Sophie Handford founded Schools Strike 4 Climate (SSFC) NZ in 2018, and at the age of 17 rallied 170,000 young people in the September 2019 students’ strike.

She now acts as the “aunty/mentor” for a new generation of SSFC NZ leadership while also working as a councillor on the Kapiti Coast District Council.

With 20 SSFC protests organised across New Zealand for Friday April 5, Sophie spoke to us about the groups’ fears for climate action under the current government and how it is rallying a whole new generation to the cause.

Since the coalition government entered Parliament, Sophie says SSFC has seen whole new levels of “outrage, frustration, anger, and inspiration” from a new generation of students and young climate activists.

“There were a lot of young people who were complacent with the last government because they saw we had left-leaning parties in power that would take climate into consideration,” Sophie says.

“Now there is a real shift. This new generation of young people are not willing to be complacent because they've seen progress reversed and just how much negative action can happen in a short space of time.”

Policies a ‘step backward’ for the climate

While the 2019 strike saw record numbers, this Friday’s strike has more towns signed up, Sophie says.

Many young people are feeling inspired to action by what Sophie says is the coalition government’s “ignorance” and “lack of leadership” on climate issues.

The key policy SSFC is protesting on Friday is the government’s plan to explore removing the ban on offshore oil and gas exploration.

“We have more oil in our reserves than we can afford to burn anyway,” Sophie says.

“So wanting to drill for more is very concerning when the world is already on fire and Pacific countries have the shore lapping at their heels.”

But Sophie says the government’s three-month plan had many policies that would be a step backwards for the climate, including removing agriculture from the Emissions Trading Scheme, taking climate out of the draft policy statement on land transport, and exploring reopening the Marsden Point Oil Refinery.

While the government has proposed climate actions such as fast-tracking renewable energy projects, Sophie believes any gains made would be counteracted by these other policies.

“I have concerns about whether they'll deliver anything positive,” Sophie says.

The coalition government’s climate approach

In a statement to Re: News, Minister for Climate Change Simon Watts said the coalition government “understand and share their [SSFC] frustrations” on the impact climate change will have for future generations.

“Climate change is a priority to this coalition Government, and we are committed to meeting our climate change targets,” Minister Watts wrote.

“We haven’t inherited a viable plan from the previous Labour Government to meet our climate change targets and this is an issue our Government will address.”

The coalition government rejects the idea that climate change action is mutually exclusive from growing the economy, Minister Watts wrote, and plans to use technology and clean energy investment to pursue both.

In regards to the high emissions actions Sophie highlighted, Minister Watts wrote that policies such as oil and gas exploration and reopening Marsden Point were commitments the National Party had made with ACT and NZ First in creating the coalition government.

As for removing agriculture from the Emissions Trading Scheme, Minister Watts said they believe the path to reducing agricultural emissions is “through technology, not less production”.

Minister Watts said they plan to introduce a “fair and sustainable” pricing system for agricultural emissions by 2030 at the latest.

He highlighted a range of policies the coalition government has planned for tackling climate change, including increasing New Zealand’s electric vehicle infrastructure and doubling our renewable energy capacity.

The new generation of climate activist students

The government’s actions and priorities have inspired a whole new generation of young people to get involved with SSFC and rally their communities to support climate actions, Sophie says.

“The reaction to this is that so many people across New Zealand have said ‘we want to do something and grow the social licence to climate action’,” Sophie says.

With this new generation of leaders and supporters has come an evolution of the issues the group represents.

SSFC has partnered with other causes, including pro-Palestinian and indigenous rights groups, to demonstrate that climate justice requires addressing a range of other cultural and social inequities, she says. 

The six key demands of this weeks SSFC protest are:

  • Keep the ban on oil and gas
  • End Fast Track Approvals Bill
  • Toitū Te Tiriti o Waitangi
  • Climate education for all
  • Lower the voting age to 16
  • Free Palestine: End the Genocide

“Climate justice looks like not leaving anyone behind and addressing inequities through the solutions to climate change,” Sophie says.

Sophie points to the conflict in Gaza as an example of this, saying that peace in the region is not only important for protecting innocent and vulnerable people, but also for reshifting the focus of the region onto climate change.

“It's a really awesome intersectional movement that's forming.”

“We’ve found this broader climate justice mandate has pulled in lots of other people and groups. We know we’re stronger together.”

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