‘Learnings’ for the lead up to Friday’s student strike for climate change

Here’s an idea for English and Philosophy teachers for this coming Friday, March 15. Why don’t you do some Socratic schooling of those of your students who haven’t joined the Student Strike for Climate Change?

You don’t have to take sides in the debate, that’s the beauty of the Socratic method, you just have to ask pertinent questions. And I wouldn’t suggest you ask questions about climate change, and whether it’s real, because that is a rabbit hole that would have swallowed even Socrates.

No, let’s look at the ethics of fossil fuels. Is it right to use them, or should we close them down, as suggested by the activists? And if so, when, how, and by whom?

If you’re prepared to do that, here are some thoughts for your lesson plan.

But first some background. Our world would collapse without fossil fuels.

Not only do they generate most of our electricity, but they provide us with plastics and fertilisers.

Coal and gas generate most of our electricity. Coal provides the grunt through baseload power that is there 24/7 when we need it. Gas fills in the gaps when intermittent forms of energy aren’t there because the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.

Because wind and solar are so irregular, even if we went to 100 per cent renewable, we would still need coal and gas.

Gas is also the primary feedstock for plastics and fertiliser.

And of course, oil is also a plastic and fertiliser feedstock and powers cars, trucks, planes, ships, some generation, farm machinery and more.

So what would kids be prepared to sacrifice to stop using fossil fuels? Three square meals a day? Being driven to school? Clothes? Holidays? iPads?

Depending on how they answer you could ask them to explore alternatives. Maybe they will tell you technology will provide solutions.

OK, so over what time frame, and what are you going to use in the meantime? If we stopped immediately there’d be consequences. People would go hungry, there’d be riots, governments would probably change, people would undoubtedly die.

If you want to give them an idea of the costs and practicalities this paper by Robert Lyman is fantastic. Did you know that between 1987 and 2007 the US added 15 GW of generating capacity on average each year, but to totally decarbonise over 10 years, it would need to be 150 GW extra each year?

Extrapolating for Australia we would need something like 10 GW extra each year.

But that only accounts for electricity. If we’re going to get rid of petroleum, we also need to add more power generation because we need to electrify that sector too.  In 2016/17 we consumed 4,247.2 PJ of energy, and electricity was only around 20 per cent of thatconsumption.

So, at $1 billion a gigawatt, that’s $10 billion each year over 10 years in capital cost for electricity generation and $40 billion for the rest. Is that practical? What timescale is practical? What aren’t we going to be able to afford while the generation capacity is being built? Have they thought about the network? Will we need to build more poles and wires? What would be the cost there?

You might also take it closer to home. How many cars do they have at home? If we electrify the car fleet, can their parents afford to buy electric replacements?  Could they sell their existing car? Who would buy it if petrol and diesel cars were being outlawed?

You could also ask them what they could achieve if they spent that money on other things? Would those other things be more worthwhile than stopping emissions? Here you might direct them to the work by new Nobel Laureate William Nordhaus, who says the costs of limiting emissions outweigh the benefits.

What are the real costs of climate change? We tend to focus on the supposed negatives, but there are plenty of positives too. Research shows that CO2 is making the world greener. Additional warmth will make Canada and Russia warmer, increasing their ability to grow food. Wouldn’t that be a good thing in a world we are told is “overpopulated”? Warmer winters mean fewer deaths from cold. What other benefits are there?

They might try to dodge the question and suggest we shouldn’t have used coal and oil in the first place. Then you could take them through a tour of the world as it might have been without coal and oil.

How many people would there be in the world today without fossil fuel? Would your students even exist if it weren’t for cheap fossil fuels? Is their existence a bad thing? If coal hadn’t been available, how would people have cooked their meals and heated their houses? And how many forests would they have cut down? Would that be a good thing? How do you weigh the definite poverty and misery for the human race without fossil fuels, against the theoretical misery at some indefinite time in the future with fossil fuels?

The activists are so keen to stop coal use that not only are they campaigning to have Australian thermal power stations closed, but they want exports of coal to stop. You could explore the issues here. Assume Australia can afford to transition to 100 per cent wind and solar, how easy would it be for developing countries to do the same? If it is easy, why aren’t they transitioning? Last year China and India built 50 GW of coal-fired power – that’s more than twice Australia’s entire fleet of 23 GW.

What right have we to tell the people in other countries they can’t enjoy the same standard of living as we do? You could ask them to do research to see whether it is rich, or poor, countries that look after the environment best, educate children the most, provide proper health care and housing, and advance equal rights to women. I know what the answer is going to be. If you wanted to get really technical you could throw in a bit of spreadsheeting skill and see what happens when you plot some of these indicia against per capita energy consumption.

You might also get them to research “neo-colonialism”. Do we have a right to tell other countries who are weaker than us what they can do?

They might also explore governance issues as well. Who has the right to make decisions about emissions, and how should they do it? Is it a national issue, or a personal issue? Maybe it’s an international issue? Or all three? If you decide to limit your emissions, should you try to force others to limit theirs? And are you entitled, as some activists do, to try to break the businesses of companies who are abiding by the law?

Doesn’t democracy mean we should work through our elected members, not putting direct pressure on law-abiding organisations because we don’t like the decisions of our governments? This could be an opportunity to discuss online activism, and organisations like Sleeping Giants. You could explore the differences between populist democracy, liberal democracy and mob rule. Perhaps introduce them to things like the Glorious Revolution, the French Revolution, lynchings and posses, Brown Shirts and Black Shirts, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Compare and contrast.

Finally, I’d suggest you get them to Google the Children’s Crusade and the Pied Piper. That might give some real insight into what is happening here.

If you want to solve the climate crisis it will take something more powerful than numbers, slogans and banners. It will take critical thinking. That’s how you make your charges real climate (or anything else) warriors. Better still, that is how you fit them for the real world.