After-school meetings, recycled signs: School climate strike returns to Melbourne

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Thousands of students skipped school and marched through Melbourne on Friday, part of a wave of protests across Australia over government inaction on climate change.

Some traded uniforms for animal onesies, hand in hand with their parents and grandparents, and held signs declaring, “If you were smarter we’d be in school” and “The dinosaurs thought they had time too”.

Melbourne’s Climate Choir of mostly retirees serenaded from the footpath as the students marched, with the rally briefly shutting down a major intersection in the CBD and blocking one side of the Lonsdale Street bridge.

It’s the fifth year students have skipped school to demand an end to fossil fuels since the global climate strike movement began with Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg in 2018. This year, Australian students were encouraged to use a “doctor’s certificate” from a climate scientist to take a sick day from school.

Fifteen-year-old student organiser Charlie Gallace described months of after-school meetings to wrangle permits and speakers ahead of the Melbourne strike.

“I’m lucky, my school has been supportive, though I wouldn’t say they were excited when I emailed that sick note in,” she said.

Ripponlea Primary’s student sustainability committee Pepi, Zoe, Emilia and Eva.Credit: Sherryn Groch

Charlie first got involved in environmental campaigning in grade 5, when she realised the mountain pygmy-possum near her home town, Mount Buller, was critically endangered.

“We asked everyone in the town to remember to turn their lights off at night, so the possum’s main food source, the Bogong moth, wouldn’t be attracted away from the possum and the trees,” she said. “We even covered the streetlights with orange cellophane. And that year they had a record high count for the possums.“

Dr David Karoly, one of the scientists who signed the climate sick note, took his eight-year-old granddaughter to the strike.

“She was a bit bored at first,” he said, but “then got to talking to the other kids and had a great time”.

Students were joined by family, teachers and campaigners, with a greater turnout than organisers expected.Credit: Paul Jeffers

For some kids striking, every year of their life has ranked among the hottest on record globally. Summers now hold real danger for them, said Karoly, in a way they didn’t for his own generation.

While the federal education minister didn’t accept the climate sick note, urging students to stay in school, Karoly argued the strikes offered their own education.

“This is an opportunity for kids to see democracy in action,” he said. “I was involved in Vietnam War protests. It’s not new for ministers to tell kids to stay in school.”

Arriving late to the Melbourne protest was the Ripponlea Primary School sustainability committee of grade 5 and 6 students.

Pepi Tansey, 11, the group’s leader, said this was her first climate strike, but it was her sign’s second: the colourful “Old Farts Cause Global Warming” placard was a creation of her big brother for his first climate strike years earlier.

Mother Rebecca Parker said the momentum of those early student strikes had been lost during the pandemic, even if many of the signs had been saved and “recycled” this year.

“We thought there was going to be a change when the Labor [government] got in,” she said. “But they just keep approving fossil fuel projects” though the world’s carbon budget is fast running out, she said. “Our kids are worried. That’s why they’re here.”

Melbourne’s Climate Choir has about 100 members and sang popular songs with lyrics rewritten for climate action,Credit: Sherryn Groch

The Ripponlea grade 5 and 6 students were reunited with their former art teacher while marching, and Pacific islander and Torres Strait Islander elders also joined the rally.

Eleven-year-old Eva has been organising her own group outside school called Earth Heroes for “kids aged four to nine who care about the planet”. She’s been writing pamphlets for climate action and getting involved in strikes for the past two years, her mother Isabel Lasala said, “that’s helped calm her climate anxiety”.

As Pepi led Eva and the rest of her school sustainability committee into the march, she said: “I hope our voices will be heard.”

“I hope the prime minister is listening,” added eleven-year-old Zoe.

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