Who is listening when the children are crying for change?

We are not approaching environmental breakdown, we are in the midst of it. Fearing environmental apocalypse, children are now taking to the streets to fight for their future. Will this lead to productive action, or create unnecessary fear and panic?   

By: Johannes R. Volden, Tverrfaglig master i miljø og bærekraftig utvikling
Illustrasjon: Asbjørn Oddane Gundersen

A sense of panic seemed to be reflected in the messages sprawled across thousands of banners raised into the air on Friday March 15th, as a whole world of concerned youth joined Greta Thunberg in climate protests: “There is no Planet B”, “Our house is on fire”, “You are stealing our future”, they read. Championed by the Swedish 16-year-old, the children’s climate strikes which have swept across the globe in the last few months have demonstrated that the young generation – the segment of the current living population that climate change will affect most adversely – cares and is willing to make sacrifices in order to create change.  

The youth’s concern for the future signifies a desperate self-reflection; a reluctant realisation that the lifestyle hitherto led by themselves and their peers – as cogs in the wheel of modern, fossil-fuelled consumerist societies – is unsustainable in the face of fast-paced climate change and apocalyptically dimensioned environmental degradation. This notion of desperate urgency was resounded in Greta’s words and demeanour as she spoke to political leaders in Davos earlier this year: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act”. But does this trope of environmental apocalypse entail a real threat, or is it merely a fear-mongering tactic for overly worried youth to persuade overly pragmatic politicians? 

It is too easy to dismiss the climate children’s apocalyptic rhetoric as a fanatic and sensationalist interpretation of the state of affairs – as many already have done. Indeed, the strikers have been criticised for being not only unorderly and ungrateful for their privileges, but for blowing climate change out of proportions. But this criticism falls increasingly short when we consider the data from an objective standpoint. The latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report suggests that even a warming of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels will have dire consequences – and the prospect of reaching anything south of twice that within the Paris Agreement timeframe seems to dwindle away. Moreover, to limit warming to less than two degrees, the report shows, unprecedented change (“rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure, and industrial systems”) will be needed – which is, as it happens, exactly what the climate protesters are demanding. While the children who are privileged enough to be able to take part in the strikes have not yet suffered from climate change themselves, poor people in many parts of the world are already suffering from extreme weather conditions and depletion of natural resources. When the data are this clear, refuting requests for major systemic change becomes an exercise not in pragmatism, but in denialism.  

It is not maleficent acts of individuals which drive our climate crisis, it is the structures which allow and promote unsustainable ways of living. 

“It is worse, much worse, than you think” reads the opening line of The Uninhabitable Earthwritten by environmental journalist David Wallace-Wells; “The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale”. While the commonly mentioned consequences of climate change – such as sea-level rise, intensified extreme weather, and increased temperatures – can seem drastic enough, Wallace-Wells draws attention to those that we rarely acknowledge. These include remnants of both modern and prehistoric plagues frozen deep within our ice-caps being released into the world as the ice melts, and the heightened chances of war and conflict correlating with warmer weather. “You’d think that a culture woven through with intimations of apocalypse would know how to receive news of environmental alarm”, Wallace-Wells writes, “But instead we have responded to scientists channelling the planet’s cries for mercy as though they were simply crying wolf”.  

While such claims build on alarmist rhetoric – from an author who surely wishes to catch readers’ attentions and sell his book – there is no doubt that we are in some trouble. Although it might be speculative to cast every natural disaster as a climate change event (although we do know that there is a causal link between the two), we need only look at the gradual changes in our environment across time to fathom the seriousness of environmental degradation. A recent report from Nature found that glaciers worldwide are melting 18% faster than previously believed, at a rate of 369 billion tons a year. Many of Norway’s glaciers are now shrinking in periods where they ought to be growing. Acceleration of ice melting in general means three things: rising sea levels, which has its own set of ramifications, the release of greenhouse gases trapped in the ice, and further warming, as there is less ice to reflect solar radiation and more ocean to absorb it. In addition to these gradual changes, more sudden and catastrophic events could also occur within the next centuries, such as the complete disintegration of the West-Antarctic ice-sheet. It already seems to be crumbling: In 2017, a trillion-tonne iceberg twice the size of Luxembourg broke off the shelf.   

The steady decline in Earth’s species is another, potentially more disheartening, warning sign. In fact, we are in the midst of a sixth mass-extinction. The Anthropocene extinction, caused by human activity, is a scientific fact. Warmer climates, in addition to habitat loss, pollution, and the spreading of pathogens wreak havoc on insect populations. This ongoing “insect apocalypse” warns us that many other lifeforms are under environmental threat as well, as insects are essential parts of all ecosystems. No insects, no life. And surely, animal species, too, are going extinct at increasing rates: The World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) 2018 Living Planet Report estimated that, from 1970 to 2014, the Earth’s total population of wild vertebrate species (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish) had declined by 60%. While wildlife documentaries such as BBC’s much-loved Blue Planet and Planet Earth series have romanticised the natural world, raw nature is rendered increasingly inaccessible and wild animals are becoming increasingly rare. Unless we change our ways, there might be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050, and most of the Earth’s rainforests – home to 10 million species of plants, animals, and insects – might be gone by the end of the century. 

