Last year 80,000 students marched for the climate. In COVID-19, they're trying something different
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Last year 80,000 students marched for the climate. In COVID-19, they're trying something different

School students made headlines last September when they skipped class and took to the streets by the thousands to demand action on climate change. Principals and politicians were divided over their protests, but what followed were some of the largest demonstrations in Australia's history.

But, like most things this year, the School Strike for Climate movement has been caught on its heels and forced to adapt.

Veronica Hester, Imogen Kuah and Natasha Abhayawickrama are leading student climate actions on Friday.

Veronica Hester, Imogen Kuah and Natasha Abhayawickrama are leading student climate actions on Friday.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

On Friday students will host their first in-person demonstrations since the pandemic struck, but they'll look different wherever you are.

More than 500 individual events are planned, ranging from a live-streamed Q&A and Instagram concert in Melbourne, to socially distanced protests in Sydney as well as Wollongong, Newcastle, Taree, Tamworth and Gosford.Images of student artworks and letters will be shared on social media, and calls made to the Prime Minister's office.

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Seventeen-year-old Veronica Hester, who will be speaking in Sydney's CBD before rushing back to Gymea for her graduation ceremony, says the strikers' goals have shifted slightly too.

"As students we are surrounded by what happened with COVID, especially with school shutdowns. After COVID will be a time of recovery, and coming into a recession is a critical point in time to change the focus," she said.

"This is a time we've slumped and are going to be on an upwards trajectory. We've got to take that in the right direction. There'll be lots of funds to stimulate the economy, and we want those to be in renewable energy especially, pivoting our country towards its potential as a renewable superpower."

The event falls one year after about 300,000 Australians participated in the movement inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. The Black Summer bushfires began weeks later, prompting thousands to keep rallying in a string of protests in Sydney's CBD.

That was when year 12 student Imogen Kuah first became involved. "It was probably the most empowering time. I actually felt like I was doing something – every event we would collect funds and donate them [to bushfire relief]," she said.

But momentum dipped when the school term started, and then the pandemic put everything on hold. "For a little while, especially at the start of quarantine, we started losing hope – maybe this year was not a year of action for us," she said. "But we’re finding our feet again now."

Groups of students have met weekly to navigate how to keep the movement alive while the world changed. They once had a blueprint: gather as many people as possible in one location, arrange speakers and performers, and march. Events in Sydney typically guaranteed a decent turnout and even some media coverage. Now what?

"Everyone was really deep in isolation at that point," Imogen said. "We had conversation after conversation, brainstorming and fleshing out ideas, running proposals." Should they run events online? On a local or national scale? Should they not do anything at all?

"Now we’re at this stage where it’s really precarious. Melbourne is back in lockdown, but the rest of us are kind of coming out of it and don’t want to make that worse... Everyone was arguing back and forth before we landed on this widespread day of action [on Friday]."

Up to 80,000 people rallied at the Domain in Sydney last year.

Up to 80,000 people rallied at the Domain in Sydney last year.Credit:Louise Kennerley

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They initially planned to station 20 people at every major crossroad in the Sydney CBD, but it proved logistically difficult. They also considered a purely digital event, but their first online attempt in May had been "super difficult" and restrictions now allowed them to do something in person.

They finally agreed on a 20-person event in Martin Place, where the first school strike was held in 2018, while more than 150 other contingents will gather outside NSW Parliament, at homes or on school grounds.

It will be a far cry from the 80,000-strong group that gathered last year. "But we'll hang 90 placards in Martin Place, each one symbolic of 1000 people. We want those signs to symbolise someone who would be at our strike if they could," Imogen said.

Veronica thinks the small local actions will help propel the movement further. "There was a period of time when people were feeling quite low and nothing was happening. But we’ve bounced back ... In many ways it’s been even more enthusiastic. It's come back to a more grassroots state. Rather than big protests in one area, it’s spread to multiple communities," she said.

A September YouGov poll of 1000 Australians found younger voters were the strongest supporters of Australia moving to rely on renewable energy, with 92 per cent of Gen Z voters and 74 per cent of Millennials in favour.

"Friday for us is just the beginning – we’re just starting to ramp it up, obviously in a COVID-safe way," Imogen said. "But if this summer holidays is going to be anything like last year, I don’t think we have the option of being quiet."

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