“Blah, blah, blah.” — Greta Thunberg
Start by listening.
That was the answer to the question, posed at the end of my most recent column, of how we can best support today’s youth climate movement. I’ve dubbed the upcoming generation, those under 25, as Gen-R, the generation that will be tasked with R-eviving and R-estoring our ailing planet — a project largely abandoned by older generations.
But although most adults in positions of power in today’s governments, businesses and other institutions are too invested in the status quo to properly address climate change, there are many people in those positions who have at least tried to make meaningful contributions to the cause. Attempts at mitigating global heating, albeit inadequate, are being made around the planet. What’s missing is a sense of urgency — one sufficient to spur real action.
That’s where listening, really listening to what young people are saying, comes in. In essence, they’re saying we’re rapidly running out of time — in fact, we are almost completely out of time — to protect ourselves, and especially to protect them, from some of the worst effects of climate change. But is this just hyperbole, reflecting the melodramatic aspect of the youthful psyche?
To decide, we need to understand something called the Remaining Carbon Budget (RCB).
Simply put, the RCB is the amount of carbon we emit, measured in gigatons (billions of metric tons), compared to the degree of temperature rise that carbon will eventually cause. If we add X gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere, temperatures will rise to Y. (Of course, the underlying calculations are extremely complex, but the conclusions can be reduced to numbers that a fourth-grader can understand.)
The 2021 report by the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) put its RCB conclusions starkly: By that year, with the global temperature at 1.18ºC, we had already emitted all but 11% of the carbon needed to lock in a 1.5ºC temperature rise. And, we are using this RCB at the rate of 1% per year: By 2031, without drastic reductions in carbon emissions, we will have spent the entire budget. But instead of dropping, annual global emissions are actually rising, and they are estimated to be higher in 2022.
Now, 1.5ºC above preindustrial temperature levels is not the end of the world — not quite. The 1.5ºC threshold was the “aspirational” goal of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, an at-the-time feasible benchmark that could keep us from ever reaching the truly catastrophic, and likely irreversible, 2.0ºC mark. Turn things around by the time we hit 1.5ºC, the thinking went, and we have a good chance of getting the climate crisis under control. Beyond 1.5ºC, our chances could diminish exponentially as natural feedback loops kick in and release huge quantities of stored carbon and eliminate carbon sinks, that is, there is early evidence that climate change is killing what’s left of the Amazon rain forest.
Now, it seems, we are set to blow past 1.5ºC target, and could be well on our way to 1.6ºC or higher in 15 years or less — with every 1/10th of a degree arguably making the climate chaos we are already experiencing exponentially worse.
So yeah, the kids are freaked out, because they see this happening, see global leaders doing practically nothing about it, and foresee it all landing in their laps during their early adulthoods. And the kids are not particularly inhibited in expressing their reaction to this betrayal of their future. When Greta Thunberg made her recent “Blah, blah, blah.,” speech, she was talking about how those in power have talked around the issue of climate change — trying to appear concerned while actually doing next to nothing.
The adults would do well to listen, and to act, at our ecological house.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.