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Youth In Revolt: the teens at the forefront of Canberra’s climate activism

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Greta Thunberg might be a household name across the world. But closer to home, young Canberran activists are changing the way our city thinks—and making themselves heard in the process.

In October, journalist Sarah Wilson took to the stage at the National Press Club for her Women in Media address: Young people are despairing…is it anxiety or a lack of resilience epidemic?

In a speech broadcast live across the country, Wilson tackled the issues of device addiction, our obsession with perfect, opportunity-saturated childhoods, and one of Generation Z’s most difficult hurdles—anxiety around climate change, or ‘eco-anxiety’.

“No matter your stance on the pending ‘human extinction event’—as it’s being euphemistically put—life is set to become more uncomfortable and uncertain,” said Wilson. “We will all need to get a whole lot more resilient.”

“I spoke to climate psychologist Margaret Klein Salamon in Manhattan who pointed out there is no way we’re going to be able to hide from news feeds as millions, possibly billions, die, mostly from starvation and civil unrest, in coming decades. She also flagged dealing with any kind of trauma requires first facing the truth. As adults we should know this.”

But, according to Wilson, perhaps the most telling and encouraging—and confronting—phenomenon is the way in which young people are and driving action.

“Being engaged is one of the best salves [for dealing with anxiety] but in this case it needs to be two-fold. We need to be engaged on the individual level … [to] keep the notion of hope moving forward.”

Dickson College student Matilda Webb couldn’t agree more. In her final year of school, Matilda is balancing final exams with activism, having become a lead organiser with the Canberra School Strike 4 Climate (SS4C), the organisation driving Canberra’s city-wide school strikes.

Originally inspired to join SS4C after attending the 15 March student climate strike, Matilda has since helped organise the 3 May climate strike and the 20 September global climate strike in Canberra. When I ask Matilda if she relates to the idea of protest as a salve to eco-anxiety, her words echo Wilson’s.

“I definitely relate. Personally, I have found organising climate strikes and being involved in the movement has really helped in dealing with eco-anxiety.”

“Being surrounded by thousands of passionate and like-minded people at the September Global Climate strike gave me hope that we can and will make the change necessary to combat the climate crisis.”

Has she found her parents and other adults supportive?

“Although my parents are not what some would call ‘activists’ they are highly involved in the community and volunteer for local sporting groups and the environment,” says Matilda.

“My parents are highly supportive of my activism and have attended all the big climate strikes in Canberra. I have found adults in Canberra support rather than oppose my activism and have been told that seeing young people so passionate and motivated about this issue is inspiring and gives them hope that we will make the change that is needed.”

However, while she has found support within her community, Matilda and fellow school strikers have found little common ground with those in power.

Not to mention a generous helping of condescension and vitriol from those who see the strikes as pointless, such as Resources Minister Matt Canavan who told 2GB that “The best thing you’ll learn about going to a protest is how to join the dole queue … Because that’s what your future life will look like, up in a line asking for a handout, not actually taking charge for your life and getting a real job”.

Matilda, however, has no intention of stopping.

“We have three key demands for our government,” she says. “No new coal, oil and gas projects (including the Adani mine), 100% renewable energy generation and exports by 2030 and for the government to fund a just transition and job creation plan for all fossil-fuel workers and their communities.”

When I ask what Matilda what she would have said had she been at the recent UN Climate Change Summit, she cuts to the heart of the debate.

“I would have called out Scott Morrison for not attending the UN Summit. I would have called out his hypocrisy at calling our Pacific neighbours’ ‘family’ while simultaneously committing to policy which will hurt them.”

“350,000 people striked on September 20th for a reason. Over 400,000 people signed a petition to declare a climate emergency. Australians need you to step up, the world needs you to step up and listen to the science.”

“Don’t you have confidence in the Australian economy to be resilient to the changes we must make? Because I do. Australia has a strong, vibrant economy because it is constantly changing—in my lifetime the growth in jobs has been in education, tourism, healthcare and other services, not mining, manufacturing and agriculture.”

However, despite Matilda’s conviction, she’s keenly aware that while protest is an important agent for change it’s not the final answer.

