Photos and videos of about four million people around the world rallying last week to urge action on climate change were inspiring. Thankfully, global warming is no longer a marginal issue. From a quarter of a million demonstrating in New York City to young girls leaving their school in Kabul, Afghanistan despite the danger, to thousands clogging city streets around the world, young people held homemade signs expressing their concern, from “There is no Planet B,” to my teenage neighbor’s sign, “I want a hot date, not a hot planet.” The mobilization was stirring, but what’s the strategy for going beyond passion?
Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden is the new face of the environmentalist movement. Her eloquent and impassioned speech admonishing world leaders at the United Nations Climate Action Summit was chillingly on target. Her words were moving, but what will be their impact?
Short term, not much. Yes there were a few good signs. Almost 70 countries say they will come up with stronger NDCs (National Determined Contributions) next year. A group of pension funds and insurance companies managing more than $2 trillion promised to divest from fossil fuels by mid-century. The Gates Foundation, World Bank and some governments pledged $790 million to help small farmers adapt to climate change. Thirty countries, including Germany, are now committed to eventually ending their reliance on coal. But the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases fell woefully short.
India talked about its embrace of renewables but was silent on its tremendous problem with coal. China dinged the US for pulling out of the Paris Accord and boasted about its being ahead of schedule on its NDC, but its schedule falls short of meeting the 2 degree Celsius target. And the United States, led by a climate change denier, skipped the summit.
Fortunately, the young people and some of their elders are not giving up. They were back out on the streets today. Greta was in Montreal leading a demonstration against the airline industry. Many have embraced her message that “we’ll be watching you…We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”
It will be dangerous, however, to rely solely on national government action as the silver bullet to save our planet, demonizing corporations and dismissing the benefits of consciousness-raising small local and personal initiatives.
We need an array of multi-prong strategies. Yes, countries must do much more to up their games in the run-up to COP25 in Santiago, Chile in December when nations are scheduled to reveal how they intend to meet their NDC pledges. NGO organizing and exhortations and the donations of philanthropic foundations continue to be vital and deserve our support. But we should embrace free-market environmental initiatives using capitalist incentives that harness raw profit motives to effect change. Consumer spending, employee demands and freshly applied stakeholder pressures can also motivate once-recalcitrant corporations to change their carbon footprints dramatically.
We also can’t let ourselves be distracted by jokes about bovine flatulence and attacks on changing light bulbs and banning plastic straws. As Greta Thunberg says, “No one is too small to make a difference.” But simply believing in the science of man-made changes in global warming only takes us so far, if we don’t take specific steps, in our personal behavior in our daily lives.
That means not only what we eat and how we travel, but how we vote. As I look at the pictures of the young people who may be the hope of the planet, I wonder how many are registered to vote and, of those registered, how many do vote. The increased youth turnout in the 2018 election was still paltry compared to older groups, 66 percent of whom voted. If demonstrators and their persuadable friends and neighbors don’t act to turn out of office all climate deniers from the White House, Congress, state and local offices, (as well as similar positions worldwide), all the international protest will be so much hot air. Young people today are “woke” on climate, and they can best prove it by translating that spirit into electoral action.