The Climate Change Generation

Hudson Bay ice from the sky, credit Spencer Showalter

On a transatlantic flight this spring, I met a climate modeler at the back of the plane as we peered out of a tiny window to look at the ice breaking up over Hudson Bay, a phenomenon that NASA’s Earth Observatory says now happens two weeks earlier than it did in 1988.  We talked about our careers; he was a climate scientist looking to retire soon, having spent his entire career using data to model current and future impacts of climate change, and I was weeks away from my attaining my master’s degree in marine affairs and just starting my career, hoping to continue the fight against climate change on a wider political stage. Near the end of our conservation, he graciously told me, “We need more people like you. We did the science, but no one ever listened – your generation has to take up the fight.”

His words have stuck with me, and he’s not wrong. At 23, I’ve grown up with the specter of climate change hanging over my head. Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth came out when I was still in the fifth grade, the science not finished but certainly definitive, the call to action incomplete but imperative. My friends and I saw it in theatres and wasted no time making posters about what we learned and hanging them up around our town; we organized lemonade stands and bake sales to raise money for The Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund. We didn’t know how to organize and we had no access to online social networks, so we did what we could in the analog way of the time, putting up paper posters and mailing physical money to the organizations that were doing something about climate change. Despite the scientific confidence and widespread climate communication that shaped my childhood, 13 years later some politicians still claim that human carbon emissions are not the cause of climate change.

The March 15th Climate Strike in Melbourne, Australia, featuring a sign saying “Your choice but I have to live with it,” from Takver on Flickr

The truth is that whatever 70-year old politicians want to purport about the whys and hows of climate change, they will not have to grapple with its impacts the way my generation will have to. Scientists’ projections of declining fish stocks, massive threats to industrial agriculture, and significant sea level rise may feel like a distant issue to some, but to my generation, they are the issues that will directly affect our entire adult lives. Because of this disparity in impact, as young people are entering the political arena, their conversation and activism has been steeped in concern over climate change.

Just this March, 1.6 million people in 133 countries participated in a climate strike inspired by the work of Greta Thunberg, a Swedish 16-year old who has been making headlines first by protesting, then by giving speeches at events like the World Economic Forum and the U.N. Climate Change Conference. In the U.S., 21 youth plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in 2015, alleging that the federal government of the United States has violated their rights by knowingly endangering the children’s health and welfare by approving and promoting fossil fuel development. After a fair amount of litigation over their standing, and several attempts by the federal government to stop the case from going to court, Juliana v. United States just started hearing oral arguments last week in Portland, OR. These youth-led movements are drawing enormous attention to the issue of climate change, while simultaneously highlighting the generational impact disparity: the emissions released by past generations are threatening our future.

Photo of a supporter of the plaintiffs in the Juliana v. US lawsuit, from Charles Edward Miller on Flickr

Additionally, climate politics in the U.S. are in the spotlight, and politicians are building climate change policies to draw the votes of the Millennial and Generation Z blocs. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has released data showing that voters under the age of 30 are more likely to support immediate action on climate change and that under-30’s believe that dealing with climate change should be a top priority for Congress and the President. The Harvard Public Opinion Project has found that climate change is among the top priorities on the political agendas of youth voters and that young voters are inspired by and likely to vote in favor of bold climate change policy. The Sunrise Movement, champion of The Green New Deal, is led and staffed by young voters who are driven to “make climate change an urgent priority across America […] and elect leaders who stand up for the health and wellbeing of all people.”

In other words, young people across the world are focused on what many of us believe to be the defining issue of our generation. When the International Panel on Climate Change reports with high confidence that we are likely to reach 1.5°F of warming by 2052, they are talking about a time when I will still be younger than my mother is now. The young generation is the concept of sustainability embodied; the U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainability as “development that needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” — we are the future generations for which present development must allow.

Protestors at a youth climate march in Pittsburgh, PA, in 2018. Photo from Mark Dixon on Flickr.
SMEA students marching for climate action. Photo credit Spencer Showalter

As my cohort at the University of Washington’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs hurtles towards our graduation this Thursday, many of us are part of this very movement. We have spent our lives bombarded by harrowing predictions for our planet, giving us less than twelve years to address the issue on a global scale. We grew up learning about the battle ahead, and we’ve spent the years of our education arming ourselves to fight it. We are the climate change generation.