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Amendment of the climate change Act will offer a future for young people

David Shearman

Since the industrial revolution, the health damage done to young people by fossil fuels -from boy chimney sweeps to gas cookers -amounts to negligence. Do we care? Credit: source [1]

In 1842 the British Parliament passed a law prohibiting the employment of children under the age of 14 to climb into and clean chimneys; children as young as four were used for narrowed areas in the chimney. The soot and tar scraped off was inhaled to cause long standing respiratory disease and also rubbed into their skin causing painful scrotal and other cancers.

The 1842 Act was largely ignored and it required the appearance of Tom the child chimney sweep in the 1863 novel ‘The Water-Babies’ by Charles Kingsley to bring public action into the situation. Success occurred in 1875 with licensing and police enforcement.

In Australia stoves using gas from coal “town gas” commenced in the late nineteenth century, and “natural gas” 50 years ago. Since then little Toms (and their sisters and parents) within houses with gas stoves or gas heating have been breathing pollution present in the gas.

This is a known health hazard causing asthma or exacerbating any existing asthma – together with many other diseases recognised in Australia for over a decade. It is a huge burden on health services, entailing time off from both school and work. Minister Bowen has rejected a ban on gas in the home and so ignores the health impacts.

The government’s response to this health problem is apparently “Shush”, for gas is vital to the economy. Indeed, fossil fuels have reigned supreme in the economy since commencement of the industrial revolution. Currently the British Medical Journal reports that the world’s polluted atmosphere causes 5.1 million avoidable deaths annually, and is ignored by governments.

How can we recognise the rights of children who will suffer a deteriorating life under advancing climate change? One answer is an amendment to the Climate Change Act which will soon be discussed in the Australian Senate.

This Bill requires decision makers to consider the wellbeing of current and future children when making certain decisions that are likely to contribute to climate change, including decisions that will increase Scope one, two or three emissions.

Surely this must be the opportunity for the Senate to recognise that young people can help in solving the currently insoluble and not have to march in the streets to be heard? Many recognise the mess we, their parents and grandparents have made of their life support systems and young people deserve to be heard. The Senate must consider how this involvement can be achieved.

The young people of School Strike 4 Climate demand…100% renewable energy generations and exports by 2030; the funding of a just transition and job creation for all fossil-fuel workers and their communities; and net zero by 2030 which means no new coal, oil or gas projects including the Adani mine.

And yes, they think of others even in their distress – the fossil fuel workers.

The third demand of no new coal, oil and gas projects is easily understood by them the renewable energy surge is reducing emissions but this is being ablated by continuing fossil fuel burning which will delay any net zero. In turn this may be one factor causing unstoppable climate change; yet the government continues. Methane is the most potent greenhouse gas, and a first step is to immediately stop new developments.

Already many young people have developed the knowledge and drive to be leaders. Their growing brains show plasticity which enables them to see the facts to create a safer world and resist the current mind set of “progress” as economic growth, prosperity, consumerism which is wrecking the planet.

The young can see that our government (and many other governments) is the Emperor in Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

The weavers play on the Emperor’s vanity by saying the suit is only visible to people who are clever and competent. The people saluted the Emperor in his naked glory and it required a little boy to call out – “but mummy the Emperor has no clothes on”.

In the context of the future of today’s young people, the clothing of the government should be an effective climate policy based on science.

Young people have the brain capacity to recognise the Emperor’s feeble explanations of our rising Scope 3 emissions from fossil fuels; for example “others need the gas”, “if we don’t provide the gas, others will” the drug dealers defence. The standing of the government is thereby reduced. The truth is that Scope 3 allows government to export gas for considerable income to help balance our budget and prepare for the next election.

The raw end of the deal for young people
The United Nations Rights Committee 2023 details the obligations of states to address environmental harms and to guarantee that children are able to exercise their rights. This encompasses rights to information, participation, and access to justice to ensure that they will be protected from and receive remedies for the harms caused by environmental degradation and climate change.

The Australian Senate Bill: Climate Change Amendment (Duty of Care and Intergenerational Climate Equity) Bill 2023 [2] will bring some justice to their needs.

But it is also vital to humanity’s future that we ask what education and participation does the government offer to our children about the degrading environment, and how are they brought into decision making when many of them have the minds to contribute?

Reducing the voting age to 16 is an urgent requirement for bringing participation by the young. Furthermore the presence of more young people with a mission could improve the functioning and behaviour of Parliament which is often unacceptable.

Schools’ education on climate change and environmental collapse has been neglected until recently, but now we have a New Curriculum which is a significant advance, but does not yet answer the many questions asked by young people and does not yet indicate the many other topics relevant to climate change

University education is being analysed by the Accord but mention of climate change is minimal and to date there are no proposals for widening teaching to include issues relating to the sustainability of the planet. Universities should ensure that new students in all disciplines should first undertake a common 3-month course on climate change, sustainability and the environment. Their learning would become disseminated throughout the community.

The young are increasingly suffering mental health problems from anxiety over climate change and the perpetration of misinformation and disinformation on social media. They are told to return to school for education geared towards securing a good job within an economic structure and paradigm which some of them recognise is a threat to the natural world.

Dear parliamentary members and senators: The long parliamentary break is due; please consider meeting some of the young people active in climate change in your constituency office. I have explained in this article why this would be helpful. Please also consider urging your party to finance a social media forum for the young, where there can be interactions on climate change and related matters.

The benefit would be immense. And please read the UN document on the rights of children and climate change.

1. Source: Pearls & Irritations, 9 Dec 2023


    Reproduced with the author’s permission. Prof Shearman is a cofounder of Doctors for the Environment and is an ERA patron.

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