Why I’m excited that kids are suing for climate change action

Children, they say, are our future. They say that a lot, honestly. And they’re right — because long after we’re gone, the next generation is going to be here, and the generation after them. That said, thanks to our own negligence and poor policies, things aren’t looking great for future generations. Climate change is a huge threat to the globe’s wellbeing, we’ve been thoroughly warned about it, we know that some aspects of it are already categorically irreversible, and yet still we’re dragging our heels. Next year. Some other time. In the future.

The future came and went. We’re in the now, and the now is a globe that is already seeing the effects of severe and significant changes in the climate, induced anthropogenically. Yes, the world’s climate shifts periodically in response to lots of complex environmental factors. But it doesn’t do so this quickly, this dramatically, and it certainly doesn’t do so in a way that’s so obviously linked to things that humans, specifically, are doing.

We didn’t mean to do it — it wasn’t like we set out to destroy the world. But we’re doing it anyway. Desertification, flooding, drought…all of these things are permanently changing the face of the planet and it will take centuries for the globe to recover even if we clean up our act this instant. I’ve been reading a lot of speculative fiction lately, and I don’t understand why there’s not more ecofiction, exploring the aftermath of a world out of balance. The Summer Prince probes into what happens in a post-climate change world, for example. I want more of that. I want generation ships of people fleeing a wasted planet, people struggling to survive on an Earth of their own making. These are the realities that we are building.

Children are the future, and we’re leaving them with a horrific legacy. Which is why I’ve been following the suits filed by children and youth in multiple US courts, charging the government with negligence and demanding that it take action on the issue. It might sound kind of ridiculous to some observers, more like a stunt than something that people expect serious action on, but here’s the thing: It’s working. Judges are agreeing and allowing their cases to move forward, because youth have a powerful point.

One of the government’s many responsibilities is to safeguard and protect natural resources, evaluating not just the often conflicting needs that govern their use, but their future security. Many of the natural resources we rely on are threatened by climate change, and there’s a serious risk that they will not be around for subsequent generations. I’m not just speaking in terms of enjoyment, although this is certainly the case — some of our most beautiful natural heritage is being eaten alive by climate change and people will only be able to experience it through images and descriptions. I’m also talking about resources that people will need in order to survive, like waterways, and arable soil.

It’s not enough to protect these resources in the short term. The government also needs to think about the implications of policy and behaviours now that will have an influence on their long term viability. We are behaving in a manner that will destroy a lot of these resources, directly and indirectly — extracting too much water too fast, not reining in carbon emissions and thus creating a situation where storms and droughts created by climate change are destroying the soil, changing the pathways of rivers, increasing salinity.

Pressures to address climate change are mounting, and youth are compelling advocates, because they have a serious stake in it. Even with dire warnings about issues that will affect my own generation, like sea level rises predicted by 2020, it’s not people my age who will be the hardest hit by what humans have done over the last 150 years. It’s the children of my generation, who are growing up in a world where climate change in the norm, a world where they have never known anything else. This shouldn’t be acceptable, and youth who are pushing back on it are doing an important service, as are the judges who support their cases.

Regulatory agencies do need to be doing more to limit carbon emissions and other activities known to be linked with climate change. They need to be more proactive, and they need to move more quickly. If being slapped by a judge is what it takes, so be it — whatever it takes to push these changes through. Since pleading from the scientific community isn’t working, since pressure from adults is having no effect, maybe it will take children and youth, advocates for their own future as well as others, to create a fast-tracked regulatory landscape.

There are always going to be excuses to be slow with regulations and implementation. It’s too much of a burden, this hasn’t been tested enough, we’re waiting to develop the right technology. There’s always a reason. These reasons are specious. When driven with actual mandates and deadlines, industry will make this happen, as it has proved time and again in instances where it has been pressured to embrace innovation. The problem here isn’t physical logistical obstacles, but a refusal to engage with the problem on the part of those who are in the position to do something about it. It’s time for that to change.

Image: Children, nanabcn19, Flickr