In only a few months’ time and probably thanks to the zealous nature of online communities, Greta Thunberg has become a recognisable public figure and the Youth for Climate movement spread around the globe. It is a supposedly depoliticised and disengaged generation that takes to the streets in demand of decisive climate action. Having had a consistent impact on public debate the movement by now is more than a mere ephemeral whim and policymakers increasingly feel compelled to take a stance. So did the Greens in the European Parliament after a meeting with Greta Thunberg last week when Bas Eickhout, one of their lead candidates, pleaded to turn verbal commitment into tangible votes. Still, in the simple world of many politicians, the protests come down to little more than students’ desire to skip school – an argument reiterated by officials at a panel in Brussels two weeks ago.
Yes, the school strikes are an appropriate means to demand progressive climate policy. Not only are the students’ demands backed by an overwhelming consensus in the academic community, counterarguments that criticise the Fridays for Future movement are also largely toothless. They follow the long-trodden political strategy of delegitimising the source and subsequently shifting the focus of debate. A highly divisive argument about compulsory schooling subsequently entices us to make a judgement based on the form students choose for their political articulation rather than either its content or motivation.
Now, the question whether political activism even for a “good” cause provides sufficient grounds for school strikes is a very important one. Yet, having said this, the discussion about compulsory schooling shouldn’t overshadow the legitimate political interests of an entire generation for the way it chose to put them forward. If democracy lays a claim to inclusiveness, we as a society ought to take the opinions of largely disenfranchised students seriously – this, in essence, is the argument advanced here.
If democracy lays a claim to inclusiveness, we as a society ought to take the opinions of largely disenfranchised students seriously.
As regards the means students chose to articulate their political interests, there is a broader argument to be made and it relates to societies in the information-era. Climate change has become an item on national agendas – in an environment with a virtual infinite number of choices, this is an achievement in itself. Attention in modern societies is a scarce resource and has been directed to climate change not in spite of, but precisely because students chose school strikes over other forms of protest and advocacy. The strikes are a symbolic act that not only highlights the urgency of action after decades of mere lip service but also hint at the radical change that is required if we are to comply with internationally agreed targets. Historically, change tends to ride on the waves of symbolism and grand gestures, the Fridays for Future movement has given climate action just that: an example to follow and perhaps even a window of opportunity.
The recent deconstructive criticism of the movement, however, impairs our political engagement with the students and compromises efforts to incorporate the students’ demands into the democratic process. The kind of discourse we are having clearly matters. The current obsession with the form of the protests likely clouds our view of the science that time and again warns that the odds of an uninhabitable earth are rising with each year of indecisive action. Rain forests and species are already being lost at an unprecedented rate and weather patterns are becoming more extreme, damaging the livelihood of millions. This is reason enough to truly engage with the core of what students are demonstrating for, which starts by deconstructing some of the most common criticisms.
Argument I: The students are not genuine
Suggesting that what students are really after is skipping school appears to become the strategy of choice to discredit the movement – and increasingly so among conservatives. It is not only arrogant but also blatantly misses the point. Albert Rupprecht (alongside some teachers and principals), a spokesperson for the Union of CDU and CSU in the Bundestag, insisted on compulsory schooling and the fact that laws are being broken. This stance conveniently circumvents the students’ legitimate environmental concerns and allows to take the moral high ground. Challenges to the status quo like the Fridays for Future are the traditional antipode to reactionary forces that refuse to engage with content over concerns of missed classes. It also provides a welcome pretext to ignore the dire reality of progressing climate change that entails an estimated $20 Trillion of impending economic costs by the end of the century. The parallels to the popular Harry Potter series are perhaps unintentional but conspicuous nonetheless: in a world in which young Harry Potter warns of Lord Voldemort’s return, many seem to join Cornelius Fudge and the Ministry of Magic in disregarding the facts and discrediting the source.
