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Letter to student climate strikers

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Letter to student climate strikers

To students who have gone on strike for the climate:

First, I want to thank you. Thank you for taking initiative and speaking honestly about the climate crisis. It was very refreshing and inspiring for me, someone thirty-one years old, to see you using your own voices in your own way, speaking the truth about the world you are growing up in.

For the rest of this letter, I want to offer some reflections from my work on environmental issues from the last decade or so, which has included improving environmental practices at a university, then being a journalist focusing on climate politics, and sometimes being a fundraiser.

You already seem to know that adults don't have all the answers to the climate crisis. And that's a great start. We need to do things differently if we’re going to make big changes, and you're already shaking up the scene.  

The environmental movement in recent decades has, to be honest, not been very successful at stopping environmental destruction. Forests keep getting cut, and carbon emissions keep going up. However, that doesn't mean there isn't a lot to learn from people who have done environmental work in the past. There have been some notable successes.

I'm not going to reflect on what has been effective and not in this little letter. Lots of groups doing environmental work, especially groups based in cities, will tell you they have good strategies, and that what they're doing makes a difference. But before you really commit your time to one of those groups, I encourage you to get them to prove to you that what they're doing works. And be critical. Don't just believe them. Do your research. 

For example, some environmental groups will tell you they made this big forest agreement on the west coast happen, called the Great Bear Rainforest agreement. In fact, it was Indigenous people blockading logging routes that actually brought government to the table and made the agreement possible. Environmental groups and logging businesses signed an agreement without Indigenous people there, and then claimed it was a victory. 

As another example, some environmental groups will tell you they got what they wanted from the Paris Agreement. But some fossil fuel companies, whose business is based on continuing to emit carbon and making climate change worse, have also said they got what they wanted from Paris. Which side is right?

It's up to you, in your own community, to figure out which people and groups to support with your time and energy.   

And if the groups that exist right now aren't able to do the work that you see is needed, start your own. Put forward bold ideas, and build networks of people who can help you make sure these things happen.

One thing that might happen as you begin to organize is that you'll get to meet with politicians. This can feel like a big step, a victory, an opportunity to get your message across. Unfortunately, these talks often don't lead to action. Fossil fuel companies are also meeting with politicians, telling them we need fossil fuels. Who are the politicians going to listen to? How are you going to make sure they do what's needed for the climate?

I'm really impressed so many of you have gone out on strikes. The strike has been a really powerful tool throughout history. Refusing to go to school or work makes it hard for business as usual to continue. In Quebec in 2012, for example, university students didn't like that the government was raising the cost of education. They went on a very long strike, and eventually won a lot of the things they wanted. But it wasn't easy, and it wasn't as big an issue as climate is. But the tactic of a strike is one that can be really useful. I'd encourage you to learn more about it, and also about other tactics that can be used to make your voice heard and change things for the better.

Related to this, it's important to be aware that there are very powerful forces that want us stuck on fossil fuels. They might not like what you're doing. They want to drill for oil in new places, frack for more gas underground, and build new pipelines. They don't want you to get in the way. They don't want you to get in the way on the land or at their corporate headquarters. They won't want to hear from you unless they can easily ignore you. But we need to get in the way, and be impossible to ignore. I want you to be aware though: there are people out there who will try to hurt you if you get in the way of fossil fuel development. There are ways to be prepared for this, and it's important to learn them.

Connected to that: be ready to do this work long-term. Too many activists burnout, becoming either physically or mentally exhausted from putting themselves under lots of stress. Take care of yourself and take care of each other. Check in with your friends and family. And make sure you're never so much in the middle of everything that you can't step away. 

Here's an example of that. Let's say you're part of a group running a fossil fuel divestment campaign, and either you got sick, or had to leave (to take care of a family member, for a job, whatever). Are there other people who can continue the campaign, or will it fizzle out when you aren't involved? Being the only person carrying something is a lot of pressure on you, and in most cases it doesn't need to be like that. There are ways that have been developed to share leadership and get lots more people involved.

Back to the topic of not trusting everything adults say: when adults in positions of power talk about climate, economics often come up. Sometimes this turn makes conversations hard to follow because complicated-sounding terms are used, like "marginal rate of return" and "discount rate." When people say "this is the most cost effective way to reduce emissions," we need to interrogate their proposals. Economics is not what's called a "hard science," like chemistry or atmospheric sciences, which observe physical nature. Economics is a soft science that attempts to make judgements and predictions about human behaviour and values. This means that economic projections are always based on many, many assumptions. Bring those assumptions into the light, and don't let bogus assumptions become an excuse for inaction. The fate of the planet is too important for that.

The last reflection I'll mention is about individual versus collective actions. Making better environmental choices in our lives is good, but it should not be all your effort. You'll get really frustrated. Take electric cars, for example. If your family buys an electric car that doesn't burn fossil fuels, there are still a couple potential problems, in addition to the car being too expensive for lots of people. First, there are a lot of emissions that go into manufacturing any car. Second, the power plants that make the electricity you use in that car could be from renewable low-carbon sources, or it could be from coal, gas, or oil. So manufacturing and driving that electric car might still create a lot of emissions. As another example, let's say if you recycle at home, but your city doesn't have good recycling facilities. A lot of your recycling may end up in the landfill anyway. The answer is not to despair, the answer is to get organized with other people and demand that these bigger things change. Demand that we have alternative options to cars in our cities, more renewable energy sources, better recycling systems. Demand the big changes, instead of shaming yourself and other people for their choices in this world we've built around fossil fuels.   

You and I need to imagine the future we want and build it. The way things are set up right now is taking us towards climate disaster. I'm so grateful you've taken action already, and I can't wait to see what comes next. Me and a whole bunch of folks slightly older than you would be super happy to talk and share lessons, just get in touch. Solidarity!


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David Gray-Donald (David Gray-Donald)
montreal and toronto
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