The Global Climate Strike on Friday, September 20, is expected to draw millions of people across 150 countries in what is poised to be the largest worldwide climate protest in history. Led by 16-year-old Swedish student and climate activist Greta Thunberg, the strike, which will call on world leaders to take decisive and meaningful climate change action ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York on September 23, encapsulates the growing frustration, particularly among the world’s youth, with how adults have so horribly mismanaged a crisis that world leaders knew was possible a generation ago. In 1979, the First World Climate Conference (FWCC), backed by an international committee of 100 scientific experts, concluded that it was necessary for nations to “prevent potential man-made changes in climate that might be adverse to the well-being of humanity.”
In the four decades since the FWCC, humanity has done a terrible job at reining in greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, we have done just the opposite. Since 1980, global carbon emissions have increased by more than 80 percent. The lion’s share of that polluted pie is taken up by the burning of fossil fuels and other industrial processes, followed by changes in land use tied to a steadily growing human population; namely, agriculture and deforestation.
The United States, the world’s biggest producer and consumer of oil, and second-biggest emitter of carbon dioxide after China, has set a remarkably poor example for other nations since Donald Trump entered the White House. His administration, which pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, has been aggressively attacking science, gutting the agencies tasked with caring for the natural environment and protecting the public from the health harms related to the environment, including fossil fuel pollution, and the entry of plastics, agricultural waste and toxic chemicals into waterways and food chains. Just last week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to revoke the Obama-era Waters of the U.S. rule, which defines which of the nation’s waterways are subject to federal regulations. Now it will be easier for power stations, factory farms and industrial firms to pollute lakes, rivers, streams and sources of drinking water. In July, the agency rejected an Obama-era proposal to ban the neurotoxic insecticide chlorpyrifos. Produced by Dow Chemical (a major donor to Trump’s inauguration committee), chlorpyrifos, which hampers brain development in children, has made its way into the nation’s rivers and streams, where it threatens both humans and wildlife.
Looking to the south, the Amazon rainforest continues to burn, releasing millions of tons of stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every day. In 2019 alone, the Amazon — a sink that safely sequesters 2.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year — has experienced more than 100,000 fires, resulting in a spike in air pollution, with much of the destruction financed by BlackRock, the world’s biggest investment firm. In May, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon surged to a new high, with forest cover being lost at the rate of two soccer fields — more than 150,000 square feet — every minute, as industry leaders feel emboldened by President Jair Bolsonaro’s pro-business, anti-environment stance.
Looking to the steadily warming north offers gloomy pictures as well, with the Arctic losing near-record amounts of sea ice this summer to rising temperatures, and suffering through some of the longest-running wildfires ever recorded. This summer, Alaska lost more than 1 million hectares to wildfires, while Greenland experienced a record heatwave. Siberia fared even worse, with more than 2.6 million hectares burned since July.
While the situation of the beloved polar bear, so long the face of global warming, appears to have stabilized — at least for now, for some subpopulations — there is no short supply of new mascots to be the sad emissaries of the climate crisis. A frontrunner is the Bramble Cay melomys, which earlier this year became the first mammal to go extinct due to climate change. The small rodent lived on a single island in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which itself could be the new face of climate carnage. Supporting thousands of animal species up and down the food chain, the reef has stood the test of time for the last 20,000 years, but it has finally met its match: a deadly cocktail of climate change, overfishing and land clearance. The world’s largest living organism is dying, and we are to blame. “Climate barbarism” is what Naomi Klein, the inspirational climate change chronicler, calls it in her new book “On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal.” At least 17 countries have now declared a “climate emergency.”
But amid all the human-caused death and destruction across the world’s ecosystems and the planet’s climactic mechanisms, all is not lost — yet. “There is still time to tackle climate change, but it will require an unprecedented effort from all sectors of society,” says the United Nations. There have been some key victories and signs of progress, indicators that some kind of system change may be underway. In July, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law the landmark New York Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. Targeting a net-zero carbon economy by 2050, it is America’s most aggressive state-level climate legislation.
On the national front, the Green New Deal, which seeks to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, is making headway into the 2020 presidential election, with a majority of Democratic candidates supporting it. Co-authored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the nonbinding resolution — the most sweeping climate policy ever introduced into the U.S. Congress — calls for “a fair and just transition” to protect communities impacted by climate change, particularly those who have been disproportionately affected by pollution in the past. Its proponents are signaling a break with the consumer-capitalist model of profit and resource depletion to embrace a model that values nature, sustainability, communities of color and Indigenous people. Across the Atlantic, the European Union has introduced the European Green Deal. Based on the Democrats’ legislative package, and with the same 2050 net-zero target, the EU version seeks to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent.
