On Climate, the Youth Must Lead the Charge
In May of 1963, thousands of children led marches throughout Birmingham, Alabama to demand the desegregation of the city, in a movement now known as the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. On May 10th, 1963, within one week of the first march, the city acquiesced to the children’s demands. These youth stood at the forefront of one of the most pivotal moments in civil rights reform in the United States, using non-violent protest as a means to advance human rights. The Birmingham Children’s Crusade is a perfect example of the power youth can have when we act in concert.
For most of my life, I believed that legislators three times my age would find solutions to even the most difficult problems. When I volunteered for President Obama’s 2008 campaign, I was certain that a solution to climate change was forthcoming. But years went by, partisan gridlock paralyzed our political process, and all the while, the skies of my hometown in Oregon filled with more and more wildfire smoke each summer. On the farm that my ancestors founded 150 years ago, my family’s hazelnut trees withered and died from drought. I began to worry — are the adults really going to fix this?
They have already wasted a lot of time.
As a youth plaintiff in the Juliana v. United States constitutional climate lawsuit, I have helped build a legal record showing that the federal government has known about climate change for over 50 years. For example, at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, I uncovered a 1961 letter to President Kennedy from U.S. Senator Clinton Anderson, which predicts catastrophic climate change and sea level rise due to fossil fuel CO2 emissions. Despite this warning and many more to follow, our nation’s leaders sabotaged grassroots efforts to transition away from the fossil fuel energy system and instead actively perpetuated climate change by permitting fossil fuel extraction on public lands and subsidizing fossil fuel extraction.
Given this history, it is clear: without youth leadership and a constitutional guidepost, the adults will not save us.
It is high time for young people to take the lead on climate change, especially since we are being disproportionately impacted by its devastating effects. The clock is ticking and there is no more time to argue with dangerously misled climate change deniers or weak-willed politicians in the pockets of the fossil fuel companies. We must stand up and show the world that we want comprehensive science-based climate solutions that can get us back to safe levels of carbon in the atmosphere.
On March 15, we did just that. With hundreds of thousands of young people marching in over 100 countries from “the South Pacific to the edge of the Arctic Circle”, we showed the political establishment that we will not stand by while they sell off our future.
The Birmingham Children’s Crusade was a demand for the fundamental human right to racial equality; March 15’s Youth Climate Strike was a demand for our fundamental human and equal right to a stable climate system and a livable future.
In a recent Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, Paul Tice gripes about the cost of a renewable energy transition. Given that Mr. Tice worked at Lehman Brothers until they went bankrupt in the 2008 crash, he may not be the one to lecture us on responsible financial decisions. Indeed, our country would only have to spend around 2.5% of our annual GDP to transition to carbon-free energy. That sum is in the low range of what energy has cost us in the last twenty years and is minuscule compared to the costs of an unmitigated climate catastrophe. Just 25 years from now, coastal properties in the U.S. worth some $136 billion will be at risk of chronic flooding. By the end of the century, that rises to $1 trillion in properties at risk of chronic flooding - not to mention the billions of dollars that would be lost in other sectors. For example, two years ago, my home state of Oregon lost $51.5 million dollars in tourism revenue because of climate-driven wildfires, according to an Oregon Tourism Commission report. We’ve done the math, we have the science, the only thing stopping us from making the transition to a renewable energy economy is the lack of political will to address a dangerous status quo.
Youth often find themselves at the frontlines of human rights abuses, and climate is no different. My generation, and those to come have the most to lose from the sweeping impacts of climate change. The International Youth Climate Strike on March 15 followed in the footsteps of youth-led social movements throughout history, and will be remembered as a turning point in the global climate movement.
While we did skip school March 15, we are not the ‘ignorant brats’ that Mr. Tice made us out to be. We are the leaders this nation and the world need at this crucial moment in history.