Science Policy & Funding News

Youth Call Climate Change a Generational Justice Issue

Students and educators urge congressional action on climate change.

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“Climate change is a generational justice and equity issue,” Jonah Gottlieb, a high school junior in Rohnert Park, Calif., told youth and adults in a jam-packed room in the U.S. Capitol Building. It was filled with earnest middle schoolers and high schoolers as well as adult climate change activists and some members of Congress.

Climate change, Gottlieb said, “disproportionately affects students and young people in future generations.”

As the codirector of Schools for Climate Action, Gottlieb was at the Capitol for the Youth and Educator Climate Advocacy Summit on 28 March to encourage Congress to support climate change policies. He and other advocates also hand delivered sample climate action resolutions to every member of Congress. Similar resolutions, calling for action on the issue, have already been adopted by more than 60 education-related organizations. Among those organizations are school boards, unions, and student councils.

The summit was one of a string of youth actions against climate change, which also included protests around the world on 15 March.

Gottlieb said that there are two reasons why so many youths believe in the need for climate action. “One is because we know what the consequences are,” he said. “And number two is we’re taking science classes right now.”

Calling on Congress

Schools for Climate Action cofounder Park Guthrie told the crowd that Congress has known about the harm from climate change for decades but has chosen not to act. “The history of climate neglect does not have to be our enduring legacy. The 116th Congress can break the pattern of climate neglect,” he said.

Guthrie, who is a sixth grade science teacher in Occidental, Calif., later told Eos that “the education sector is a natural” for taking a lead on climate action.

“We’re the ones focused on the next generation. We see the harm. We believe the science. Our hearts are broken,” he said, adding that he thinks the resolutions are making a difference.

Schools for Climate Action helps school boards, student councils, and others pass nonpartisan climate action resolutions to help push Congress to act on climate change.

“We have laid the groundwork for trying to educate the public and Congress about climate change, but these kids are going to be the tipping point in demanding to stop harm and neglect and to take action on climate change,” Lynne Cherry, founder and director of Young Voices for the Planet, told Eos. The nonprofit, which has produced a series of films about kids working on climate change issues, cosponsored the Capitol Hill event along with Schools for Climate Action.

Having the Most at Stake

At the event, several members of Congress also spoke out for climate change action.

“You do have the most at stake, you’re going to inherit whatever mess we’ve created, and you’re going to have to figure that out and live with it,” Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) told the youth in the audience. “The fact that you are plugged in now is incredibly important. It’s impressive the resolutions that you have had different bodies pass, bringing this [issue] to their attention.”

Thompson said that he has cosponsored the nonbinding Green New Deal resolution in Congress because of the need to make a bold and aspirational statement about dealing with climate change. The resolution “has been heralded by some as the answer to all of our woes and by others as the beginning of the end,” he said. “The truth of the matter is the Green New Deal is a resolution. It’s not a law that we would pass. It’s a resolution that states certain principles” about reducing the threat of climate change.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) also roused the crowd. “It’s going to be you and your generation that forces everyone else to do the right thing,” he told the youth. “We can do something real about [climate change], and it starts with you.”

A Generational Betrayal

Also at the event, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said that “the fossil fuel industry has developed an enormously powerful and often secret army to apply pressure to Congress” to prevent any action on climate change. Whitehouse said bipartisan discussions about climate change in Congress “stopped dead” following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which led to unprecedented political spending. He said that bipartisan conversation “now is just beginning to reemerge.”

“We are enjoying a carbon polluting economy, whose costs are going to come for you and going to come for your children and going to come for their children,” he said. Whitehouse added that there are a lot of ways to reduce the threats of climate change and that putting a price on carbon pollution needs to be part of the solution. “A big bill that does a lot of things but doesn’t have a carbon price can’t work,” he said.

Climate change “is a generational betrayal,” and the youth “are on the losing end of the betrayal,” Whitehouse told Eos.

He said the summit could help make a difference. “When kids are doing something sincere about which they feel passionately, I think it’s extra incumbent on adults to come and listen and engage with them. And I think that their voices are really, really important, as we have seen with the students in Europe,” Whitehouse said, referring to the big student climate change protests in Europe.

“If you’re a kid, you’re always struggling to be taken seriously,” he said. “I think for members of Congress to show up resolves that struggle. They were taken seriously and should be.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), Youth call climate change a generational justice issue, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO119685. Published on 01 April 2019.
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