Now, calling a source’s genuineness into doubt is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but that doesn’t make it a valid one. If it were, strikes and trade unions would be a mere manifestation of workers’ idleness. Yet, somehow we came to acknowledge and even protect them as vital elements of our social markets. There is hardly anyone who would dare to suggest workers to hold their strikes on Saturdays. Of course, students are different from workers, but politically speaking small leverage and a lack of institutionalised channels of influence are features that both groups share. As students find themselves at a disadvantaged position to effectively communicate their interests (after all, strikes of air traffic controllers have much greater clout), an inclusive democratic system has to be vigilant and ought to include them into the political process.
Parallels to 18th century England
For a democratic society, it is not only a moral imperative to include popular demands into the political process, it may be even wise to do so out of pure pragmatism and self-interest. In 18th century England, for instance, suffrage omitted large parts of society, yet farmers, traders, merchants, the gentry and lower aristocracy were not entirely disenfranchised as they could effectively petition parliament. This gave the English political system a more inclusive element and led to some degree of recognition of a broad spectrum of classes and people. Thanks to petitions, marginalised groups managed to break up inefficient trade monopolies held by wealthy industrialists and aristocrats. When small enterprises were allowed to enter the market, the industrial revolution was well underway. The point is that taking people’s opinions seriously has proven to be instrumental in economic development and the industrial revolution. Recognising the concerns of students, a group often not directly represented in political institutions, may therefore introduce new patterns of thought and incentives for change that create innovation in politics and beyond. A green energy sector (hailed by proponents of a “Green New Deal”) that creates jobs in a sustainable industry would be a compelling case in point.
Argument II: The students know too little to credibly argue their case
The second widely propagated argument is that students simply understand too little of our immensely complex economic system to credibly talk about environmental policy. This is an argument perhaps most commonly advanced by Christian Lindner, the leader of the German liberals (FDP). It is his party that also introduced the idea of “Mondays for the economy”, it is unnecessary to underline that most people dedicate most Mondays to the economy. Unfortunately, this is not the only issue with “lacking knowledge” argument. Fundamentally, if we only recognised the political interests of the most educated, senior or knowledgeable members of society, we would effectively seize to be a democracy and slide into technocracy or some kind of similar system. This is not an unpopular idea. American philosopher Jason Brennan for instance advocates weighed voting according to demonstrated knowledge on a topic or general education in a system he calls epistocracy. Nevertheless, if we are to defend and stand up for an inclusive democratic system we ought to effectively rule out the possibility of exclusion based on a lack of knowledge.
Parliamentary democracies, therefore , are clearly not based on their citizenry’s impeccable knowledge of economic and environmental affairs. They rather rely on the expertise provided by experts, lobbyists, scientists and policymakers in the formulation stage of legislation. And even if it was, countless UN reports and virtually the entire academic community corroborate not only the fears of the students but largely also their policy recommendations.
Will the protests lead to decisive action?
Unfortunately, none of the many arguments for determined policy action on climate change will matter if we refuse to engage with the deeper reasons behind the school strikes. An excessive and divisive discussion on the form of the protests is likely going to obstruct the debate around a sustainable future. Still, the fervour and symbolic significance of the protests elevated climate change to an issue of European-wide concern and, perhaps more importantly, puts the science behind it into the spotlight – a rare occurrence in a public discourse increasingly dominated by emotion and deluged with information. The protests also managed to convey the urgency of climate change and can provide a window of opportunity, in which a broad societal consensus for bold political action emerges. Once a popular majority emerges, parties will eventually realise the electoral potential and fall in line. For the current student movement to have a long-term impact environmental policy subsequently ought to become a constant in people’s political ideology – an item salient enough so that large parties can neither ignore nor defer it. As a result, we would see climate change becoming a European-wide political priority, whereby election campaigns feature comprehensive plans of environmental policy. This is the moment in which sustainable solutions for many of our future environmental challenges become politically viable. It is important to recognise criticism, yet politically motivated attacks unrelated to either content or motivation behind the demonstrations are likely to compromise the students’ capacity to act as a catalyst for this process of change.