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The Right to Climate Strike?

Young people marching in the Sydney Climate Strike 20 September 2019

#ClimateStrike 20 September 2019

Some Catholic schools actively supported the 20 September 2019 school climate strike, providing the scaffolding to ensure that it would be a balanced learning experience, while others simply allowed students to be absent with parental permission. At the Sydney rally I saw many adults from Catholic groups and religious institutes attending to support the striking students. My social media feeds, and the general media coverage, show that this was also the case in other places too. Meanwhile, some Catholic education bodies cited Catholic Social Teaching to encourage students to stay in school instead of striking.

The Fridays for the Future campaign ensures that the question of whether or not to support student strikes for climate change action will be on-going. So, how might Catholic Social Teaching help us to decide whether or not to support further school strikes for climate change action?

The Right to Strike

Catholic social teaching has a long tradition of affirming the right to strike. However, it does set some limits and conditions on this right; the right to strike is not absolute. Furthermore, Catholic teaching on the right to strike developed in response to workers’ efforts to achieve social and economic justice. It doesn’t directly address student strikes on ecological issues. We have to interpret what Catholic Social Teaching says about strikes in the context of the broader body of teaching, including teaching on care for creation, and teaching on political participation, in order to discern our position.

Let’s start by recalling what Catholic Social Teaching has to say about the right of workers to strike. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church describes a strike in the following way:

… the collective and concerted refusal on the part of workers to continue rendering their services, for the purpose of obtaining by means of such pressure exerted on their employers, the State or on public opinion either better working conditions or an improvement in their social status.

Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church n 304.

So we see that the right to strike presupposes a right to association. In other words, people have a right to act collectively to defend the rights of a group within the context of the common good (See Pope John Paul II, Laborem Exercens n 20). As long ago as 1891, Pope Leo XIII understood that the imbalance in power between workers and employers made trade unions necessary. By acting together in solidarity through unions, workers would have a better chance of achieving just wages and working conditions (Rerum Novarum n 50-51). We can see a parallel here with the power imbalance between students and governments.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that:

Recourse to a strike is morally legitimate when it cannot be avoided, or at least when it is necessary to obtain a proportionate benefit. It becomes morally unacceptable when accompanied by violence, or when objectives are included that are not directly linked to working conditions or are contrary to the common good.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, n 2435.

Limiting strikes to matters connected with the employment relationship prevents workers from harming the interests of employers, or society in general, in an instrumental manner. Businesses, or the community, should not be treated as collateral damage in pursuing matters that are beyond their control or responsibility.

The Compendium also recalls that Pope John Paul II saw striking as ‘a kind of ultimatum to the competent bodies’ which could be used as a peaceful method of making demands or fighting for one’s rights (n 304, see also Laborem Exercens n 20). An ultimatum should be a last resort when other methods have failed. Furthermore, the good to be achieved by a strike should be proportionate to the disruption caused.

How does this help us in thinking through the student strikes for climate change action?

Education as the ‘Work’ of Students

In Australia, attending school is a duty imposed on young people between certain ages by the State through legislation. Students are expected – by their families and the community as well as the State – to study in order to develop their skills, knowledge and capabilities in order to participate in society as active citizens, and to make their contribution to the common good.  Like workers and employers, there is a relationship of mutual obligation and benefit between students and the State. Attending school and participating in educational activities is the social obligation of school students.

The State also has duties towards students. Like other members of society, students expect the State to protect and foster their human rights, and to organise and promote the common good. In fact, this is what the role of the State is, according to Catholic Social Teaching (Catechism, n 1910). The State has a duty to consider the future impacts of its policies and priorities, its action and inaction, on young people and generations to come.

School students say that the State is failing to protect their rights – to clean air, drinkable water, a liveable climate – in sum, their right to a future. This claim goes to the heart of the mutual obligation between students, and the State, which is the authority that requires them to attend school. For the students, demanding effective action on climate change is analogous to demanding a more just work contract.

The students are correct in identifying the State as the competent body in relation to climate change policy. While individuals, businesses and civil society can make a difference, only the State can provide the politico-juridical framework for action on climate change. Only the State can set energy policy. Only the State can enact laws for the protection of endangered species. Through the school strike, students withdrew their time and attention from the task required of them by the State, which is the competent body to address their demands.

Proportionate Benefit and the Common Good

It can hardly be said that the student strike was over a trivial matter, or one that is contrary to the common good. The gravity of the situation, and the lack of effective response, made their ultimatum proportionate, and, many might say, necessary. Even Pope Francis has adopted the language of ‘climate emergency’. In his message for the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, Pope Francis says:

The increase in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather phenomena and the desertification of the soil are causing immense hardship for the most vulnerable among us. Melting of glaciers, scarcity of water, neglect of water basins and the considerable presence of plastic and microplastics in the oceans are equally troubling, and testify to the urgent need for interventions that can no longer be postponed. We have caused a climate emergency that gravely threatens nature and life itself, including our own.

Pope Francis, Message for World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, 2019.

