State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Youth Climate Strike and the Generational Urgency of the Climate Crisis

When I was a high school student in Brooklyn back in 1969 and 1970 my classmates and I formed the James Madison High School Coalition to End the War. We didn’t need to tell anyone that the war was the one in Vietnam. The geography of the conflict was obvious, and we demonstrated, leafletted and set up picket lines around our school to convey the urgency of our opposition to the war. It was no theoretical exercise. Our older siblings and neighbors had been to war, some had not returned, and many had come back with damaged bodies and minds from a war that none of us understood. That was a long time ago and we didn’t manage to end the war immediately. I like to think that we helped to end it, but it turned out to be a complex process that would take a half a decade longer to end. It took even more time for the United States and Vietnam to find a way to peace with the late Senator John McCain leading the way. All of that is on my mind as I watch, with admiration and a little awe as teenagers take to the streets to demand the decarbonization of our economy.

When I look at projections of sea level and temperature rise in 2050, I’m reasonably confident it won’t impact me personally, but I think about how it will affect my daughters who were born in the 1990s and my granddaughter who was born in 2017. That climate damaged world will be their world. Despite my fear, I am confident that the world will meet the challenge of the climate crisis; but only because of the courage of these young people and the moral high ground they occupy. The global youth climate strike takes place this Friday, September 20th. According to Erika Spanger-Siegfried writing on the blog of the Union of Concerned Scientists:

On Friday, September 20, a rare moment will take place in the long and bruising climate fight: a youth-led, global demonstration of power, solidarity, and determination—and if history is any guide, real beauty, too. On this day, in thousands of locations around the world, young people—perhaps millions—will strike against a status quo of complacency, inaction, and injustice on climate change, and join voices to demand a livable future… This strike is youth-led, with the 16-year old Swedish climate activist and original climate striker, Greta Thunberg, among its leaders. It is global, with more than 2500 events currently planned in 117 countries, and a large and growing number (511 and counting!) here in the US. It precedes the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City on Monday the 23rd and kicks off a week of climate actions and events planned around the world.

Adults are invited to join in, although I suspect the movement will continue to be dominated by kids. Earlier this year I wrote about the age gap in environmental politics and at that time I observed:

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.

This past June, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication reported that:

Younger Americans have grown up with more exposure to the effects of global warming than their parents and grandparents. Perhaps it isn’t surprising then that polls find young adults are particularly concerned about global warming…Using data from several waves of our Climate Change in the American Mind surveys (June 2017 to April 2019), we find important evidence of generational differences among Republicans. Millennial Republicans are more likely to say global warming is happening, is human-caused, and that most scientists agree it is happening, and they are more likely to worry about global warming than older Republicans. Further, the gap between Republican and Democratic views on global warming is smaller for Millennials than for older generations, indicating that there is less political polarization over this issue among younger Americans.

Climate change is a different issue for young people than it is for older people. When I first learned about global warming, I was reading projections during the 1980s and 1990s of impacts that would take place decades in the future. But that future is here now, and it is being experienced by all of us. The difference between older and younger people on climate change is that young people have never known a world without global warming. I have. Just as I came of political age during the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s, today’s youth are growing up during the crisis of global sustainability. When I was a teenager there were three billion people on the planet, a half a century later there are more than seven billion people. We live on a more crowded and polluted planet today than we did back in 1970.

But we also live in a more technologically advanced world. We have applied new technology to problems of air and water pollution and to waste management and we have made those problems less bad. Environmental regulation has spurred innovation and once we learned how to apply technological fixes to the problems caused by modern technology, we were able to grow the economy while polluting less. These same principles can, must and will be used to address the climate crisis. We can move from fossil fuels to renewable energy and we can learn how to capture and store excess carbon, methane and other greenhouse gasses. Young people know that. And they are demanding action.

Unlike my student striking days, the New York City Department of Education is allowing students to stay out of school this Friday if they can get permission from a parent. I know that the school system’s attendance policy did not play into my decision to strike and I doubt it will influence too many climate advocates. But I am gratified to see the school system acting to legitimize the strike. I remember that when we struck against the war in the fall of 1969 our teachers did not participate, but by the spring of 1970 some of them joined in. The bravery of our teachers added to our confidence that we would win and somehow manage to force the government to make peace. The movement to stop global warming is starting to feel like it has momentum. Even though the U.S. national government is controlled by climate deniers, it seems as if they are increasingly on the fringes of political reality.

The real obstacle to addressing the climate crisis is the huge investment of capital and expertise in the current methods of doing business. The benefits of the modern economy and the fossil fuels that power it are real and the shift to renewable energy will require changes in technology, organizational management, finance and politics. These changes are within reach, but it will take determination and skill to grab them and make them real.

The Youth Climate Strike clearly communicates the generational urgency of the climate crisis. The intensity of extreme weather, rising average global temperatures, melting glaciers and rising seas are no hoax, and the reality young people see and know will get worse without action. The ethical imperative to act is clear. The issue is not should we act, but what actions can we take? What actions will protect the planet, while maintaining the quality of life we enjoy in the developed world and ensure that everyone on the planet can enjoy those benefits as well?

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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Mark Wolf
4 years ago

I agree and appreciate the way you’ve connected past culture change movements against governmental action/inaction to the present climate crisis. Thank you Steve