If students decided to indefinitely strike (Mon-Fri) over climate inaction, what might it look like, and how might it play out? Here is my preliminary brainstorm:

Who would participate?

The most likely participants are aged 12-17. Below that age you are less independent-minded, and above that age you are likely paying for your education. At 12-17, the main thing you are risking are academic results, which a lot of folks may consider a risk worth taking.

Why would politicians care?

Education matters?

I suspect politicians would worry at least a bit about a generation falling behind in their education, if only because they have grade numbers to hit that they don't want to look bad by missing. A bit further down the line, they might worry about resulting employability, and unemployment figures. Beyond this, I'm foggy on why/how much politicians might care about non-voters' education unless it actually bothered voters. Which brings me to....

Angry parents?

At least at first, I imagine a lot of parents would support their kids, and direct their anger at politicians. And fortunately for the kids, their parents can vote.

Obstacles to parental support might include fear for their kids' grades, logistical difficulties of not having a school looking after their kids for ~8 hours a day (although working from home due to COVID might help here), and fear of government retribution (more on that later). But most adults also view climate change as a major threat (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/18/a-look-at-how-people-around-the-world-view-climate-change/) and are invested in their kids' futures. 

So I think there's a decent chance of supportive, angry parents, and that it might be enough to spur meaningful political action. But this would depend on how long the situation lasted....

Strike breakers

Political threats/prosecution

I suspect attempts to legislate/punish parents and kids for striking would be met with a lot of indignation, but politicians might be able to leverage existing laws to threaten parents, and I think this could be more effective. For example, in the UK parents can actually face a short jail term for failing to school their kids: https://www.gov.uk/school-attendance-absence/legal-action-to-enforce-school-attendance. 

While I think threats of this sort might be effective, I'd also guess that actually following through on them and punishing parents would be a massive overplay that would politically backfire.

Minority parents

Even before accounting for fearful parents, not all parents even believe climate change is a threat. These parents would likely be pretty mad at the striking, their kids would still be in school, and the conflict of opinion could spur a national debate. Maybe the minority group would win the political fight. 

Inertia/hopelessness

When things drag on long enough, sometimes movements run out of steam. Kids and their parents give up, start worrying more about grades and college, and the whole thing just winds down without having achieved its objectives.

Probabilities

In the interest of accountability and self-improvement, here are the probabilities I'd assign to some of the events above in the hypothetical event of a student climate strike. I'm assuming these would be assessed using a Tetlock style Brier score (roughly brier_score = sum((actual_outcomes - forecasts) ^ 2) / number_of_forecasts) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superforecasting:_The_Art_and_Science_of_Prediction).

  • >2/3rds of participants are aged 12-17: 0.9
  • Majority parental support for 1 month: 0.8, 2 months: 0.5, 3 months: 0.4.
  • Definitively strike-breaking political threats against parents: 0.4.
  • Definitively strike-breaking politicial punishment of parents: 0.05.
  • Movement wins policies in line with IPCC recommendations: 0.4.

But I'm making these guesses so I can see how wrong I was if this happens, not because I'm some kind of authority. 

I don't know that much about this space, which is why this is a question post! What are better ways of reasoning about how this might play out?

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But what will be the demand? Without a clear demand, the strike will fail.

I'm guessing students would probably demand goals in line with IPCC recommendations.

1Teerth Aloke1y
A coordination committee with a clear realistic understanding will be required otherwise radicals will accept no proposal. (Case in point: Indian farmer's ongoing protest)

Elaborating on Teerth Aloke's answer, I think you should be more, um, consequentialist about this whole thing. "...To think in terms of desired outcomes, and to ask: “What is the likeliest way that the outcome in question might occur?” ...then repeat this process until we backchain to interventions that actors can take today." (ref)

So the first step is for you to decide: what is my goal? In principle, there can be a lot of possibilities:

  • Your goal is to mitigate climate change and/or its negative impacts
  • Your goal is to impress your like-minded friends with how much you care about climate change
  • Your goal is to have something interesting on your resume when you later apply for jobs and internships and college
  • Your goal is to not attend school for a while
  • Your goal is to alleviate the boredom and angst of our messed-up modern infantilizing overly-extended childhood years
  • Etc.

I expect you to say "Hey anon03, what's your deal? Why are you attacking me? Obviously it's the first one". And maybe that's true, I don't know you, I'm very open-minded to it being 100% the first one. This was not meant to be a loaded question. But I just suggest that you think about it really hard and look inside yourself and make sure you say it's the first one because it really is and not because you want it to be. Make sure it's super-duper-true. Make sure you're 100% sure. Make sure you feel it in your bones, and you're not just fooling yourself. Make sure you have read Scout Mindset before you answer the question.

(If it's not 100% the first one, I suggest you read Purchase Fuzzies and Utilons Separately and follow the advice by making some plans that purely optimize for the first bullet point and making separate plans that purely optimize for any of the other bullet points that motivate you.)

OK, now let's say that your answer is 100% the first bullet point. So, you're trying to mitigate climate change and/or its negative consequences as effectively as possible, given the power and tools at your disposal. Well congratulations, you are now 90% of the way towards effective altruism. (The other 10% is taking it to its logical conclusion by considering whether or not climate change is the best cause to be working on, or whether it's possible that something else is even more helpful and urgent to work on. You can still decide it's climate change, that's fine—I'm just saying that you really win your effective altruism badge by having that be the result of a thoughtful decision, taken after considering and understanding the various other awful urgent problems in the world, like the risk of nuclear holocaust, the massive-scale torture of animals at factory farms, poor people dying of easily-preventable illnesses, risks of much worse future pandemics, risks to democracy, etc. etc.)

