On September 20, 2019, students and other groups in Australia, France, Germany, India, Tanzania, Uganda, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the U.S., and many other nations around the world went on strike to protest global inaction on the climate crisis. The protests were timed to precede the U.N. Climate Action Summit 2019, whose web page says:
“Climate change is the defining issue of our time and now is the defining moment to do something about it. There is still time to tackle climate change, but it will require an unprecedented effort from all sectors of society. To boost ambition and accelerate actions to implement the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, UN Secretary-General António Guterres is asking leaders, from government, business and civil society, to come to the 2019 Climate Action Summit on 23 September with plans to address the global climate emergency. The Summit will spark the transformation that is urgently needed and propel action that will benefit everyone.
“Global emissions are reaching record levels and show no sign of peaking. The last four years were the four hottest on record, and winter temperatures in the Arctic have risen by 3°C since 1990. Sea levels are rising, coral reefs are dying, and we are starting to see the life-threatening impact of climate change on health, through air pollution, heatwaves and risks to food security.”
The issue is urgent. New European climate models say a worst-case scenario may mean the global average temperature goes up as much as 7 degrees Celsius (12 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. This means that the heat waves and storms that have plagued large parts of the world in recent years will become worse and more frequent. It means projections that large parts of the world—such as South Asia—will become unlivable for humans are more likely. It means that the ice of Greenland and Antarctica will melt faster, raising sea levels faster as a result.
And we know what to do about it: Stop burning fossil fuels and emitting carbon dioxide. Shift the massive subsidies given to the coal, oil, and natural gas industries to wind, solar, and geothermal (which are cost-competitive in many areas). Suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Plant trees. Encourage more cities, states, and even countries to join the move to be carbon neutral by some date (even companies—Amazon has set its carbon-neutral date at a rather unambitious 2040). If all else fails, there is geoengineering.
It won’t be cheap. But failure will be far more expensive. New York City is already planning to spend $20 billion on sea walls and white rooftops to fight climate change. And that’s just one city. The global bill will be trillions. Just try to imagine what it would take to move a city like Miami to higher ground (of which Florida doesn’t have much).
And failure looks more likely than success at the moment. In the U.S. the denialists still rule the roost—the Trump administration still claims global warming is a Chinese hoax intended to emasculate American industry (although Trump may be changing his tune, at least a little). But projections of future warming are consistently proving to be too conservative. In other words, if the experts are saying the future looks bad, the reality will be worse. We should have acted decades ago, when we first knew what was coming. But we didn’t. No one wanted to disrupt business as usual—there was far too much money to be made from coal, oil, and natural gas, and politicians could count on generous campaign donations from those industries.
Now young people are recognizing the urgency of the issue and massing to protest inaction. Some old folks share the sense of urgency, but not enough. As Swedish teen climate warrior Greta Thunberg has said, the house is on fire and it is time to panic.
At 16, Greta Thunberg is the example who shows that the kids protesting now don’t have to get any older to make their voices heard. But they do have to get older—decades older—to move into decision-making positions in government and industry. And we may not have decades—more than one analyst sets the do-or-die date as 2030.
Fortunately, the kids will be able to vote long before then.
All they’ll need will be suitable candidates.
If those candidates do not appear, in due time, today’s activist youth will be those candidates. And then we will certainly see action.
Let us hope that that action will not be too late.
To be revised after
Monday’s UN meeting.