Summer 2018 was Sweden’s hottest since record-keeping began more than 260 years ago—marked by drought, wildfires, and extremely low reservoir levels. That was too much for 15-year-old Greta Thunberg. She heard politicians talking about climate change but didn’t see them doing enough about it.
So she refused to go to school until a general election on September 9. Every day, she sat outside parliament in Stockholm and handed out leaflets with the message, “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.”
Now her lone action has spread worldwide, and she’s gone on to address negotiators at December’s UN climate summit in Katowice, Poland, and delegates at the January World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. She has also inspired thousands of students from Brussels to Melbourne to Winnipeg to walk out of classes every Friday to draw attention to the climate crisis and opportunities to fix it.
Young people have also launched a number of climate-related legal actions in the U.S., Canada, Belgium, Norway, India, Colombia, and elsewhere. With the slow pace of justice, the kids could be grown up and the planet half-cooked before their cases are decided. A suit launched by 21 young Americans in 2015 is still making its way through the courts. The plaintiffs argue that government promotion of fossil fuels in the face of known climate impacts violates “the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property”. At least government attempts to dismiss the case have failed.
These kids have more wisdom than the grownups elected to represent our interests. They also have more at stake. While governments support the fossil-fuel industry with subsidies, incentives, and propaganda for the sake of short-term profits, young people must consider what kind of world they’ll inherit from their shortsighted elders. Because most are too young to vote, they have few avenues other than protests and legal action to get politicians and others to pay attention.
Thunberg has a good response to those who accuse her and other youth of being simplistic: “You say nothing in life is black or white,” she told wealthy elites in Davos. “But that is a lie. A very dangerous lie. Either we prevent 1.5° C of warming or we don’t. Either we avoid setting off that irreversible chain reaction beyond human control or we don’t. Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t. That is as black or white as it gets. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival.”
Sweden is ahead of much of the world on climate action and policies. But as Thunberg knows, that’s not so much a statement about her country’s progress as it is about the world’s inability to confront this crisis with the urgency it demands.
As much as I admire these kids, I’m saddened that it’s come to this. Children shouldn’t have to spend their time in court or protesting. They should be enjoying their formative years, getting outside, playing, spending time with friends and family, studying—even connecting on social media.
“I wish I didn’t have to be here today,” 11-year-old Lucie Atkin-Bolton told the Guardian during a Sydney, Australia, protest. “I’m the school captain at my primary school. We’ve been taught what it means to be a leader. You have to think about other people.”
She said politicians have let her down. As if to prove her point, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison berated students protesting throughout the country, telling them they should be learning about mining and science. “The best thing you’ll learn about going to a protest is how to join the dole queue,” he said.
As Thunberg says: “Some people say that we should be in school instead. But why should we be studying for a future that’s soon to be no more? And when no one is doing anything whatsoever to save that future?”
Too many adults become complacent, unwilling to even imagine making sacrifices for their children and grandchildren—even though many changes required to bring emissions and warming under control would confer numerous benefits, from healthier diets to reduced pollution to greater employment and economic opportunities in clean energy.
It’s time to heed the world’s youth or get out of their way.