The Children Are on Climate Strike

The children on Climate Strike are a new political movement that may be able to solve the problems we are powerless against; what can we in the risk community do to help them?

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By Anne Michiels van Kessenich

Last April in Paris, the Notre Dame caught fire. As people world-wide watched in horror, the smaller of the two towers collapsed, whilst inside the ancient building priceless heritage was reduced to ashes. Thankfully, the Parisian fire-fighters risked their lives to minimize the damage. And the very next day, people from all sides generously pledged ample funds with which to rebuild this beautiful monument. Henceforth, the Notre Dame will not only be known as a house of prayer, but also stand as a magnificent symbol for what human courage and solidarity can accomplish.

Half a globe away, the drowning Solomon Islands are not so lucky. As Scott Slovic wrote in a recent article, theirs is an insidious disaster; a genocide taking place in slow motion. And here, no cameras are present to capture the despair and sadness of more than half a million people who watch their culture, history and livelihood literally sink into the sea. 

And the people on the Solomon Islands are not alone. The consequences of climate change are manyfold, but most of them share the same characteristics: their urgency does not so easily present itself to our imaginations. And when it sometimes does, it is hard to see what we as individuals might meaningfully contribute to mitigate them.

There is another, even more damaging characteristic to the political debate that precludes taking significant action, one that issues from the language which we by necessity use to discuss with each other what needs to be done.

The academic knowledge base that supports political action is surrounded by uncertainty, and this has so far proved a great hindrance to reach the agreement needed to put in place really effective policies. Furthermore, the effects of climate change are of course correctly formulated as risks: they are after all not certainties. We may not have to take costly measures that limit our present level of wealth because we might still be able to come up with new technologies and more effective strategies to combat the threatening scenarios. Let’s wait and see what happens, the earth has gone through differing climes before, has it not?

Future scenarios formulated as risks or possibilities are famously subject to very differing emotional tags: the possibility of winning the lottery for instance, although it is in fact vanishingly small, is tagged positively and felt to be a relatively plausible scenario, well worth investing money into. The risk of rising sea levels however, one of the consequences of changing climate, carries no salient emotional tag and is therefore disregarded as a relevant factor in our considerations.

The relevance of emotional tags, of feeling in guiding our understanding and action, has been known for a long time, but is this knowledge being systematically put into practice? Are we trying to correct our biases to make other choices? So far, the answer is no. When concluding policy agreements politicians still tend to favour the near and local needs over the future and more far-away needs, even if these other needs are objectively far more pressing.

However, this stalemate situation took a hopeful turn last year. Starting in Sweden and spreading quickly to other countries, young people have started political actions. With strikes and marches, they ask attention for climate change, which they consider the most important problem of their time and for which they will be called to provide solutions in the very near future. These protests do not include all children, and they have been met with a lot of cynical responses, but let’s for a moment look at what is really happening here.

Apparently, these kids are not hampered by a bias in concern for close-by scenarios, unfolding themselves in the immediate future. More importantly still: they seem to have an understanding that their lives are connected with those of others far away in space and time. They understand that their choices matter to those other people. As a brief and hopeful aside: it could just be that their action-potential is contagious. A worldwide- initiative of concerned parents and grandparents is now rallying to the kids’ call and connecting ever more action groups that share the kids’ concerns. See https://www.parentsforfuture.org.uk/actnow.

As for the kids themselves: I realised I had witnessed this radical and alternative political understanding before. In 2016, I conducted a pilot project on dealing with risk and uncertainty in decision making in a Dutch secondary school. We talked about the concept of risk. We also discussed the risks that received, and still receive, a lot of media attention, like airplane crashes (recently exemplified by the Boeing crashes) and terrorism (like the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka).

The kids considered what they had learned. Surprisingly, they came back to me with a question: “If we understand you correctly, risks are about something that is important, and they also signify that you should take the likelihood of things happening or not into account. If this is correct, why then do we talk about plane crashes and terrorism, and not about water safety and waste management, about bio-diversity and climate change?”

