Striking at the heart of the issue

Pupils in Hamburg, Germany take part in a protest calling for urgent measures to combat climate...
Pupils in Hamburg, Germany take part in a protest calling for urgent measures to combat climate change, earlier this month. Photo: Reuters.

Children are going on strike over their health and wellbeing while schools are still burning coal, writes Alex Macmillan. 

Alex Macmillan
Alex Macmillan
On Friday for the first time, young people from schools all over Dunedin will join the international movement of School Strikes 4 Climate. They're walking out of school because it's clear any future expectations in adulthood they are being taught to hold at school are being thoroughly undermined by reckless continued global inaction on climate change, including by schools themselves.

Young people can clearly see that most of the adults in their lives, as well as societal structures, are on no less than a genocidal journey: knowingly harming human health and wellbeing now, failing to step off the worst-case pathways towards the future collapse of human flourishing and continuing to party with coal, oil and gas like its 1899.

That would keep any adolescent awake at night, in the same way the threat of nuclear war kept many of us awake as teenagers in the 1980s. Similar to now, the terror of a full-scale nuclear war and its threat to young people's hopes for the future drove students out on the streets in protest and civil disobedience. It was these activities that led to our global leadership on nuclear policy.

The health harms of climate change are not just a future threat. They are affecting young people now.

Perhaps the biggest harm at the moment is to young people's mental wellbeing. We are seeing the burden of this in the health sector. Rapidly increasing numbers of young people are requiring mental health support from professional services that aren't available, especially for anxiety and depression. Recent informal surveys of university and polytechnic students around the country found that the top three concerns, regardless of location, consistently included mental health and climate change.

Burning coal, petrol, diesel and natural gas is already harming young people's physical health too. New Zealand has some of the world's highest rates of asthma, which is also on the rise. These breathing difficulties in children can be deadly, but also cause tens of thousands of days off school and visits to the doctor each year. The air pollution we create by continuing to burn coal for heating, and from car and truck exhausts is a major cause.

Smog hangs over Kaikorai Valley on a Monday morning. Photo: ODT files
Smog hangs over Kaikorai Valley on a Monday morning. Photo: ODT files
There is an exciting flipside to these examples. We can also see climate action as a huge opportunity for improving our children's health immediately, as well as their future prospects for wellbeing and fairness. By embracing easy, well-designed choices now we might yet be able to continue our expectation that each new generation has a higher quality of life than the one before - which is what we all long for as parents.

The strikes by young people in Dunedin are really, then, a sign that, in many ways, New Zealand's school system is doing an excellent job of education. The strikes must mean high quality science is being taught. And not only good science, but the skills to draw conclusions about what science means for the pupils' own lives and for society.

The strikes demonstrate that our schools must also be doing a good job at teaching our young people what it means to be citizens in a peaceful democratic country and what is involved in influencing change - not just out of self-interest, but with the good of everyone in mind. They are also learning to put their good judgement to effective use in recognising when ongoing government inaction is intolerable and harmful, and when the ordinary means of influencing as citizens have failed, calling for extraordinary action. All of these are great signs of a world-class education.

On the other hand, it's clear our schools and the education system are also behaving around climate change in ways that are morally untenable and very palpable to pupils.

In perhaps the most obvious and perverse example, more than half of Dunedin's school pupils are being taught science and health while their own school continues to burn coal to keep them warm in winter. The more than 1500tonnes of coal being burnt each year by 30 Dunedin schools is harming the health of their own pupils and their wider community, while poisoning the futures of all children by contributing to climate change.

Our schools have funding and choices. They're not stuck with burning coal. Some, like Logan Park High School have shown that it is affordable, technologically realistic and healthy to make a switch to low-carbon forms of heating such as waste wood chip or heat pumps. Others, like Waitati School, have seen that they can't keep claiming leadership as Enviroschools while continuing to hold an inconsistent position on coal burning, and have reprioritised existing funding to live up to their publicly-stated values of pupil and planetary wellbeing.

As the largest teaching institution in the city, the University of Otago has also already committed to making this shift for the same reasons of avoiding scientific hypocrisy and improving the health of the whole city. When the university explored the alternatives, it became clear that Dunedin is well-placed with an abundance of forestry and other renewable energy sources to provide for healthy, climate-friendly heating for the city, including its schools.

While the schools do have freedom to prioritise how they choose to spend their budgets, barriers to change are coming from central government. The Ministry for Education has a major blind spot in considering the impacts on children's health and wellbeing of how schools operate and what they choose to buy, whether direct effects on campus or wider community air pollution effects of practices like burning coal.

Fixing this requires a whole of government shift towards taking more into account than just the short-term financials when choosing what to spend government money on. This year's Wellbeing Budget and the Government's new rules for buying goods and services will both be huge opportunities for removing the kinds of "partying on with fossil fuels" that coal burning by schools represents. Both hopeful shifts will need to be very focused on accountability to young people that society is consistently, urgently and effectively taking action towards protecting their healthy climate future.

Burning coal in schools cannot be reconciled with a healthy climate future for our children, nor with pupils' own understandings of the importance of climate change. It's not surprising that pupils are feeling desperate enough to strike in the face of destructive moral contradictions such as these. Of all organisations, our schools should be showing consistency with the science they are teaching - supporting action on climate change and demonstrating healthy social leadership.

Alex Macmillan is a public health physician, senior lecturer in the University of Otago Department of Preventive and Social Medicine and co-convener of OraTaiao: NZ Climate and Health Council. Each week in this column, one of a panel of writers addresses issues of sustainability.


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