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The Climate Lemon

Young people and climate change: Why it’s our time to take the reins

Young people and climate change
Photo by: Alexander Dummer / Pexels / CC0

I was born in 1993. A British nineties kid. I remember one day when I was seven, I ran screaming through the house giddy with excitement because Pokémon and Digimon were both on TV on the same afternoon and one of my milk teeth had just fallen out.

Tony Blair was prime minister. My parents’ hippie friends were already talking about the melting icecaps.

I’m at the tail end of the generation known as Millennials.

We’re known for being obsessed with selfies, smart phones and social media, being offended by offensive things, eating avocados instead of buying property and destroying shit industries like golf and cruises.

But when future historians are writing about our generation after the fact, it’s likely we won’t be known as the ‘Me Me Me Generation’ as TIME magazine put it, but the generation defined by climate breakdown.

We’re set to be the first generation to really feel the force of the climate crisis that’s been bubbling in the background for decades, and the last generation to have a significant opportunity to stop it.

We live at a crossroads in history.

In this post, I’m going to run through some of the key things that make this moment in history so unique when it comes to young people and climate change. 

The boomers failed us

What I want to start with is a reminder that this discussion around young people and climate change, the question of intergenerational justice, is not new. In fact, the premise that we have to fix climate change ‘for our children and grandchildren’ has been the rallying cry since the early climate activism of the 1970’s.

But here’s the thing.

Decades have passed, and people are still saying the same thing. In the 70’s, environmentalists in the baby boomer generation wanted to protect the planet for their grandchildren.

Almost five decades later, and those grandchildren they were talking about had time to be born and grow up, and they’re us.

We are the grandchildren the first climate activists wanted to save. And we’re adults now. And we have not been saved.

The time-lag of carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas responsible for causing climate change via the greenhouse effect, can hang around in the atmosphere for 100 years or more once it gets up there.

This fact of chemistry is what drives the entire issue of intergenerational justice when it comes to climate change.

Without it we probably would have sorted the issue long ago. Because there is a time lag between the action and the effect, it makes it so much harder to motivate action and pin down responsibility.

Humans are not very good at dealing with delayed affects – why do you think so many people still smoke even though we all know it causes cancer and lung disease. The effect is coming years down the line so it’s hard to be motivated to resist.

CO2 and climate change is much harder because it happens just beyond the timeframe of a human life – so your emissions now are going to be hurting someone else in 100 years, not necessarily yourself in 20-30 years.

Young people and climate change: intergenerational justice

That’s what gives us the concept of intergenerational justice.

The moral philosophy concept posits that just as we have issues of justice (or more likely lack thereof) between classes, genders, races, countries – we also have justice between generations.

In a world where natural resources are not infinite, they have to be shared out in some way, and that way can be more or less fair.

And if the environment is being degraded so that with passing time it produces and supports less, then that impoverishes future generations.

It means that the current generation is essentially stealing from the next. We are getting a smaller slice of the pie.

That’s the situation we’re in right now. Middle-aged rich people profit today, and we suffer the costs tomorrow. And the climate impacts we’re suffering today are because of the actions of people who came before us.

Neoliberalism and nihilism

I’ve written before about how the dominant ideology of neoliberalism makes it harder to engage in the kind of collective action that climate change demands. My post on why we can’t rely on individuals to fight climate change is one of my most popular posts ever – clearly it struck a chord.

Neoliberalism is a political ideology that has been dominant since the 1980s. I won’t dwell on its signature policies of privatisation and deregulation here. The more relevant aspect is it’s focus on individualism.

This is immortalised in Margaret Thatcher’s iconic quote:

“There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families”.

This focus on the individual encourages people to be competitive rather than cooperative and engage in selfish behaviour rather than solidarity.

If you are struggling it is your fault, if you are succeeding it is to your merit. It’s a dog eat dog world. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and run, sharp elbows out, over others in a ruthless scramble to the top!

You get it. Let’s park that for a second and talk about nihilism, the philosophical idea that life is meaningless.

A kind of sardonic pop-nihilism is very popular with my generation. Its dark humour and pontification on life can be found in cult-classic animation-for-adults shows like Rick & Morty and Bojack Horseman.

(Nihilism can be both pessimistic and optimistic. The optimistic form says that, in the face of objective external meaninglessness, it’s up to humans to create their own meaning, which can be an empowering stance).

Nihilism appeals to my generation’s appreciation of irony and relatable memes, our rejection of religious and small C conservative morals and our lionising of science in place of faith.

And all this feels incredibly relatable to our experience within late capitalism.

Many feel vapid consumerism is failing to fill the void left by lack of strong community, identity and meaning, and the prevalence of ‘bullshit jobs’ means many of us have an existential crisis pencilled in for every Sunday night.

