This Friday, September 20, millions of young people will in unison voice their anxieties and hopes about climate change across 117 countries and more than 2,500 events – including 500 in the United States. They will be joined by their parents, teachers, friends, relatives, environmentalists, women’s groups, faith leaders and hundreds of other civil society organizations. This inspiring school strike for climate, started just months ago, has revitalized the global climate change movement.
It’s appropriate that young people lead this. Theirs is the generation that will be most impacted by climate change. What scientists predicted just a few years ago we are beginning to see already: temperatures continue to rise. Nine of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 200; last July was the hottest ever recorded on earth. Wildfires – worsened either by higher than normal temperatures or lower than expected rainfall – have raged from the west coast of the United States, to the south in the Amazon forest and the east in Siberia. Islands in the Pacific are sinking into rising tides and in the Caribbean being battered by ever bigger storms; Hurricane Dorian was the most destructive ever to make landfall in the Bahamas. Everywhere, weather patterns and ecosystems are being dramatically changed by these changes. People everywhere are being displaced by extreme weather, and experts forecast this numbers will increase to millions in coming years.
In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported “unequivocal” evidence of climate change and attributed it with a 95-100% of certainty to human activity – primarily the burning of fossil fuels. But recent reports published respectively in Nature and Nature Geoscience show that never in the last 2,000 years have temperatures risen as quickly, nor as dramatically, as they have in recent years. Scientific consensus is now in agreement that climate change is human caused, not cyclical, as many still argue. Last October, the IPCC further urged that a massive global effort be made to keep global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius below pre-industrial levels, and that global greenhouse gas emissions be dropped by nearly half by 2030, and to net zero by 2050.
But, to date, global emissions continue to rise and are very likely to even increase by 2030.
It’s no wonder then, that young people are determined to speak out. They can see devastating images of climate change on television or read about them in social media. Since October last year, many have been walking out of their schools to protest their government’s inaction. How all this will affect virtually every aspect of their world – agriculture, health, livelihoods, property and their future employment prospects – is not yet fully present across school curricula. Youth have already seen the trajectory and visualized the environment they will inherit as young adults. They speak with justifiable clarity: this is not fair. They are not prepared to wait any longer. Urgent action on climate must be taken, now.
It was Greta Thunberg’s action outside the Swedish Parliament that spurned this young movement. She has already met many European leaders, the Pope at the Vatican and attended international climate negotiations at the United Nations. Now in the United States, she will be in New York City this Friday to lead the youth strike there. She explains herself very clearly: “I don’t want you to feel calm,” she says. “I want to you panic and to feel the fear that I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”
Calling for panic will likely seem a gross over-action to rational adults. But let’s remember where we are: our political leaders have long engaged in complex, often trying international negotiations, using predominantly objective arguments and objective measurements. Following more than two decades of concerted climate advocacy, they have summoned just enough political will to agree a non-binding Paris Agreement, and some left over to implement it. Let’s remember too that the government of the world’s richest economy walked out of that agreement, and that badly affected developing countries are struggling to access the finance they need to prepare for extreme weather events, or repair after them. People living in poverty, marginalized and vulnerable groups – in America and overseas – are always the most affected by climate change. They – just like young people – have used a small, if not negligible, share of the carbon budget. They did not cause this problem.
It is just and morally right that the younger generation say how much they worry. And – as others who are most impacted and least responsible, they deserve a place at the climate negotiation table.
Youthful activism may help close other political gaps. Emotions play a legitimate role in shaping our political beliefs and actions. In his book The Political Brain, American clinical psychologist and political strategist scientist Drew Westen says that US policy on Iraq changed fundamentally when people became more indignant and concerned about the war than they were patriotic. “What led voters to demand a change of course in US policy on Iraq was not that they had new information,” he states. “They had new emotions.”
We all have unique opportunity this Friday September 20 to find new emotions and to engage. Irrespective of age or generation, let’s join the Global Climate Strike to express concerns and hopes for a livable planet.