential role of education in bringing about a just transition to a more sustainable world and calling for more international cooperation in terms of climate research and technologies.
We agreed that education plays a key role in the much-needed individual and collective changes to our attitudes, behaviour and lifestyles. Education can help people to understand, respond, adapt and reduce their vulnerability to environmental problems.
We pledged to make classrooms across the world free of climate change denial, to push for upgrading our education systems in order to encourage more sustainable lifestyles and to ensure that our students have the skills they need so that a just transition to a greener economy is possible.
We promised to “stand in full solidarity with all students striking or protesting against climate change” and to “oppose any reprisals against students taking action to fight climate change”. Because we believe that the rights to strike and protest are fundamental democratic rights for students and workers alike, we called on schools not to take action against students standing up for the planet and their future.
Our students can also count on us for this Global Week of Climate Action. Whether they will join the protests in the streets or stop work in solidarity, lobby their government or discuss the issue in class, I know many of my colleagues will be showing their support.
Next week I will go to the United Nations in New York to declare a climate emergency in education. There is no time to lose. Schools urgently need to become sites of climate action. This means updating our curriculum to address all aspects of climate science and sustainability across subjects. It means providing all educators with training and continuous professional development to be able to present the facts and push back against anti-scientific attacks. It means implementing sustainable practices within schools themselves. And it means convincing governments of the imperative to provide adequate resources for this systemic change.
It is our responsibility as educators to prepare our students for the world. It is our responsibility as educators to convey the truths of climate change and to call out the lies. Let’s build on the formidable momentum young people have created and help them take it further.