Youth Climate Strike: the depressing right-wing reaction to the protests

The reaction of some (mainly right and centre-right) public figures to the climate protests has been revealing and depressing in equal measure. It is clear that many still do not recognise that climate change cannot be treated as ‘just another political debate.’ The science is unequivocal; without a swift programme of decarbonisation we will be faced with climate breakdown and a litany of associated horrors. Here are some thoughts on seven of the criticisms of the protests I have come across over the past two days.

Criticism #1: ‘Unauthorised absence from school should not be encouraged and therefore the protests should not be endorsed.’ This shows a lack of appreciation of the severity of the problem we are facing. We risk making the earth uninhabitable; if a group of children missing a day of school can spark a public conversation about what we can do to combat climate change, then it is well worth it.

Criticism #2: ‘If this were a right-wing protest you would not support the children leaving school. You should apply the same standard in this case, and therefore the protest should not be endorsed.’ This view fails to appreciate that climate change is not like other political debates. The science is clear; our current trajectory will lead us to climate breakdown. This is not really a question of partisan politics. The protesters are urging us to accept the scientific reality of climate change and create a political reality that aligns with this scientific understanding. Comparisons with Brexit- or migration-focused protests rely on a false equivalence.

Criticism #3: ‘For most of the children, this was just an excuse to skip school. They don’t actually care about the environment. The protests should not be endorsed.’ The problem with this view is that it acts as a catch-all for any and all forms of political expression by young people. School age children do not have the political power or platform to make themselves heard, except through this kind of direct action. If they are ignored on the basis that some people doubt their motives, young people are left with no means of political expression whatsoever. Like every other societal group, young people have a right to be listened to.

Criticism #4: ‘They should have protested at the weekend instead. Their truancy should not be endorsed and therefore, neither should the protests.’ I don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that one of the main reasons the protests got so much media traction is because of the civil disobedience the children demonstrated by walking out of school. Again, the need for a radical policy response to climate change is far more important than the one day of school that these students missed.

Criticism #5: ‘The protesters are claiming that nothing has been done to combat climate change. This is untrue and, given this misinformation, the protests should not be endorsed.’ Yes, we have made some progress on mitigating our environmental impacts. However, it is nowhere near enough to prevent runaway climate change. Without a far more radical global policy response, we will see climate breakdown in a matter of decades. There is little practical difference between an inadequate policy programme and no policy programme when it comes to climate change. Our current climate policies are completely inadequate and it is therefore fair to protest on the basis that ‘nothing is being done’.

Criticism #6: ‘The SWP joined these protests and some of the children held up their signs. This group is beyond the pale and therefore the protests should not be endorsed.’ This is an unfair criticism given that the children are obviously not regular protesters and can’t reasonably be expected to know about the SWP and its parasitic tactics. Yes, it is a vile organisation, but to ignore the whole protest on the basis that the SWP did what the SWP does once again leaves young people without a means to express their views.

Criticism #7: ‘Young people cause environmental damage, therefore this is a hypocritical protest that should not be endorsed.’ If for a second we imagine that this is a criticism offered in good faith, the kindest thing that can be said about it is that it shows a poor grasp of the scale of the global environmental degradation that global politics is currently facilitating. The environmental damage caused by the protesters, or young people more generally on an individual level, is very clearly not equivalent to the environmental chaos produced by the current global political system.

To finish, here is one reasonably common view expressed by political commentators who are more sympathetic to the protests. ‘The conservative party’s reaction to the protests has been a media disaster and will play badly with young people.’ This may be true, but once again it depressingly treats climate breakdown as a subplot in a political drama. Maybe the conservative party should be worried that its reaction to the climate strike will play poorly with young voters. It should be more worried that its inaction will cause catastrophic climate breakdown.

The youth climate strike has rightly generated a wave of optimism among environmentalists. It has given us a brief glimpse of the strength of feeling among young people on climate change. It has also clearly illustrated the barriers this new generation of environmentalists face.