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The climate kids are right

Oct 13,2019 - Last updated at Oct 13,2019

AMSTERDAM — Our young people have never known a world without global warming. Many have first-hand experience of the ravages of climate change, from forest fires in California to drought in the Sahel. Kids in Florida and the Seychelles know that their communities may soon disappear under rising seas. In New Delhi and Beijing, they know that breathing the local air is like smoking 50 cigarettes a day. Their generation is about to inherit an uninhabitable planet.

For today’s youth, the fact that their elders have done so little to combat climate change represents a monumental abdication of responsibility. They are the victims of the worst, and the worst imaginable, instance of intergenerational injustice in human history.

That is why young people are taking matters into their own hands by striking to demand urgent climate action. The youth strikes have spread far and fast, and are now a global phenomenon. How should we adults respond? How do we involve our young people in critical decisions that will determine their future? And how do we give them hope?

First, we should acknowledge that those who have contributed the least to global warming, not only the very young, but also the very poor, stand to lose the most as a result of it. Then we should listen to them. Young people, far more than most adults, have registered the stark future warnings of raging storms, droughts, extreme heat and the resulting poverty for hundreds of millions of people. Their strikes are a wake-up call. Climate change is a problem for all of us, but that also means we can all act to mitigate it.

Second, more of the world’s business and political leaders need to make combating climate change their overriding priority. Some have already accelerated efforts to mitigate the effects of global warming, but far more must be done to change the trajectory of rising temperatures. We need more leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who says global warming is a “challenge that people can only tackle together”. More leaders need to grasp, as our young people already do, that this global problem requires global solutions and coordinated action.

Third, we need to harness the passion that has driven the climate strikes and use it as a catalyst for policy. Technical and regulatory mechanisms to reduce carbon dioxide emissions already exist, and communities already affected by climate change are taking steps to make themselves more resilient and adaptable.

Not all of these measures require expensive technology. For example, homeowners in Ahmedabad, India, a city of more than seven million inhabitants, are whitewashing their roofs in order to reflect sunlight. This simple measure not only helps to keep the inside of the house cooler; it can also help to reduce temperatures on the roof itself, where many people sleep at night, by as much as 30°C.

In a similar vein, cities from Melbourne to New York are planting trees to increase shade in summer and reduce the number of deaths caused by heatstroke. And the residents of Miami are so serious about adapting to climate change that in 2017 they voted for higher taxes to pay for better flood defences and more water-pumping stations.

Miami knows what studies already show: Every dollar spent now on resilience and climate adaptation can save up to $7 worth of climate damage in the future. Moreover, the significant economic costs of not acting to combat climate change are becoming increasingly apparent. According to the UN, disasters triggered by weather and climate-related hazards in 2017 caused record worldwide losses of $320 billion.

Yet the actions of communities around the world provide grounds for optimism. By taking steps to avert climate disaster, cities and regions can also create more jobs, growth and prosperity. In Africa, for example, drought-resistant crops and digital planning tools are transforming the lives of smallholders.

Young people have the power to bring about significant and sustained change. The climate conversations they trigger around the dinner table at home may eventually influence decisions in boardrooms and at the highest levels of government.

I have five children of my own. One day, they will want to know what I did about climate change. I want to be able to tell them that our generation did all we could. And that we did the right thing.


Patrick V. Verkooijen is CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation and Professor of Practice in Sustainable Development Diplomacy at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. ©Project Syndicate, 2016.

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