Even if we do not personally subscribe to neoliberalism and nihilism, this is the cultural, political and philosophical soup within which we swim.

I believe it is the prevalence of these ideas that lead so many people people to say things like: “Well, we’re fucked. There’s nothing we can do. The world will suffer and burn. The worst of it will be after we die anyway so let’s just forget about it and try to enjoy ourselves.”

But that kind of attitude is a recipe for disaster. 

Luckily, young people all around the world are rejecting this and choosing radical action instead. Perhaps some are full of righteous anger, perhaps some are just desperate, perhaps some – particularly the younger ones – have had less time to become jaded by our shitty system. The natural hope and idealism of youth may be exactly what we need right now.  

Youth climate activism

Despite the less-than-encouraging context, young people of my generation and the next are engaged on climate change like never before.

The last few months of 2018 and early 2019 have seen historic levels of climate activism and public attention. Something seems to have finally shifted.

One of the most inspiring things in the climate space right now is the explosion of youth-led climate activism. From Extinction Rebellion that was recently holding mass protests in London to the Sunrise Movement and the Green New Deal to the School Strikes for Climate movement – it’s in the air.

And it’s having an effect. The UK Parliament recently became the first in the world to declare a climate emergency.

School Strikes and Greta Thunberg

In April 2019, as I was writing this post, Greta Thunberg was speaking at the European Parliament. Thousands of students from schools and universities have strode out of lessons to protest inaction on climate change and try to force leaders into acting to protect our future.

School Strike for Climate Young people and climate change
School Strike for Climate march, Melbourne, 30th November 2018. By julian meehan on Flickr, Creative Commons license.

This movement has grown organically inspired by Greta Thunberg, an extraordinary Swedish 16 year old climate activist.

She started doing her own solo protests every Friday outside the Swedish embassy back in August 2018, and from that a global mobilisation has taken root.

She rocketed to climate stardom when she was invited to speak at the COP24 climate summit in December 2018, then 15 years old, and stole the show with perhaps the most powerful speech of the whole summit.

She was then invited to speak at Davos in January 2019, the yearly meeting of the global elite – from heads of state to global CEOs and investors to philanthropists and celebrities.

Seeming to have absolutely no time for prissy social norms that usually apply when us common folk are invited into the halls of power, she roasted the elite audience to their face by telling them that the rich and powerful – including the actual people in the room – are the ones to blame for the crisis, and not only that but they have profited from it.

This incredible ability to speak truth to power and inspire and mobilise vast numbers of activists makes Greta Thunberg a global icon for the climate youth activism movement. I’m not surprised she’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Sunrise Movement and AOC

Across the pond in the US, it’s also the young people that are pushing the climate movement forward.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman to be elected to Congress, is making waves by pushing the Green New Deal – an ambitious policy package for transitioning the US to a net-zero economy through a ‘just transition’, investing in infrastructure, jobs and marginalised communities.

This bold proposal – which would have been totally unthinkable just a couple of years ago – is now being pushed right into the mainstream at an astonishing rate.

AOC has been the key champion within the halls of Congress, but the grassroots energy that made this happen came from the Sunrise Movement, a group of young climate activists.

They have been organising, protesting, lobbying, planning and celebrating victories all the way, and have been in close contact with AOC over strategy. 

Like the School Strikes for Climate movement, Sunrise Movement is mainly comprised of people younger than me, a lot of them still teenagers, members of so called ‘Gen Z’.

Many members of Gen Z literally won’t remember a time when the climate crisis was not a thing. The UN climate talks will have been going on literally their whole lives (starting in 1997 with the Kyoto Protocol).

All their lives they have seen adults – the most powerful ones at that – talking shop while their chance of a future in a climate-safe world goes up in smoke. No wonder they’re pissed.

Want to take action?

Read my post on 7 types of citizen power. If you want to take practical steps in your daily life, my top three climate action suggestions are to switch to a renewable energy provider and move to a plant-based diet, and to vote for ambitious climate action at the ballot box. 

If activism is your thing, or you want to see if it’s your thing, get in touch with School Strikes for Climate, Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion or a similar group in your area. Now is the time to jump in!

And please do share this post if you found it valuable. 🙂 

The older generations have failed to get a handle on this global existential threat, and it’s now time for us to start taking the reins.


Featured image: Chicago Sunrise Movement Rallies for a Green New Deal Chicago Illinois Feb 2019. Photo by Charles Edward Miller, Flickr, Creative Commons license

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Hey, I’m Tegan

I'm a passionate sustainability enthusiast, blogger and communications professional. I live in Brighton, UK, with my boyfriend and tortoise. Can usually be found reading, writing or eating chickpea burritos. Wanna chat? I'm at @TeganTallullah on Twitter.

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