Bronwyn Wood, faculty of Education, Victoria University of Wellington
Environmental action and New Zealand Youth
New Zealand’s School Strike4Climate [SS4C] movement had been heralded as one of the world’s most successful – led by school-aged passionate young people with little experience in political organising but with digital and social media savvy (Thomas, Cretney and Hayward, 2020). I attended the Strike4Climate protest on 15 March, 2019 with my 17 year-old son along with as many as 20 000 other young people – all leaving their classrooms to demand urgent action on the ecological crisis
However, that same day, after we came home to cook up lunch together, I received a call from my other 19 year old son – a university student in Christchurch – to say he was locked in down the university gym as a gunman was on the loose.
This terror attack on a mosque in Christchurch killed 52 people and led to much soul-searching as New Zealand tried to come to terms with an event that seemed so far from normal New Zealand life.
While the Strike4Climate protesters were somewhat subdued by this event, they nonetheless gathered again with similar numbers in May 2019. They then formed their largest intergenerational strike on 27 September, 2019 when 3.5% of New Zealand’s population (around 170,000 people) joined street protests around the country.
The momentum of the 2019 youth-led environmental movement, however, has suffered since the arrival of Covid-19 and there have been no large environment-focused marches in New Zealand since.
Despite this relative quietness, a group of Pacific youth have increasingly contributed their voice and protest to the environmental protest scene, arguing that their islands and people are disproportionately affected by climate change. A group – the 350 Pacific Warriors – have emerged on the climate protest scene representing Pacific youth from around 17 islands potentially most severely affected by climate change, as well as diasporic Pacific youth in New Zealand, the US and Australia. Their catch cry is “We are not drowning, we are fighting”.
This group gained strength throughout 2020 with a growing interest by Pacific youth who noted that the climate activism space was “dominated in the past by Palagi, by Pakeha [NZ Europeans] and has not as a movement had many brown faces involved’ (Brianna Fruean, Pacific Eco Warrior, Coconet TV).
This tension between the largely white-dominated middle-class climate activists space and Pacific youth came to a head on public TV in 2019 when a young Pacific woman (Fili) called out the largely white youth organisers for failing to take Pacific youth into account by timing the initial protest meeting (March 15, 2019) on the same day as the largest large Pacific youth festival (Polyfest). In addition, many argue that it is important for people from the moana [sea] to stand on the front line, not Palagi (Europeans).
In June 2021 the Auckland chapter of the Strike 4 Climate movement surprised many when it announced in a Facebook post that it was disbanding as it had “avoided, ignored and tokenised BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of colour] voices and demands” and that it had been “a racist, white-dominated space”.
While some applauded them for such a brave move, others, including many Pacific youth were disappointed for the message it gives as they had not asked for the climate space to be solely Pacific.
Issues of class and race have not commonly featured in discussions on youth climate activists(Bowman, 2019; Wood, 2020). The critique by the Pacific Climate Warriors in New Zealand highlights the unequal voice in this space.
It also speaks to the desperate need for collective groups of people across the world to work concertedly together to face complex issues such as climate change. As Brianna Fruean, Pacific Climate Warrior says, “The weight of this crisis is heavy. It will take everyone’s hands and help to carry it”.
Bowman, B. (2019). Imagining future worlds alongside young climate activists: a new framework for research. Fennia – International Journal of Geography, 197(2), 295–305. https://doi.org/10.11143/fennia.85151
MacKenzie, P. (2021). Auckland chapter of New Zealand’s school strike 4 Climate admits racism and disbands. The Guardian. Retrieved form https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/15/auckland-chapter-of-new-zealands-school-strike-4-climate-group-admits-racism-and-disbands
Mariner Fagaiava-Muller, (2021) The problem of racism toward Pasifika within climate change. [June 16, 20210]. https://www.rnz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/444887/the-problem-of-racism-towards-pasifika-within-climate-change
Thomas, A., Cretney, R. & Hayward, B. (2019) Student Strike 4 Climate: justice, emergency and citizenship. New Zealand Geographer 75(2) 96–100. https://doi.org/10.1111/nzg.12229
Wood, B. (2020). Youth-led climate strikes: fresh opportunities and enduring challenges for youth research – commentary to Bowman. Fennia – International Journal of Geography, 198(1-2), 217–222. https://doi.org/10.11143/fennia.91089