I share Extinction Rebellion’s environmental concerns and I’ve previously joined their protests. My friends and colleagues fill their ranks. I even have a man-bun. But I can’t get behind their latest efforts to coax students to quit the classroom.
Pre-empting this week’s disruption in London, Extinction Rebellion released a video recounting why student drop-outs, including marine biologists, gave up university for the movement. 'I left university because someone told me the truth about what was happening and I realised that I had a responsibility to act,' explains one former student. '(I left) because I am scared so many people I love are going to die and a masters won't stop that', says another.
The clip acts as a recruitment tool, harnessing fear and worry for the environment and social pressure to seemingly encourage other students to do the same and drop out. It’s part of an increasing trend in which kids, students and academics swap education for activism. Some of this campaigning is admirable. But pressurising students to ditch their studies is irresponsible, both for their wellbeing and the environment.
Others have already highlighted the damage school strikes are having on the classroom and curriculum. What about the teachers who prepare for lessons? Pupils disrupted by their fellow students skipping class? And why don't these people simply march on weekends instead of missing school?
The justification for this urgent action is the 'emergency' the planet faces. As Greta Thunberg wrote in May:
'Can we all now please stop saying “climate change” and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?'
Many of the placards on display in London this week testify to this apocalyptic vision if we don't act immediately. But sowing such panic comes at a price.
What's more, regardless of the actions we take now, short-term temperature change is baked-in until at least 2030. This means that any changes in emissions – even an immediate one – probably won’t yield noticeable shifts in the extent of climate change until about 2050. So the entirety of our country’s teenagers could quit school now to march on Parliament until they are middle aged, without seeing any real climate impact for their efforts.
It's also important to point out that this effort to address climate change must be a global one if it is to be successful. The UK represents one per cent of global CO2 emissions. Going net-zero here by 2025, as demanded by the protestors, would have a negligible effect on temperature rises. Under baseline scenarios, rather than reach two degrees warming in January 2050, we would reach it between February and April that year – 25 years of pain, for a few months gain.
I am all up for Britain setting an example, but addressing climate change is a global marathon not a local sprint. And Extinction Rebellion must make that point clearer to its followers before they sacrifice their educations.
It is also vital not to over-catastrophise to ensure people continue to trust scientists. Remember 'Project Fear' in the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum? There is a risk that those warning that the end is coming are repeating the same mistakes made then. In doing so, they succeed in switching people off to the cause of fighting climate change. Genuine concerns about the environment will end up being belittled and ignored if the doomsday prophecies don't materialise.
Perhaps Extinction Rebellion is right and it is time to act immediately, even if that means leaving the classroom behind. Their ‘citizen assemblies’ could be the future of democracy. But if so, they should take up their case at the ballot box to convince people rather than aim to ‘break the police system’ until their demands are met.
Yet instead of trying to win the debate, Extinction Rebellion is calling for higher education to be replaced with ‘eco-pedagogy centred reform’ and ‘climate education’. Climate change requires big solutions and political decisions. So by all means campaign and vote, but don’t coax kids into quitting school. Doing so is irresponsible and ineffective – and won't help save the planet.
Dr Zac Baynham-Herd is a conservation scientist