“We are not scientists, we are students—we want our politicians to listen and act on scientific advice,” she says. “Australia is in a privileged position when it comes to the ability for action on climate change. We want our politicians to recognise not only the consequences of inaction but the benefits and responsibility of becoming a world leader in climate action.”

Stock image.

If Millennials have a reputation for inward-looking behaviour, Generation Z—those born between 1995 and 2010—will likely have it far worse as common ground shrinks between the older and younger generations. Already, it’s becoming harder to overlook the ‘us and them’ aspect of the climate debate.

Last month, Millennial New Zealand politician Chlöe Swarbrick made headlines around the world when she rebuffed an older MPs heckling with “Okay, boomer”. In late September, Prime Minister Scott Morrison responded to activist Greta Thunberg’s now-famous ‘How Dare You’ speech at the aforementioned UN Climate Summit by warning against youth anxiety about climate change.

“I want children growing up in Australia to feel positive about their future,” he said. “I think we’ve got to caution against raising the anxieties of children in our country.”

But if the Prime Minister assumes children’s anxieties aren’t already raised, he’d only have to talk to 12-year-old Anya Khan. A Year 7 student at Canberra High School, Anya remembers the moment she realised she wanted take personal action against climate change.

“I had always seen climate change as a serious problem, but not one that I could actually help to stop. I kind of lost hope in our system for failing us this bad.

“But when I saw news about the global climate strikes in November last year, I realised that there was hope. I felt empowered to make changes in my life and to start protesting.”

Like Matilda, Anya was also inspired by the 15 March school strike, joining the ranks of Canberra School Strike 4 Climate.

“Since then I have helped to organise our 3 May and 20 September actions by doing the traffic management and permits,” she says.

When I ask where she sees herself in five years, Anya reminds me that she’ll still be in school—Year 12, in fact. A young adult, with the right to vote. So, will she still be striking if need be?

“I hope that I won’t still have to be striking and that the government will have gotten its act together. If not, I will still be organising these strikes and I will still be fighting for my future.”

Stock image.

Fighting for the future is a phrase Kate Grimwood can empathise with.

A Year 12 student at Daramalan College, Kate has been involved in a number of climate-related movements, including attending Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) meetings, the September 20 global climate strike and a student rally at Parliament House that called on the board of Australia’s Future Fund to move away from investments in the fossil fuel industry.

At 17, Kate will soon have the right to vote. However, she sees direct action as an empowering way to make her voice heard—and an essential way to empower those like Anya who won’t be able to vote for the best part of a decade.

“We are the ones who are going to be living in the future,” says Kate. “We are also using direct action movements like rallies and social media to make our voice known in a time when many will not listen to us. We cannot vote, so we feel like this is the best and really the only way we have to express our views and hopefully inspire a change.”

Having attended an Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) bootcamp in October (“an incredible experience”) Kate says she feels prepared for the future.

“The camp taught me about what AYCC has done in the past as well as what they plan to do in the future, including holding more student rallies and creating plans to aid the Stop Adani [movement],” says Kate. “I want to support these steps whole-heartedly because these are things I and many other students believe in.”

As to whether the older generations are taking the fight against climate change seriously enough, Kate is thoughtful.

“I have seen both sides,” she says. “There are many people in the older generation who are supportive, including my 70-year-old grandmother and her sisters who participated in the August rallies and some of the teachers at my school who support students in their social justice movements.”

“However, there is also an unfortunate subsection of people who either don’t believe climate change is a big problem or are apathetic to the problem. I don’t know if it’s because they won’t be around to experience the effects, so it doesn’t matter if they do anything about it—but that’s an incredibly toxic attitude.”

But just like Matilda and Anya, Kate won’t be giving up anytime soon.

“I hope that [in five years] I will have finished university and be using my knowledge and my educational privilege to assist in the fight for climate justice.”

As Matilda puts it, this is just the beginning.

“Although our government at the moment refuses to listen to us and the science, our voices are rising—change is coming. Australia can be at the forefront of this movement.”

Photography: Stock imagery

This article originally appeared in Magazine: Shine for Summer 2019/20, available for free while stocks last. Find out more about Magazine here.

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