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For Adelaide's climate strike movement, there is no time for despair

Sia Duff
Doha Khan

For a brief moment, the summer’s fires and floods crystallised what years of scientific consensus and sober calls for action failed to. But for young Australians like 18-year-old climate striker Doha Khan, there is still much work to be done.

“I ’ve always been really interested in politics, but I’d never been an activist,” Khan tells The Adelaide Review. “After the 2016 US presidential election, and Trump’s campaign, I guess politics started to feel a lot more real. Because I’m a Muslim Australian, and I have a lot of friends and family in the US that are Muslim as well, hearing about how that community – my community – was being demonised, I realised politics was something I should have an opinion on. Then I started looking at home, and what’s happening in Australia.”

It was while studying at Glenunga International High School in 2018 that the reality of the climate crisis hit home. “The point at which it clicked that this is a crisis, not just a scientific phenomenon but an existential threat to our species, was probably in Year 11 – that’s when we started hearing a lot more about the IPCC report, about the fact that that we’re reaching – or have probably gone over – the tipping point.”

Khan saw Facebook listings for Melbourne and Sydney climate strikes pop up on her newsfeed and sent an email to get involved. Barely a year later, she and a handful of other teenage students led a local climate strike rally that filled Victoria Square and stopped traffic as 20,000 people marched through Adelaide’s CBD. The sight of children in hi-vis calmly executing this logistical feat offered a potent visual metaphor for the movement: a generation stepping up to take charge of a conversation that shouldn’t have to be their responsibility.

“It was really intense,” she recalls. “For a lot of us this was only our second or third time organising an event – we went from 300 in November 2018, to a crowd of 5000, and then a crowd of 20,000. It was a big step. I don’t think we were really prepared for it – our speaker system was only designed to cater for 10,000 people. It’s a good problem to have, but at the same time it’s very stressful!

“And navigating everything with the council, getting permits and talking to police, it was quite intimidating. A lot of us have no experience of the bureaucracy,” she says. Which is fair enough – they were, after all, schoolchildren. “

Climate strike demonstrators march down King William Street, Adelaide
Walter Marsh
Khan and School Strike 4 Climate demonstrators march down King William Street in September 2019

The School Strike 4 Climate’s main objectives are threefold: no new coal, oil and gas projects; 100 per cent renewable energy and exports by 2030; and the funding of a ‘just transition’ and job creation for fossil fuel workers and communities. That last note is particularly important: for years the fossil fuel industry and its parliamentary supporters have wrung great mileage from the image of climate activists as aloof and uninterested in the needs and welfare of Australia’s 50,000 coal workers – the proverbial “woke capital city greenies” described by Nationals leader Michael McCormack.

The narrative that decarbonisation is incompatible with jobs growth – even as the mining industry’s embrace of automation makes those much-feted job opportunities as potentially precarious as an automotive worker’s in the 2000s – has made the notion of justice central to the climate strikers’ message.

“After the first strike we realised we really needed to be connecting with the people on the frontlines of the crisis, and that includes fossil fuel workers,” Khan says. “So the last demand about the just transition, it’s pretty new but it’s really important to make sure that people know that climate action doesn’t mean people will lose jobs, that they won’t have a way to put food on the table. We care about the human aspect of this issue.

Sia Duff
Khan outside Parliament House, Adelaide

“The thing about the climate crisis is, it’s not just an environmental issue. It has so many social justice impacts, you can’t care about one and not care about the other – it’s so intertwined,” she says, noting how Aboriginal communities have been at the frontline in the fight for the Bight, and protesting gas exploration in the Flinders Ranges. “First Nations communities are impacted first and worst by climate change; they’re leading the fight for climate action, and it’s important that their voices are given a platform to be heard instead of spoken over.”

While the recent scrapping of Equinor’s plan to drill in the Great Australian Bight has achieved one of the strikers’ primary goals, a planned coal gasification project at Leigh Creek is the next focus in their push for no new fossil fuel projects in the state.

As a decentralised, grassroots movement, the climate strikers have had an impact beyond their size and means, which sits ironically against the government’s preferred argument for inaction: that Australia is too small to truly influence global emissions or the political effort to curb them. Khan has little time for this uncharacteristic fatalism.

“I hate that!” she says. “Australia is such an active global participant, we are everywhere. We help with military campaigns, we’ve got our fingers in everything, and yet when it comes to climate change we’re too small to make a difference? Australia is small but we’re loud, and we always make our presence felt. It’s ridiculous that we’re shying way from the climate crisis when it’s very clear that Australia contributes more than our fair share – per capita we’ve amongst the highest polluters and we export a lot of coal, and so we’re active participants in making the climate crisis worse. And again, Scott Morrison is just ignoring the facts and cherry-picking things that suit his narrative. Which sucks.”

Recent shifts in government rhetoric have shown that sustained public pressure can have a measurable effect: The Prime Minister has attempted to divert the public’s attention away from emissions reduction and towards resiliance and adaptation. Even this pivot once seemed unlikely from the formerly coal-waving Treasurer. But recent pro-coal agitations in The Nationals and even among Labor senators from our own notably coal industry–lite state, means the work of Khan and her movement is far from over.

Climate strike demonstrators amass in Victoria Square, Adelaide
Walter Marsh
Climate strike demonstrators amass in Victoria Square, Adelaide

“The Coalition is rapidly recognising that climate action is on the agenda for their voters as well as the rest of Australia,” she says. “So they’re going to start talking about adaptation, and all those fancy words about how we’re going to deal with the climate crisis instead of how to stop the climate crisis. That’s going to be a real challenge for the movement.”

Which is why, away from the headline-grabbing mass rallies, Khan and her comrades have spent hours camped outside Parliament House each Friday for the past year. “We had a state government minister tell us to go back to school, and a lot of angry boomers stopping to give us a piece of their minds,” she says. “But also some really positive interactions; I think people are really heartened to see young people engaging with these issues, showing some persistence and resilience. I’ve read a lot about how older people have seen our strikes, seen our signs and thought ‘these young people are speaking to me’, which empowers them to take more action.”

Last year critics of the strikers suggested they go back to school and quit worrying, a silencing tactic that seems laughable after weeks of news reports showing a continent beset by fire, hail and floods. But while there is certainly fear and anxiety among the strikers, there is also great resolve, as Khan and her comrades find strength and solidarity in the face of these rather existential threats.

“A lot of us struggle to imagine or plan our futures knowing that civilisation could come crumbling down in the next two decades or so if we continue on this current path of warming,” she reflects, in rather apocalyptic terms that seem less hyperbolic than they might have six months ago.

“It does get disheartening at times, but the network that we’ve built is a massive source of support. So many people feel the same way, and these strikes bring people together and convey that we’re all terrified, but we’ve got each other and community power, and there’s still time and hope to fix this.

“We don’t have time for despair.”

Doha Khan will speak at WOMADelaide’s Planet Talks on Friday 6 March

Walter Marsh

Walter Marsh

Digital Editor
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Walter is a writer, editor and broadcaster living on Kaurna Country. His work has appeared in Rip It Up, The Saturday Paper, Smith Journal, Royal Auto, Swampland Magazine, Broadsheet and The Thousands.

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