Young peoples’ public and private actions will determine governments’ policies on global warming and determine whether organized human life on this planet can survive, writes Richard Lachmann, Professor of Sociology Department, University at Albany.
Twenty-one American young people, ranging in age from eleven to twenty-two, are suing the US government, claiming that Federal officials’ lack of action on global warming violates their “fundamental constitutional rights to freedom from deprivation of life, liberty, and property.” While the Trump Administration is notorious for its climate change denial and efforts to increase oil and coal production, the suit was first filed under the Obama Administration, whose actions on global warming were too little and too late.
The American case, Juliana vs. United States, is not unique. Children in other countries are suing their governments as well. Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered a hearing in a case brought on behalf of a seven year old. A court in Ukraine compelled the Council of Ministers to prepare a written assessment of that country’s progress toward meeting the goals of the Kyoto Protocol, a Dutch appeals court ordered the government to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 25% by 2020, and a court in Colombia required that government to take a range of steps. Court hearings are being held in Belgium, Norway, the Philippines, and Uganda. Of course the lawyers who work on these cases are adults, but the children named as plaintiffs are politically active, speaking before other young people as well as adults.
Other young people bypass legal venues and focus entirely on political action. Greta Thunberg, a sixteen year old Swede, has organized strikes of middle and high school students, encouraging them to walk out for a day or even for shorter periods on a regular, usually weekly, basis. University students in the US come together through the Sunrise Movement and have occupied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and held rallies and teach-ins on campuses. Similar young movements are developing in France and other nations.
Young people, of course, are the ones who will be most severely hurt by global warming. Those of us who are sixty and older will be dead before the massive flooding, species extinction, and famines that will certainly occur unless rapid measures are taken to reduce CO2 emissions. Middle aged people between ages forty and sixty, at least those in rich countries with temperate climates, will see some of the consequences of climate change but can be confident that they will make it to the end of their lives without being forced to abandon their homes or endure hunger.
The children and young adults in the new movements to reverse global warming understand that they will have to deal with any and all of the results of climate change. They will have to migrate or to live among the millions of refugees from parts of the world that no longer will be able to support human life. Their natural environments will be degraded or totally transformed. Above all else, those under age forty will have to decide if they will have children themselves and bring into the world a generation that would live to the end of the twenty-first century and so would see, for probably their entire adult lives, the climate disasters that will come with ever greater frequency and intensity by mid-century.
So far, young people are mobilizing in limited numbers and mainly in the wealthiest European countries and to a lesser extent in the US. For this movement to influence policymakers it will have to become broader, spreading to other countries, and deeper, attracting many more participants who then will become willing to make ever-bigger sacrifices for the cause. Of course, it is hard to predict the future locations and strengths of social movements. Past revolutions happened at unlikely moments in countries often deemed not ready for radical change, while places with deep misery and horrible governments remain stable. However, we can confidently predict that the effects of global warming will become ever more severe and will affect a broader number of people. Even for those who, for now, do not directly feel the consequences of climate change, journalists’ love of reporting on disaster will bring the reality of climate change home. When we read about floods and famines elsewhere, or deaths from heat waves, it makes us wonder and worry if that could happen where we live. Rich cities already are not immune to flooding. Superstorm Sandy, which inflected heavy damage on New York City in 2012, did more to increase climate awareness in the US than anything else.
Young people have another form of leverage. They, like each new generation, determines the size of the following generation We know that birth rates have been declining in most countries in the world for the past half century. Recently, that decline has accelerated in rich countries. There are a number of reasons for this: stagnant or declining incomes, rising debt loads among young people, and the lack of affordable homes. On top of those immediate material factors, ever expanding ideas of what parents ought to do for their children, make couples worry that they can’t afford the money or time to provide for even one and certainly not more future children.
As of yet, demographers have not studied whether worries over global warming are affecting fertility decisions. However, we know from the words of young environmental activists that they are thinking in those terms. Along with expressing worries about their own futures they speak of their dread of bringing another generation into a world that they accurately believe is doomed unless dramatic and rapid actions are taking to drastically reduce CO2 emissions.
Organized or spontaneous fertility strikes would be a powerful weapon. Capitalists depend on rising, or at least stable, populations to provide workers and consumers. Japan is the prime example of what happens to even the richest and most dynamic economies when population falls. If young people refuse to have children and make clear that global warming is a, or the, main reason, then that in itself will become a new political dynamic. Young peoples’ public and private actions will determine governments’ policies on global warming and determine whether organized human life on this planet can survive.