So, if the students do a climate strike, what are you hoping the consequence will be, and what's the probability that that consequence comes about, and if it does, how many tons of CO2 will be removed from the atmosphere (or not emitted)? Is there a particular law that you're hoping will be passed? Who would pass that law? Why haven't they passed it already? Probably the answer to that last one relates to their incentives, and/or their beliefs. Well, would the strike change their beliefs? Would it change their incentives? How much? Are there examples of similar interventions working or not working? Are there examples of similar interventions being counterproductive, e.g. by turning off people who were previously not strongly opinionated?

And then you do the annoying thing where you consider other possible things you could do for the climate, for the same amount of time / effort / risk / whatever. What if you spend extra time babysitting, and send the proceeds to climate offsets, or to a climate-change philanthropy? Solar cells are basically free money for homeowners, but not everyone in your community has one ... what if you go ask them why not, and then figure out how to make the process easier and more pleasant? What if you donate to nuclear power advocacy? What if you study materials science and try to get a career making better solar cells? Etc. Etc. Then you weigh all your options on a spreadsheet ... and do something! (And post that spreadsheet to the EA Forum!! They love that kind of stuff!) Good places to start for this step might be here and here.

Hi anon03, I tried to make this post less 'how can I help', and more 'what would happen if X'. I think politics/political organizing is off-topic for LW, but trying to model or forecast how future events might play out seemed like fair game, and I'm pretty curious about how this kind of action might go. That's why this piece doesn't talk about goals or planning.

(For what it's worth, I'm not a student, and I'm not currently involved in any organizing, but I donate 10% of my salary, roughly 3% to animal welfare, 3% to global development (both EA funds), and 3% to climate initiatives).

8 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:57 PM

If there was something I wish were taught in schools it would be more practical roleplaying. It would take all of an hour to give students turns as the various stakeholders in this scenario for them to gain an understanding of why a school strike is pointless, and what might work instead.

It would take all of an hour

If you have time to share, I'll read it!

I'd do little more than write a role on a card (politician, corporate interest, activist, police, teacher, parent, student, etc.), and probably public and private motivations to prompt people beyond the obvious. Then you just let them at each other.

All this comes down to is putting people in situations of asymmetric power dynamics. Then it's just a matter of seeing how power corrupts. 

Then when you had a play through or two and made sure nobody's completely traumatised^(1) or anything like that you have a debrief. That's when you disclose player's private motivations and then discuss the implications, both in game and in the real world. You say "If the role on this card corresponds to a real person or entity, who do you think it might be and why?".

You don't have to be abstract or speculate about actions and motivations when your students just did it right in front of you and to each other. When the player with a particular card roleplays organising a school strike and then in the debrief the private motivation is revealed as "You will be paid $10M by lobby group X if you can organise a school strike" you'll literally see the lightbulbs go on, and without ever having to actually name Ms. Thunberg at all. 

The other aspect is that if you're going to criticise the motivations and actions of others then you better be ready to put your money where your mouth is. That means that the second half of the lesson has to involve doing something practical that is more effective for the environment than a school strike. 


  1. That is a non-trivial risk of these kind of games involving defection and deceit. Everyone should think very carefully before they black pill anyone, let alone a bunch of minors. 

Is this based on some movement or proposal?  What's the scope (geographically), and specificity (we'll "strike" until ... what)?

I'm pretty distant from education, but my mental model is that it's not an effective strike unless there are clear demands, and a reasonable tie from the people inconvenienced/hurt and the decision-makers on those topics.  Public school students "striking" over climate issues don't meet either of these criteria.  

I think we can safely assume that those who are competing for respected universities aren't likely to participate for any length of time, so it'll be mostly the mediocre to bad students who "strike" (with a few prestigious/photogenic exceptions, if they think it makes them look good).   Which leads me to gladly take the under on most of your predictions, if we can work out terms.  And the most important prediction (which you don't give, but should): less than 0.02 that this will actually happen, for any significant length of time, with any significant participation (say, a threshold of more than 15 days of school missed by more than 30% of students in any large jurisdiction).   

And the most important prediction (which you don't give, but should): less than 0.02 that this will actually happen

 

That's an interesting question for sure, I haven't thought much about it. However, I would argue 'could something like this be incentivised', and 'would strikers have leverage to actually achieve anything' are separate questions. I'm personally more interested in question two.

Seems like something to consider pretty strongly.  Why did you pick youth school disattendance as your subject in the first place?  Why not youth housework strike, or daily congregation to disrupt traffic or commerce?  Or an adult strike of some sort?  Or a mixed-age strategy?

When I read this, I assumed the specificity had some reason behind it.  That would be the first part of the question to explain and predict.

Why did you pick youth school disattendance as your subject in the first place?

Because this is already being done, just on a much smaller scale. 'Fridays for Future' has that name because some students decided to start taking Fridays off and protest instead.

It's hard not to fight the hypothetical because these movements are determined by how committed the protesters are. If we assume infinite commitment of 100% of 12-17 year olds I think this would be very likely to succeed. If we assume realistic levels of commitment this would never happen. So it's very sensitive as a hypothetical to your assumptions.