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Politics Climate Protest

Published on November 10th, 2015 | by Eleanor Newis
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Climate Change Policy At 21

Back in September, the Australian government produced a leaflet for teachers which taught them how to identify extremism and radicalism in their students. An example student used throughout this leaflet was an environmental activist, who was also apparently into what they dubbed, the “alternative music scene”. The Radicalisation Awareness Kit was intended to root out cases of violent extremism, of danger; it was even introduced by Michael Keenan, the Justice Minister and also the Minister responsible for counter-terrorism in Australia. Now, the student in question is named “Karen”. She apparently had a “loving family”, yet in a “teenage rebellion that went further than most” became linked to this nefarious “alternative music scene, student politics and leftwing activism.” God forbid, huh?

As Karen’s story continues, I can’t help but feeling that she is startlingly similar to myself and to quite a few of my friends: for instance, she felt she was “doing the right thing” by attending an environmental protest. The only real difference between the fictional Karen and my peer group is that Karen apparently left university to pursue living full time in a forest camp to disrupt logging activities – which, actually, sounds like a welcome change to churning out essays. Karen eventually joins a mainstream environmental group after disillusionment with the productivity of her protest methods, and goes through “a painful transition out of radical activism” in which she “struggled to recover, define her identity and her role in society.” Okay, so I concede that environmental extremism does exist; young people are statistically more likely than older people to be involved in it. But, the other case study provided – and placed on a par with Karen’s – is the case of “Erin”, who is a nationalist, participating in hate crimes perpetuated on immigrants and Muslims. Oh, and the other case is one which actually happened – an Australian citizen who wrote a 110-page document about exactly how to assassinate government members from Australia, Canada, America, and England, and posted it online. So, my problem is this: is living in a forest camp and protesting against logging really parallel to hate crime and writing murder instructions?

Yesterday, nearly a thousand students and young people took to the streets on a march trough Washington DC to Franklin Square, led by a banner which demanded “Justice on Climate, Race and Immigration”. I wonder if these thousand young people would worry any Australian teachers had they been their pupils. One participant, Dante Barry, who heads Million Hoodies (an organisation working against racism, skewed media perceptions and violence), said: “the voices of those that have gone unheard for too long will be heard in this moment.” There were also chants of “the youth are rising, no more compromising” and the day centred round music, art, speeches, and the making of the giant parachute banner. Mr Michael Keenan might well be quaking in his boots at the thought of such degenerate behaviour reaching Australia. It is not, of course, just American youth that is “rising”: there have been protests across the UK, with London – both Westminster and the banking, or “city” district – being the most prominent. The recent protest in London was mainly students, and attended by the activist group Anonymous, in their signature masks – possibly the archetype of all that conventional politics fears about activism.

It is against this unprecedented background that the 21st Climate Summit will begin on 30th November. The summit will continue till the 11th December, and will aim to draft a binding agreement for countries to reduce their CO2 emissions enough to stop us hitting the 2C threshold of warming which scientists warn against. The reasoning behind this, is that at the level of 2C (3.6F) the impact of climate change upon our planet will mean that the worst dangers will be unavoidable – these include not only freak weather and rising sea levels, but things like mass extinctions and super droughts. I’m not altogether sure what a ‘super drought’ is, but judging by what Ethiopia is going through already, I am sure it is something to avoid. All the way back in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol on climate change measures was agreed, but these expire in 2020 and so a new agreement is paramount – and 2C is the magic number. The Paris Climate Summit (rather illogically abbreviated to COP21) is being talked about more than any before it, and one reason is the impact of youth activism and involvement in green politics. In the past, climate change has been something of a fringe issue, pushed aside for things like fiscal and foreign policy, yet now it is becoming clear that these policies cannot function effectively without considered environmental planning. Let’s be realistic: you can’t have effective fiscal policy if materials prices are rocketing due to resource shortages; you can’t have collaborative foreign policy if everyone is arguing over resources, or trying to escape rising sea levels.

So, COP21 is a big deal. And it is a big deal partly because of a younger generation more aware than any before them of the importance of environmental action. In the UK the Research company, Populous found that at the 2015 General Election, those who were 18-24 were the demographic most likely to vote Green, whilst the over-45s were significantly less likely to choose the party; 23% of current Green voters either didn’t, or couldn’t, vote in 2010. To me, this looks like some welcome political activity in a generation which has often been bemoaned as the most distant one from politics in the UK yet; to many though it seems to look like something very different. Reading an environmental news site, I was rather struck by the comments pages: on a bulletin about the Franklin Square protest, someone had written a paragraph (yes, a whole paragraph) which began by saying the participants “are paid to be marching by the Communists and the Socialists elites that are behind Agenda 21.” “Angel Gonzalez” goes on to call the protest and COP21 “a scam”, while another commenter, “gcfortruth” calls the activists “poor deluded, brainwashed children”.

There is something, it seems, about visible action by young people which unsettles those comfortable in the conventional system. I must admit, I was not fully aware of it before I sat down to write this article: I naively thought that the patronising, demeaning attitude towards young peoples’ political action had been proved wrong and cowed back in the 60s. Clearly, this was my mistake. It is all the more impressive then, I think, that COP21 represents the first time there has been genuine, undeniable pressure on an international scale for governments to act on climate change, instead of making it worse by producing more hot air. No one in mainstream politics (unless you count the Republican right in America, and Donald Trump of course) now argues against the existence of man-made climate change. Gradually, the argument has shifted onto what must be done. This is, I believe, partly down to the young activists who have presented it as a primary concern; it is down to the many new voters belying the narrative of disengagement we have taken for granted in the UK. This is progress, but it is not enough – now, something must actually be done. I am too cautious, after years of hoping, to hope for definitive, legally binding action. But, now is as good a time for hope as we may have for a while.

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