Young climate activists have been accused of antagonising older generations, shifting the blame onto them rather than taking their own responsibility seriously. Charlotte Unruh, an Ambassador for the Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations, argues that such accusations are based on a misunderstanding of young people’s motivation and intentions
Like the atmosphere, discussion at dinner tables around the globe is heating up. Children are going vegan, ditching carrier bags and plastic cups, and deciding that their Fridays are better spent on the streets than in school. The young generation demands climate action now.
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood,” 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg said in her address to the United Nations climate action summit in New York in September. Her words have been taken by some to draw a line between “you”, the older generation, and “us”, the young people. The implication seems clear: the older generations are to blame for anthropogenic climate change. The young and future generations will have to live with the consequences. So it is the responsibility of the older generations to do something about it.
Thus understood, climate change is no longer an issue that divides the population merely along political lines – it divides generations.
Young climate activists are accused of hypocrisy
It didn’t take the baby boomers long to hit back. In comment sections of news sites and on social media, contributors question whether young activists would still stand by their ideals if forced to give up the privilege of the carbon-intensive lifestyle in industrialised nations – faraway holidays, car rides, or imported fruit. (Other voices are downright insulting, such as Jeremy Clarkson’s addressing Thunberg as a “spoilt brat”.)
Such responses paint a picture of activists as naive school children who jump on the bandwagon of climate change protest, without being willing to consider their own privilege. It is easier to blame one’s parents, so the argument goes, than to give up the fast fashion and cheap flights that have been around for as long as the teens and twenty-somethings in this part of the world can think back.
Even Greta Thunberg, they point out, is not beyond criticism: after all, has the young activist’s boat journey over the Atlantic not led to more carbon emissions than a flight would have done, given that some of the boat crew had to take flights to the departure point?
Dividing generations is not the intention
Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that ad hominem attacks and accusations of populism and hypocrisy are now directed at school children. The lives and carbon footprints of public figures who are outspoken about climate action have always been scrutinised, with the integrity of those exposed for unsustainable behaviour called into question. Famously, this is what happened to Al Gore in 2007 when his energy bill became public. More recently, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have been criticised for taking a trip in a private jet this summer.
The face of environmental activism has changed in recent years, and young people are increasingly in the spotlight of public attention. So perhaps it was foreseeable that similar accusations would be mounted against young activists.
We could respond on behalf of the younger generations and point out that teenagers and twenty-something emit, on average, significantly less carbon than middle-aged people. More importantly, some of today’s young people and especially future generations will be the ones suffering from the harmful effects of the carbon-intensive lifestyle of previous generations. What climate science tells us is that young and future generations will most likely have to pay the bill for a meal they haven’t ordered or eaten themselves.
But this discussion does not get us anywhere. The truth is, playing the blame game has never helped anyone. Antagonising older generations as the perpetrators of harm is neither helpful nor entirely accurate. And characterising young generations as hopeless, lazy idealists isn’t either.
Young people challenge those in positions of power
According to a poll conducted this summer, 85% of Brits are concerned about climate change. It is not a minority view, neither among the young nor the old, that we should protect the environment, do what we can to prevent and mitigate climate change, and ensure that the burdens of climate harms are distributed fairly.
Many of us believe that if enough of us try, then individual actions taken together can make a difference in the long run. And yes, most of us could try harder. We know all this already. There is nothing wrong with occasionally reminding each other of good resolutions. But endless quarrels about grocery bags, avocados (and Thunberg’s boat trip, for that matter) waste time and energy. The real battles ought to be fought elsewhere.
The real divide is not between young people and other generations. The real divide is between those who have more power to change things, and those who have less. As it stands, members of older generations have more economic and political power than young generations. This has the unfortunate consequence that an appeal to those in power will often be an appeal to the older generations.
This explains why it is so easy to misunderstand Thunberg’s words. She is appealing to world leaders because they are in power, not because they are representing the older generation. This is not to deny that young people bear any responsibility. Of course they do. It is saying that we’re all in this together.
Instead of ridiculing young people’s voices, the older generation should stand by their children’s side as they demand climate justice, and if they are in a position to do so, they should put their words into action.
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