State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Youth Strike for Climate and the Ethics of Climate Policy

High school students in Australia and Europe have begun a series of one-day strikes and demonstrations to demand that their elders treat climate change as a crisis. Their sense of urgency is personal, and their understanding of climate science and impacts is impressive. When I read about climate impacts in 2075, I know I won’t live to experience them. If you were born in the 21st century, an impact projected for 2075 has a different meaning to you than it does to me. That is a danger that you might well live to see. For many young people the threat of climate change is no theory. A global youth strike for climate action is planned for March 15 and the movement is rapidly building momentum.

Like these young people, I am also troubled by the present-mindedness and lack of concern for the future that we see in many world leaders. Our own president denies climate science and disdains expertise on a wide variety of subjects. But as I recently wrote, young people care about the future and want a clean environment:

“Anyone who studies public opinion about the environment will tell you that a long-running trend is that young people care more than old people about protecting the environment. It is not an attitude that changes with age, because support for protecting the environment is gradually increasing among older people. This is probably because once young environmentalists are growing older, and old anti-environmentalists are dying off.”

The movement among high school students throughout the world is further evidence of this gap and it provides hope that this trend may be continuing to gain momentum. We may be approaching the point predicted by the philosopher Robert Heilbroner back in the mid 1970’s. In Heilbroner’s essay “What Has Posterity Ever Done for Me?” he noted that there was no economically rational way to justify a concern for the distant future, but nevertheless he believed that we would still somehow manage to care about it. Heilbroner observed that:

“…I am hopeful that in the end a survivalist ethic will come to the fore… from an experience that will bring home to us…the personal responsibility that defies all the homicidal promptings of reasonable calculation. Moreover, I believe that the coming generations, in their encounters with famine, war and the threatened lifecarrying capacity of the globe, may be given just such an experience. It is a glimpse into the void of a universe without man. I must rest my ultimate faith on the discovery by these future generations, as the ax of the executioner passes into their hands, of the transcendent importance of posterity for them.”

Perhaps the known impact of climate change makes the importance of a concern for the future real to young people. The climate youth movement in some respects mirrors the anti-gun violence campaign led by the survivors of the massacre at Parkland High School in Florida. These campaigns have meaning because of the credibility of the young people at the heart of the movement. They have a novel set of experiences that others do not. The shooting victims experienced their friends’ murders. Their fear and rage make their advocacy authentic. School life for them now includes “duck and cover drills” that remind me a little of the trips to the nuclear fallout shelter we took when I was in elementary school. The danger back then was Russian nukes. Today’s dangers include nuts with guns, opioids, and environmental risks such as climate change. Today’s high school climate activists will be the generation that may well feel the full effect of global climate change: sea level rise, destruction of infrastructure, extreme weather events, water over-supply in some areas (floods) and water under-supply in others (drought and famine).

Novel experience provides advocates with authenticity which in turn leads to political legitimacy. It is often accompanied by the ability to raise large numbers of small donations via the internet. This can lead to political power, and when the power is deployed skillfully it can lead to political change. The ability to rapidly translate unique experiences into political protests is enabled by social media and smart phone technology. When my friends and I organized against the Vietnam War at Brooklyn’s James Madison High School in 1969 and 1970, we had to carry reams of paper on the subway to and from “the city” to get our leaflets printed up. We then set up tables on Kings Highway to sell anti-war buttons to raise money and give out our leaflets. We hung posters on physical not virtual bulletin boards. The threat of the draft was our claim to authenticity, along with the damage done to our friends and older siblings returning from war. I sometimes imagine how much more effective we could have been if we had the modern tools used by today’s activists.

The youth protesting climate change, like those fighting gun violence, or those who fought against the war in Vietnam, all face a power structure of older mostly white male decision makers in government and industry. The politicians mainly care about the development, maintenance and use of political power. The businessmen largely care about making money. That is their role in our political economy. Those in the power structure typically focus on immediate pay offs and victories. In the mid 20th century, following the catastrophes of the two world wars, there was an effort to establish a set of global institutions to help address longer term structural challenges that required international or at least multilateral action. Today’s decision makers, having never experienced the global catastrophes of the 20th century seem unable to think beyond the next election cycle and the next quarterly report. The Republican head of the U.S. Senate is allowing the president to subvert congressional power of the purse and pursue a fake emergency to build his “wall”. Senator McConnell’s concern is the power of his caucus, not the institutional imperatives of the U.S. Congress. The long-term power of the institution he leads is threatened by McConnell’s focus on short-term victory. But he doesn’t care.

For the young people who will inherit these damaged institutions and our degraded planet, the need for action is urgent and personal. The high school kids protesting for action on climate change understand that they need to shake up the comfortable assumptions of those in power. The strategy is a simple one. Expand the scope of conflict. Climate policy must no longer be made by ‘three men smoking cigars in a secret room’. Questions about current climate policies and proposed policies must be formulated and disseminated through social and mass media.

Last week’s student protest in London exceeded the expectations of its organizers. Reporting in The Guardian on February 15,  Matthew Taylor, Sandra Laville, Amy Walker, Poppy Noor and Jon Henley observed that:

“Thousands of schoolchildren and young people have walked out of classes to join a UK-wide climate strike amid growing anger at the failure of politicians to tackle the escalating ecological crisis. Organisers said more than 10,000 young people in at least 60 towns and cities from the Scottish Highlands to Cornwall joined the strike, defying threats of detention to voice their frustration at the older generation’s inaction on the environmental impact of climate change… The school strike movement started in August when Greta Thunberg, then 15, held a solo protest outside the Swedish parliament. Now, up to 70,000 schoolchildren each week hold protests in 270 towns and cities worldwide….Organisers in the UK said that two weeks ago they would have been happy if hundreds of young people had taken part. But they said the huge turnout – in the face of threats of recriminations from some schools and criticism in sections of the media – showed the strength of feeling among young people about the climate crisis.”

I believe we are in the midst of a paradigm shift in environmental politics. The idea that we must choose between economic well-being and environmental protection is being challenged by urban sustainability plans and programs and by the formulation of a Green New Deal. We need to decarbonize our economy as rapidly as possible. Silly symbolic debates about the pace of this change will be raised by opponents and should be dismissed by proponents. No one is going to unplug their smart phones or abandon their cars. But with investment in technology research, infrastructure, and energy efficiency, we can move more rapidly to a sustainable and renewable energy system that will protect our planet while providing for our needs. Young people know it can be done, and will need to be the catalytic force to finally bring about decarbonization.

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Roseanne Steffen
Roseanne Steffen
5 years ago

Thank you for your fantastic article! I am an organiser from the Brighton, UK youthstrike4climate, at the University of Sussex. We are beginning to organise for the next international strike on 15th march and are looking to build links with other student bodies and youth groups across the world. We think it is important, if this climate action is to be successful, to have a network of informed climate activists who can put pressure on local, national and international institutions simultaneously. I’d love to hear your thoughts on building this network.