The good at stake is certainly proportionate to a day off school and a bit of disruption to traffic in the city. Far from being contrary to the common good, the student strike draws attention to the intergenerational nature of the common good. In his Message Pope Francis calls for ‘prophetic action’ and acknowledges that:

Many young people all over the world are making their voices heard and calling for courageous decisions. They feel let down by too many unfulfilled promises, by commitments made and then ignored for selfish interests or out of expediency. The young remind us that the earth is not a possession to be squandered, but an inheritance to be handed down. They remind us that hope for tomorrow is not a noble sentiment, but a task calling for concrete actions here and now. We owe them real answers, not empty words, actions not illusions.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis takes up the global and intergenerational nature of the common good in more detail in his encyclical on care for our common home, Laudato Si’. In it he affirms that ‘the notion of the common good also extends to future generations’ and calls for intergenerational solidarity as ‘a basic question of justice’ because ‘the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us’ (n 159).

The Right to be Heard

Many schools, including Catholic schools, are doing a good job in educating young people about ecological issues. It is one of the reasons that so many young people are passionately committed to climate change action; they understand the urgency of the matter. In fact, they may well have researched the issues, considered different opinions, and assessed evidence more thoroughly than their parents and politicians.

Suggesting that school students should study and delay action until they are adults dismisses and disrespects their agency as human persons. The capacity and responsibility to act of one’s own free will is an essential element of human dignity and is not acquired at adulthood. School students do not yet have a vote, but they have a right to be heard in decision-making that will affect them for decades to come. They have a responsibility to take action according to their ability. And, unfortunately, many of the actions that young people are calling on governments to make cannot wait several years.

Importantly, attending the climate strike rally, and learning about the issues at school in order to equip oneself for effective action, are not mutually exclusive options. In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis notes that ecological education cannot be ‘limited to providing information’ and that it ‘can take place in a variety of settings’ (n 211, 212). Good ecological education supports young people to exercise their freedom and responsibility as persons, and to take action according to their ability. I met school teachers and parents at the Sydney rally who were attending with students. They will help the students to critically assess all that they saw and heard and experienced, deepening the learning experience, and providing formation in reflection on action.

Schools take their responsibility for the safety and well-being of students very seriously, and rightly so. Out of school learning experiences may raise legitimate concerns regarding risk management. Such risks might arise in relation to specific places, events, and cohorts of students. Any risks need to be identified, mitigated, and assessed. Are they proportionate to the good that could be achieved? We should acknowledge too that the resources available to schools in order to manage risks varies. Some schools may not have been in a position to responsibly support the climate strike. Of course, it is parents who have primary responsibility for their children, including primary responsibility for their education. Some exercised this responsibility by accompanying their children to the rally rather than leaving the decision to the school.

It is true that striking is not the only way in which a young person can take action on climate change. School students have grown impatient with petitions, letters to politicians, and meetings that have not resulted in change – and they are not the only ones. A strike is not a routine action, it is an ultimatum.

Intergenerational Solidarity

In the lead up to the climate strike, People of Faith for Climate Strikes published an open letter that said, in part:

On Friday, September 20, 2019 young people around the world are engaging in a Global Climate Strike to demand urgent action by world leaders based on values of compassion, love, and justice. Organizers are inviting their peers and adult allies to join them in stepping away from school, work, or their normal activities to join them.

We fully support this strike. We urge people of faith and spirit everywhere in the world to join this vital action.

People of Faith for Climate Strikes

One of the signatories was Fr. Joshtrom Isaac Kureethadam SDB, Coordinator of the Sector on Ecology and Creation of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development in the Vatican. This is hardly surprising given Pope Francis’ clear and urgent teaching on social, economic and ecological justice – and his encouragement to young people to ‘make a noise’.

Intergenerational solidarity calls us to support young people in their efforts to address urgent issues of ecological justice. It calls us to be ‘adult allies’ who respect their agency and accompany them rather than taking over.  Parents, teachers, family members – and adults in general – can walk with young people, assisting them in processing information and experiences, in assessing positions, actions and strategies.

Fridays for the Future

Catholic Social Teaching provides orientations for action, and principles and criteria that assist us in assessing strategies for action, but it recognises a legitimate plurality of responses (see Pope Paul VI, Octogesima Adveniens, n 4). As we have seen, a strong case can be made supporting the climate strike drawing on Catholic Social Teaching. Furthermore, this practical judgement is shared by senior officials of the Holy See. It is not a fringe view.

The Fridays for the Future website provides a range of ideas for sustained, ongoing action. It points out that ‘strikes’ can take a number of forms. A number of the actions mentioned could easily be adopted by schools and parishes without major on-going absences from school.

One suggestion is to strike a bell each Friday. We can connect this action with our Catholic tradition by doing it at midday and praying the Angelus. The Angelus reminds us, among other things, of the power in salvation history of one young woman’s courageous openness to God’s call. It can encourage us to be open to how God is acting through young people today.

1 thought on “The Right to Climate Strike?”

  1. Thanks for this Sandie. I have shared it among my social religious contacts and hope it will inspire creative discussion and action. As you might expect I have ordered my “Fridays For The Future” Tee shirt to add to my ethical tee shirt collection.

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