Twelve months ago, tens of thousands of striking school children on the streets of Adelaide joined millions across the world in the largest climate protests in history.
So much has changed since then.
Weeks after the climate strike, Australia was engulfed by devastating and uncontrollable bushfires.
That was quickly followed by the global COVID-19 pandemic and worldwide Black Lives Matter protests.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is how quickly our climate is shifting and how worried our young people are about the lack of action in response.
Reports show Australia is now the largest exporter of coal and gas, leading the world in selling climate change for profit.
Permafrost in the Canadian Arctic is thawing 70 years earlier than predicted.
Although some leaders are talking about a ‘climate emergency’ – the term was Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year for 2019 – we are not turning around the ocean liner fast enough to avoid the iceberg.
And when it comes to climate change, acting slowly is the same as losing.
While the focus is on other global events, our planet is hurtling towards a catastrophe worse than the dinosaur extinction.
There was some hope the pandemic lockdowns would make a difference. Yes, they have reduced carbon pollution, but scientists believe they will have a ‘negligible’ impact on the overall climate crisis, with a recent study finding that global heating will be cut by just 0.01C by 2030.
If we are to have any impact on global temperatures, sustained change of underlying systems is needed – particularly the rapid removal of dirty energy like coal and gas.
Covid-19 has proven that transformational system shifts are indeed possible.
Overnight, billions of dollars were pumped into the economy, homeless were housed and traffic disappeared.
The way governments, businesses and communities across the world have been able to pivot with extraordinary pace shows large-scale change can happen.
Young people see all this change in response to a virus and wonder why it can’t be done in response to climate change.
Alongside anger at the lack of action, there is increasing despair.
Many young people are already in mourning for a world they believe will perish in their lifetime. They are seeing their future taken away from them.
They can’t understand why older generations aren’t listening and acting.
And that’s before the global pandemic has stripped many experiences and rites of passage away.
Despite recorded infections spread relatively evenly across generations, the largest number of deaths from Covid-19 are people over the age of 60.
On social media the pandemic is jokingly described as a ‘Boomer Remover’.
Can we blame them if they continue to gather and socialise – whether for marches or parties – and ignore other restrictions?
Many older people are angry that young people are not taking the risk of the virus seriously, ignoring expert advice, being reckless and putting lives at risk.
This is precisely what the student strikers accuse older generations of doing when they fail to act on climate change.
Perhaps a grand bargain can be struck across generations.
Younger people commit to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spreading to vulnerable elderly in return for those in power committing to genuine action on climate change.
This thinking could also be applied to helping us recover. Government stimulus could be overwhelmingly focused on creating sustainable jobs for young people.
It’s one practical way of building hope for a generation that desperately needs it.
If our politicians want young people to behave responsibly, they have a perfect opportunity to lead by example.
Chief Executive, Conservation SA
Member, Premier’s Climate Change Council
1 October 2020