Congress should extend the electric vehicle tax credit, as well as tax credits that promote clean energy and energy efficiency investments: easy, commonsense actions that would reduce emissions and create jobs. Even in the absence of major legislative reform to address the climate crisis, there are ways to make existing environmental laws work in ways they have not been used before. Additionally, we can expect to rely more on new technologies. Advancements in solar energy and battery storage technology mean that electricity generated from the sun is now cheaper than that derived from natural gas. Carbon-neutral fuels and carbon removal technologies are on the horizon. Scientists are figuring out how agricultural soils can be used to safely intake and store carbon.
China, the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, is on target to achieve its climate goals nearly a decade ahead of schedule. As the United States cedes its leadership role in the climate fight, China has gone the opposite route, rolling out more than 100 policies over the past decade aiming to reduce both energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, including adding enormous solar and wind installations to its energy grid and introducing a feed-in tariff that guarantees prices for producers of renewable energy. As China accounts for nearly a third of humanity’s carbon emissions, its contribution to achieving the Paris climate agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels is key (though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special report in October of last year calling for a ceiling of 1.5° Celsius to avoid the worst impacts of climate change).
The private sector is also becoming more environmentally aware, recognizing that climate change poses a grave risk to business. Ahead of its annual summit in Davos this past January, the World Economic Forum’s ranking of top global risks was dominated by issues around the climate and environment. Two-thirds of U.S. businesses have reviewed or changed their approach to energy management as a response to recent climate reports. The world’s largest insurer, Chubb, recently announced it would no longer underwrite or invest in coal projects. Many businesses — some 1,200 in Australia alone — are closing on September 20 so that their employees can participate in the Global Climate Strike.
The food industry is also responding to rising consumer demand for plant-based food, with major brands adding vegan options to their product lines, giving buyers more opportunities to leave the environmental impacts of the meat industry off their plates. In addition to being the second-largest contributor to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuel, animal agriculture is a primary driver of deforestation, the loss of biodiversity and the pollution of water and air.
Consumer behavior is a major element of the climate solution. Through their “15 Ways in 15 Days” challenge, the United Nations is calling on individuals across the globe to adopt sustainable lifestyles. “Evidence shows that if enough people start to adopt the changes [in] … key lifestyle areas of food, stuff, move, money, and fun, then the global momentum of collective action will help shift the economy and address pressing social and environmental issues,” the UN says.
Scientists are even calling on their own to engage in civil disobedience to spur action. Ecologist Claire Wordley of the University of Cambridge and conservation biologist Charlie Gardner of the University of Kent recently published an op-ed calling on their fellow scientists to “act on our own warnings to humanity” and engage in nonviolent civil disobedience. “The scientists who alerted the world to the climate and ecological crises have a moral duty to join the popular movements demanding political action,” they write.
But disparate actions, no matter how well-intentioned, may prove insufficient. To prevent the world from warming 1.5° Celsius, a massive, coordinated, global and legally binding effort across all sectors of society is needed; basically, a regime change, politically, socially and culturally. Notably, the shift from cruel, competitive consumption to compassionate, cooperative regeneration — to a stewardship of the planet that is green, eco-friendly, sustainable, local, organic, and respectful — is generational, gendered and multicultural. Research suggests that women tend to be more environmentally conscious than men, and more specifically, female economists are more likely to support environmental policies than their male counterparts.
Today that is playing out as women, many of them young and of color, are leading the climate fight. In the United States, Green New Deal co-author Ocasio-Cortez and three of her fellow, newly minted representatives — Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — make up what has come to be known as “The Squad.” In addition to being outspoken adversaries of Trump in Congress, they are all young women of color who support progressive climate change policies. Deep in the Ecuadorian jungle, Nemonte Nenquimo, a member of the Waorani tribe, led a successful lawsuit protecting half a million acres of Indigenous territory in the Amazon rainforest from oil drilling. Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, a member of the Mbororo pastoralist community in Chad, has spent the past decade bridging the gap, she says, “between the international decisions [on climate change] with the reality on the ground.” The list goes on.
And then there’s Greta Thunberg, who will lead a demonstration Friday in New York City, and her global army of young climate strikers. “We are facing an existential crisis ... it will have a massive impact on our lives in the future, but also now, especially in vulnerable communities,” said the 16-year-old in an interview with Democracy Now! “We should also try to wake the adults up, because they are the ones ... who are mostly responsible for this crisis, and we need to hold them accountable.” Will adults take responsibility for the planetary morass we find ourselves in today? Perhaps. But as people — a great many of them too young to vote — gather in streets, parks and public squares around the globe on September 20 to demand action, a bigger question looms: Will adults act?
Join the Global Climate Strike on September 20 to demand elected officials and business leaders to take immediate and meaningful action to combat climate change. Click here to find an event where you live — or host your own.