December 8, 2023

Thousands of schoolchildren across Australia will be striking for climate action this Friday, with the backing of “climate doctors” who have penned a special absentee note for the occasion.

Two Australian climate scientists have written a Climate Doctor’s Certificate that students can use when they put down their pens, shut their laptops and leave class in droves later this week.

The interactive letter is signed by Prof David Karoly from the University of Melbourne and Dr Nick Abel from ANU. It states the student is “unfit [for school] due to a major climate health concern”, noting their “elevated stress” and “feelings of despair” on seeing the impacts of climate change.

“It is my recommendation that they take a sick day to protest for a sick planet,” the letter concludes.

One student who is taking advantage of the letter is 16-year-old Min Park. She was first introduced to the impacts of climate change in 2019 when she watched the first School Strike 4 Climate rallies take place via the news.

Four years later, now a year 10 student, she is helping lead Friday’s strike.

“We’re inching towards the point of no return and the government’s kind of watching the Earth dying and still not doing anything,” Park said. “I was sick of not being able to do anything, the lack of actions [by] the government and … the government not being held accountable and us not being taken seriously because we’re young people.

“I wanted to have my voice heard.”

Karoly said he engaged in demonstrations against the Vietnam war in the 1970s when he was in high school, and sees the climate strikes “as a similar battle”.

“It is a battle against the sorts of interest that want to promote ongoing burning of fossil fuels and release of greenhouse gases, which is being supported by the Australian government, and I think it’s really important that the students should understand that the battle to limit climate change is a really important battle to provide them with a better environment and a better climate in the future”.

Abel said it was a symbolic move to sign the climate doctor’s certificate. He was involved in the 2019 school climate strike and said he feels “terrible” knowing that children still have to take to the streets and push for stronger climate action.

“They really shouldn’t have to. It’s disgraceful that we have a government that is still committing [to] the opening of new gas fields and the extension of existing coalmines. Australia is already the third largest exporter of fossil fuels, therefore, the third largest exporter of this problem,” he said.

“[The government has] to remember that these school students are voters of [the] future and any government that keeps opening new gas fields and allowing more extraction of coal deserves to be sent to the political wilderness when these school students start to vote.”

A NSW department of education spokesperson said that the medical note is “not a legitimate medical certificate” and “would not be accepted by schools”.

“Students should be in class during a regular school day,” the spokesperson said.

A Victorian department of education spokesperson said that “normal school expectations will apply” on Friday.

Student climate strikes first began in Australia in 2018, with a group of Castlemaine students protesting outside their local MP’s office. They were inspired by climate activist Greta Thunberg, who had been striking for the climate outside Swedish parliament the same year.

Thunberg’s protests soon sparked a worldwide movement. Hundreds of Australian students went on strike in 2018 and the ‘School Strike 4 Climate’ was officially launched the following year.

An estimated 300,000 people from more than 100 cities and towns across Australia participated in the 2019 climate strikes.

Friday’s strike will be the 11th national strike, with School Strike 4 Climate entering its fifth year.

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The education minister, Jason Clare, said that “school students should be at school during school hours”, in reaction to both Friday’s climate strike and a student-led pro-Palestine strike in Melbourne next week.

“While it’s great to see students passionate and engaged on this issue, students should be at school during school hours,” he told Guardian Australia.

This echoes comments made by former prime minister Scott Morrison in 2018, who said “what we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools”.

Park said this sentiment was “demeaning”.

“I feel like taking action is way more important, mainly just due to the fact that this is our planet [and] if the government’s not going to do anything, we are going to learn and we are going to take action,” she said.

“There is no school if we’re in a climate disaster, and especially if temperatures get really high … It’s very anxiety inducing for students, which is not very good for their mental health.”

The Greens education spokesperson, Senator Penny Allman-Payne, said she had written to Clare, urging him to retract comments that kids should “stay in school”.

The senator labelled his remarks as “patronising” and said Clare was “out of touch with how switched on, informed and powerful student movements can be”.

“I urge students and families to ignore the minister’s condescension and act on your democratic right to protest for a safe climate future and for peace,” she said.

On Friday, Sydney students will meet at Belmore Park near Central Station at midday and march to the environment minister Tanya Plibersek’s office. This is a deliberate decision, with students angry over the approval of new coal and gas projects since the government came into power 18 months ago.

“She’s the one who is supposed to be standing up for climate and instead, we’re doing it,” Park said.

Analysis from the Australia Institute shows that coalmine expansions and developments approved so far this year are expected to add nearly 150m tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere over their lifetimes. This is equivalent to nearly a third of the country’s annual climate pollution.

Strikes are also planned for Melbourne, Canberra, Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane, as well as Taree, Byron Bay and Noosa.

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