Leadership has no age requirement
The nation owes a debt of gratitude to the voters of New York's 14th congressional district for having elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). I think it fair to say had AOC not been elected that climate change would still be vying for a place at the front of the pack of national political priorities. Today the causes and consequences of Earth’s warming are one of the top two or three policy issues talked about on Capitol Hill.
I would even venture that climate change is becoming one of the topics most talked about—or like religion and politics not to be talked about—around dinner tables. I credit the rising tide of youth activism for this rather sudden reversal of fortune.
What AOC, other newly elected House Democrats, and organizations like the Sunrise Movement, Justice Democrats, Fridays For Future, have added to the mix is a new voice—a very large and loud voice—being heard around the world.
Notwithstanding years of opinion surveys showing climate and the environment as abstract matters of voter concern, these expressions seemed never to translate into sustained political action. Congress has been virtually inert on climate matters for over a decade. The boldest federal climate defense measures over the period have been the result of executive actions and judicial decisions.
Executive orders—as we’re seeing—are as easily erased by one president as they were first written by another. Litigation is lengthy, and the judiciary is limited in what it can order. With the rise of student activists and their close relationships with dynamic progressive Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez, it is possible that the pattern of the past is about to be broken. For Mother Earth, it has already been too long in coming.
Enter stage left
America’s youth and their peers around the world have studied and understood what mainstream climate science is saying about the causes and consequences of rising temperatures and the dystopian future they portend. It is hardly surprising that the science community’s explanations and predictions are worrisome to those facing a half-century or more of rising ocean and river waters, parched agricultural lands, forced migrations, the forever loss of animal and plant species integral to Earth’s well-being, declining health attributable to air and water pollution, threatened food sources, and economies that will be spent paying for damages that could have been avoided if only.…
In anticipation of worldwide student strikes on the Ides of March, Youth Strikes for Climate and FridaysForFuture.org issued a declaration published by the Guardian. In part, the edict reads:
United we will rise on 15 March and many times after until we see climate justice. We demand [the] world’s decision makers take responsibility and solve this crisis. You have failed us in the past. [But] the youth of this world has started to move, and we will not rest again…
Humanity is…causing the sixth mass extinction of species and the global climate system is at the brink of a catastrophic crisis. Its…impacts are already felt by millions of people...
Our generation grew up with the climate crisis, and we will have to deal with it for the rest of our lives… We will not accept a life [in] fear and devastation.
We are going to change the fate of humanity, whether you like it or not.
Almost 500 events—across 51 countries—are already scheduled to take place on the 15th. According to the organizers, students plan to skip school across Western Europe, from the US to Brazil and Chile, and from Australia to Iran, India, and Japan.
The youth climate movement is not just about student walk-outs. Young climate hawks are daily in the streets, the halls of legislatures, and courtrooms reminding those who hold power they haven’t done nearly enough to preserve and protect the future of Earth and its inhabitants.
Young in years, these activists exhibit extraordinary skills and sophistication in the way they are taking on establishment politicians and attracting media coverage. Like strikers of old they sit in the offices of those holding sway over their lives—both courting and risking incarceration.
Hundreds of Kentucky high school students delivered a petition of support for the Green New Deal (GND) with 100,000 signatures to the office of Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) and staged a sit-in. More than 40 were arrested.
Organizations like Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement have recruited and campaigned for progressive Congressional candidates like AOC. Young activists see Earth’s warming as the hydra it is. Under the banner of the Green New Deal, they have put forward a package of proposed constructs they believe capable of protecting our present and their future.
Earth’s continued habitability is contingent on the decarbonization of all sectors of society—power generation, transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, the built environment and more. It requires achieving economy-wide efficiencies.
Tomorrow’s economy must value conserving natural resources, developing new technologies and materials, and ceasing profligate consumption. These are hardly impossible steps to take; many are already being taken but not at the speed and scale required.
How have many political leaders and pundits responded to the earnest efforts and substantive arguments of today’s youth? Why with insults, lectures, wagging fingers, and loud laments over hamberders. Responses that are boorish in their delivery and demeaning in their intent.
Trumpspeaking at the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC)--
The new green deal, or whatever the hell they call it…they should stay with that argument. Never change. No planes, no energy, when the wind stops blowing that’s the end of your electric…It’s the truth…the [Markey/Ocasio-Cortez] resolution [is] a high school term paper written by a poor student…
Secretary of Energy Rick Perry--
This is a bunch of kids who've never been on the playground before; they've never even been on the field of play before; they're sitting on the sidelines, and they’re saying here’s what I can do…
Let’s do this, zero emissions in 10 years. All right let’s go do that. Not having any idea of the cost of that… The Green New Deal, 93 trillion dollars.... This on its face makes it a fantasy.
Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV)--
The Green New Deal is a dream; it’s not a deal…And that’s fine…in the perfect world…I’ve got to work in realities… you can’t just be a denier and say, ‘Well, I’m not going to use coal. I’m not going to use natural gas. I’m not going to use oil.’
Senator Diane Feinstein, in a now-viral video, lectured Sunrise Movement members who confronted her seeking support for the Green New Deal--
You know what’s interesting about this group? I’ve been doing this for thirty years…You come in here, and you say, ‘It has to be my way or the highway.’ I don’t respond to that. I’ve gotten elected; I just ran, I was elected by almost a million-vote plurality... So, you know, maybe people should listen a little bit.
Had I not seen the video and only read the words, I would have guessed they were the Donald’s. Would the Senator have phrased her comments the same before a delegation of those in the state old enough to vote?
I’ve written before that truth is not age-dependent. Neither is the right to speak up age-constrained in America. Being old is not a requirement for leadership.
Today’s young climate hawks put me in mind of another time; a time when thousands of black children stepped off the curb and onto the streets of Birmingham, Alabama—where they faced fire hoses, whippings, and police dogs. It was 1963; Birmingham was the heart of the segregated South.
The 3000 children that marched that day in May with their sights set on desegregating lunch counters, restrooms, water fountains, and schools were needed to fill ranks. Their parents couldn’t risk marching lest they lose their jobs—sending their families deeper into poverty.
Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, said the faces of those youths were splashed on the front pages of newspapers all across America and helped turn the tide of public opinion in support of the civil rights movement’s fight for justice.
Today’s youth are also fighting for justice—environmental, economic, and social. These young activists see lawmakers trying to decide which of two paths to follow. They know the choice will have a profound impact on their future and are understandably not content to sit on the sidelines.
Path number 1 is to wait for scientific certainty that can only be known in retrospect, while in the meantime continuing the political cycle of action and reaction. Worst-case scenario in choosing this path—it will be too late to do much about anything other than trying to survive in an even more tribal environment than today.
Path number 2 is to accept the evidence-based conclusions of most of the world’s climate scientists that led to the warnings recently issued by both the UN and the Trump administration. Both reports call upon government to devise and implement a defense strategy based on observable facts that concurrently addresses the many parts of the problem. This path parallels what many industries and political jurisdictions are already doing about climate change.
The worst-case scenario of following this second path is a more resilient, efficient, and habitable environment—with continuing opportunities to employ both human and capital resources. Should evidence be found along the way that supports the denialists’ arguments, then adjustments can be made.
Is the Green New Deal, as alluded to in non-binding resolutions and social media, the answer? There’s hardly enough detail to know.
The proposed Markey/Ocasio-Cortez resolutions were never intended to offer a detailed accounting of the GND. The resolutions are meant to frame the question and stimulate civil discourse on the causes, consequences, and possible solutions necessary to keep from crossing the 1.5 to 2-degree Celsius threshold warned of by climate scientists.
Rather than engaging in substantive discussions or offering credible solutions, many Republican members of Congress and the Trump administration are using the GND as an excuse to jape before cameras with hamberders in their hands while belittling its supporters because they wrote of cow farts and the need to reduce harmful emissions from the transportation sector.
Gaseous animals are responsible for 40 percent of methane in the atmosphere. Methane is 32 times worse for the environment than CO2, and surging levels of the gas are worrying scientists according to recent accounts. The transportation sector is now the largest contributor of CO2 and other harmful greenhouse gases.
Is it any wonder that the young are frustrated by the government’s failure to act forcefully and fearful of the future they face if things don’t change? These young climate hawks are to be respected for what they are doing and should be accorded a place at the table.
Bill McKibben is right these young people will spend the next seven decades living in an overheated world—they have the moral high ground.
As I have stated multiple times over the past weeks, I have my doubts about the Green New Deal.
What I don’t doubt is that the young plaintiffs in the Juliana lawsuit, the members of organizations like the Sun Rise Movement and Youth Strikes for Climate and FridaysForFuture.org and the tens of thousands of other young activists following in the footsteps of the children of Birmingham, are going to change the fate of humanity, whether we like it or not.
The path forward will surely be smoother and more likely to end happily through generational cooperation. There’s already too much conflict in the world.
Lead image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/theaycc/45242999465/in/photostream/
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Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.