This was a moving experience. It dawned on me that, much more than previous generations, these children are open and attuned to the entire world. They constantly get bombarded with information and knowledge, much of it of a highly worrying nature. Information about problems that grown-ups needed to solve. And like any parent can attest to: children want to help, if only they see how.

Giving children the use of the concepts of risk and uncertainty, like we did in three separate pilots in the Netherlands, provided one of the answers to “how can I help?” Understanding and using these concepts in their decision making gave the children a useful frame within which to organise the knowledge they receive. The concept of uncertainty can help them to separate “what we know” from “what we don’t know,” and often “cannot know.” Furthermore, they can distinguish between knowledge and the ethical choices that they have to make. Choices which come with consequences they thereby take responsibility for.

And the concept of risk can help them to re-analyse the available information about possible future scenarios and effects in terms of likelihood and value: certain risks may seem threatening and imminent and are constantly presented in that way via (social) media. But if their likelihood is small, it is to the advantage of children to turn their attention to risks that are more pressing or more relevant in the severity of their consequences or the value children attach to them.

Climate change is characterised as a wicked problem. One of the elements that define such problems is that they lack an overarching authority that can put effective measures in place to tackle the problem. So far, the interdependency within the interlocking political and economic systems and the way in which Big Government, Science and Big industry have become intertwined may seem to underscore the impossibility of finding an authority that has the leverage to make the necessary changes. One does not bite the hand that funds one’s research, and favouring measures that will estrange voters is political suicide. So the forces that might create a breakthrough are locked.

But the children are a political force from outside this system; they were until now considered powerless. They are powerless no more. They may just be the only ones still able to make those changes we, the grown-ups tied within the interlocking elements of the system, can no longer afford to make.

Will enabling kids to become better at making decisions ensure the saving of the planet?

No. Apart from the fact that it may already be too late to prevent real damage and loss, one of the foundational values of democracy is that all civilians inherit the freedom to decide for themselves. All possible choices may be considered. These children and young adults are the grown-ups of tomorrow, and they should be free, in the words of Isaiah Berlin “to choose damnation” if they wish.

But we should at least make sure that they are made comfortable in using the cognitive tools with which to handle the knowledge that they have at their disposal. In helping them to use these tools, several presently existing and dangerous misunderstandings can be clarified:

One is understanding that uncertainty is not a scientific shortcoming but a given, necessitating an ethical trade-off without knowing all the results of your choice.

Understanding that this means being responsible for far off and unthought of consequences is another aspect that can be learned through becoming comfortable in thinking about uncertainty.

The third goal is helping kids to develop a sure understanding that the concept of risk is a tool, not a problem. A tool which helps you to organise your thinking, rank-order your preferences and acknowledge responsibility for the consequences they entail.

These are unusual times. In terms of speed and magnitude of the changes we are now causing to our natural world, geologist Marcia Bjørnerod warns that we are moving into literally uncharted territory. Our kids face a future which is far more uncertain than the one we beheld when we were their age.

We are under a moral obligation to at least help children all over the world learn to wield the tools and the central political and scientific concepts with which they will fashion their future.

Note: The above photograph depicts Dutch schoolchildren engaged in a spatial planning assignment as part of their 2012 course on learning how to handle risk and uncertainty. This course was part of the author’s pilot project.

Learn More:

Michiels van Kessenich, A., & Geerts, R. (in press). Teaching kids about risk in a spatial planning context. Spatial Planning, Safety & Risk Governance. Available at http://www.decisionresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Teaching-kids-about-risk-in-a-spatial-planning-context.pdf

Rockström, J. (2018, September). 5 transformational policies for a prosperous and sustainable world [Video file]. Available at https://www.ted.com/talks/johan_rockstrom_5_transformational_policies_for_a_prosperous_and_sustainable_world?language=en