Meanwhile, as the wild animals happily portrayed in children’s films and books are being driven towards extinction, we keep billions of domesticated animals for food. “Consider the fact”, Sir David Attenborough requested in his speech at the premiere of the film Our Planet this year, “that 96% of the mass of the mammals on the planet today are us, and the livestock we have domesticated. Only 4% is everything else”. The artificial landscapes created by human infrastructures and industrial food production systems threaten to disrupt the interconnected symbiosis of vast natural ecosystems, threatening their capacity for life. Plants, animals, and insects are dying at the hands of humans, and due to the degradation of rainforests, coral reefs and other hotspots for biodiversity, many species disappear altogether before we manage to document their existence. We don’t even know what we are losing. Sometimes alarm seems to be the correct response.  

This does not mean, however, that no progress has been made. Quite to the contrary – many countries are phasing out coal mining and fossil-fuel vehicles, the production and consumption of renewable energy is increasing globally, the provision of plastics is being more strictly regulated, and so on. But when it comes to environmental “progress”, there is often more than one side to the story. Indeed, most technological solutions still have environmental ramifications, as effective strategies to create renewable energy sources often require some form of environmental harm. The sustainability of wind and solar energy, for instance, is a recurring debate among environmentalists: while the energy created is far less polluting than that from the petroleum industry, it requires massive disturbance of natural ecosystems. While electric vehicles produce much less emissions than conventional ones (depending on its source of energy), the production of batteries requires extraction of relatively scarce non-renewable materials and contributes to indirect pollution and toxic waste leaks. The potential for carbon storage technologies is speculative at best and could only be a temporary solution to a permanent (and growing) challenge. Despite all our efforts, the total amount of global greenhouse gas emissions is still increasing year by year. Taking these factors into consideration suggests that technological innovation might not be enough to mitigate climate change and environmental degradation – we might have to change our way of life in a broader sense. 

Many species disappear altogether before we manage to document their existence. We don’t even know what we are losing.

A lot of responsibility for this change is still put on individuals and their behaviours. In the neoliberal market economy, the focus tends be on the responsibility of individuals to reduce their own environmental impacts. In other words, climate change mitigation is market driven. And indeed, all actors are pieces in the climate change mega jigsaw, yet climate change is more than the sum of its parts: it’s the consequence of a system in which individual actions are allowed to be carried out. It’s not the maleficent acts of individuals that drive our climate crisis, but the structures which allow and promote unsustainable ways of living. Individuals can choose to use less electricity, but (in most cases) they cannot choose where their electricity comes from. Individuals can choose not to engage in long-distance travel, but it’s up to politicians to create sustainable alternatives to aviation. Individuals can be selective as to what they eat, but they cannot be held responsible for the unsustainability of industrial meat production and agriculture practices. Energy use and emissions are often “invisible”, predominantly occurring during the production processes of the products consumed. If consumer agency – our capacity to consciously create change through our choices and habits – is to be the driving force of climate change mitigation, we are (probably) doomed.   

This is what the climate protesters have realised: It’s no longer the individuals but rather the system which is the target. Gone are the days when two-minute showers and leftover dinners could save the environment. The current climate protests are a sign that people are increasingly concerned about climate change, increasingly willing to make sacrifices to save the environment, but also unaccepting of being handed the responsibility to do this alone. In an open letter to the climate protesters, The Guardian’s environmental writer George Monbiot puts his faith in the youth who, he confesses, have given him a glimmer of hope for climate change reversal for the first time in years. The youth striking “gives me more hope than I have felt in 30 years of campaigning”, he writes. The dynamics of environmentalism might be changing.   

Perhaps it’s not so important whether Greta Thunberg’s rhetoric is sensationalist, reductionist, or apocalyptic – so long as it creates enthusiasm and breeds mobilisation for, and action on, climate change. While we ought to be concerned about fake news and science scepticism, Greta and the climate protesters have the science on their side. And where they lack pragmatism, politicians lack determination: as of March 2019, few countries are on track to meet the Paris Agreement targets, according to the Climate Action Tracker – a goal which one could argue, on the grounds of the latest IPCC rapport, is far from ambitious enough to counter some of the devastating effects of climate change. In the end, it’s not the climate protesters’ sensationalism we ought to worry about, but the major emitters who deny their responsibility for enabling climate change and carry out their “business as usual”. When the climate is warming, the ice is melting, the sea levels are rising, and wildlife is disappearing, it is better to be too worried than not to be worried at all.  

Don’t shoot the messenger. When children become the bearers of bad news, we ought to listen to them; take them seriously and act on their message – not dismiss them as alarmist hypocrites. 

So, don’t shoot the messenger. When children become the bearers of bad news, we ought to listen to them; take them seriously and act on their message – not dismiss them as alarmist hypocrites. As Sir Attenborough concluded his aforementioned speech, “what we do in the next few years will profoundly affect the next few thousand years”. In the coming years, facilitating an understanding of climate change and promoting climate science literacy ought to be prioritised, and the imperative for doing so needs to start with real engagement and enthusiasm among the younger generation(s). When the youth are worried about their future, politicians ought to take them seriously. Individual citizens should be able to live their lives with a vision of a bright future for themselves, their children and grandchildren. Politicians and policymakers, on the other hand, ought to think more carefully – perhaps more apocalyptically – about worst-case scenarios, and steer away from them through action and legislation. This time words will not be sufficient to console the climate protesters – ambitious strategies and hard numbers showing improvements will be needed. The fact that it is children who now are pushing for change is alarming, yet also promising for the future.  

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