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How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change

At TEDxEastVan, Geoff Dembicki shares how young people are battling environmental doomsday.

Geoff Dembicki 7 Jun

Geoff Dembicki reports for The Tyee. He is currently writing a book on climate change called Are We Screwed? for Bloomsbury US.

[Editor's note: Tyee writer Geoff Dembicki was recently invited to participate in TEDXEastVan, a locally organized speaker series modelled on the popular TED Talks, to share his views on how millennials are affecting politics, economics, and pushing society towards a new paradigm. A video of his talk is above, and the full text is below.]

When I was at the Paris climate talks last December, I witnessed something that totally opened up my mind. It was at an event called Young and Future Generations Day, and the purpose of it was to celebrate the achievements of people my age. There were young people from all over the world, Pakistan, India, the U.S., Canada, Australia, Brazil. There were camera crews and reporters and security everywhere.

Christiana Figueres, who was then the UN climate chief, helped open up the event. In her speech, she told the room that we should be very proud of ourselves for participating in negotiations. When she was done speaking, she got up and left the room, and most of the camera crews and security and reporters left along with her. For the most part, it was just young people remaining.

A young Canadian named Anjali got up, took the mic, and said, "I'm very disappointed that Christiana left the room before the youth had the chance to speak."

In Anjali's opinion, the young people in the room had a completely different perspective on the world than the leaders who now rule it. To Anjali, this was evidence of a new way of being, and a new paradigm. From where I was standing at the back of the room, Anjali is totally correct, and here's why.

The generation of 18- to 34-year-olds to which I belong, otherwise known as millennials, will be the last one able to make a difference on climate change. But if we fail, we'll be the first potentially to feel its doomsday impacts, which means if you really want to understand what our climate crisis is about and how it can potentially be fixed, then you have to understand the unique moral worldview of my generation.

I'm going to take you through that worldview. I'm going to explain why climate change weighs so heavily on people my age. I'm going to explain how it's eroding our trust in the political and economic system, and why in our efforts to fix that system we're also transforming the world that all of us live in.

A doomsday lifetime

One of the first prominent people to raise the alarm about climate change was the NASA climatologist James Hansen. In 1988, he testified before the U.S. Senate about the link between human-caused carbon emissions and rising global temperatures.

Hansen's most recent paper came out this spring, and it contains some scary new calculations. The science of it is fairly complex, but what it comes down to is that climate change is affecting a current in the Atlantic that helps control the weather. If Hansen is correct, this could mean that Antarctic is warming 10 times faster than we previously thought.

Now, this was a controversial paper. In many ways, it was a worst-case scenario. But what it could mean is that by 2065, at the very earliest, we could be experiencing a multi-metre sea level rise that floods every coastal city on the planet. New York. Los Angeles. Shanghai. Mumbai. Cape Town. Rio de Janeiro. London. All underwater.

Imagine the forced migrations and economic fallout that could result from something like this. We're having a hard enough time just dealing with the refugee crisis in Syria, which is why James Hansen predicted that climate change is, in his words, "threatening the fabric of civilization."

2065 is 50 years away. If you're in your 40s or 50s or 60s now, you might not be around to see it. But if you are a millennial, you'll be in your mid-80s or younger. You could potentially be around to experience this doomsday scenario.

But it's not hopeless. A recent paper in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change suggested we can still make a difference, but the actions we undertake in the next few decades will literally have impacts for thousands of years.

Political climate change

I'm going to tell you a story about the impact that all this is having on our political system. It's a story that the Harvard International Review said people all across the world should be paying attention to. The story is about Canada's recent federal election.

For this story to make sense, you first have to understand the worldview of a millennial I met in Vancouver last October named Andrew Frank. Andrew is in his early-30s. He's a university professor and he teaches on environmental topics. For 10 years, he watched as our political system threatened his future survival. Under Canada's Conservative leadership, climate change laws were delayed, oil sands emissions soared, and Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Accord.

Andrew's reaction to all of this wasn't necessarily what you would expect. All of the opposition parties had stronger climate policies, but instead of urging his friends and his family and his colleagues to vote for one of those parties, Andrew instead urged them to be politically independent.

As it turns out, this worldview is shared by many people his age. A major survey of U.S. millennials done by the Pew Research Centre found that over 50 per cent of young people identify as politically independent. There are many reasons for this, of course, but over and over, I've heard people my age say that climate change is one of the top ones. It's this huge issue that threatens our future survival, and nobody in politics seems to be taking it seriously.

Every country has a different electoral process. But the way that this value shift was expressed through Canada's process was by something called strategic voting.

In the lead-up to the election, Andrew urged his friends and his family and his colleagues to figure out which candidate in their riding had the best chance of beating a Conservative and then vote for that candidate. Across the country, youth groups made similar pitches.

On election day, young people seemed to listen. Ten years of conservative rule ended in a single night, and Canada got a new progressive prime minister named Justin Trudeau.

A major factor in this upset was a surge in youth voting. It was up nearly 12 per cent. Of course, Justin Trudeau is charismatic, and in some ways he represented real change, but the value shift that I just described is equally as significant.

During the election, study after study showed that one of the major issues for young voters was the environment, and in particular, climate change. We wanted someone who would take our survival seriously, but we didn't seem particularly picky about who did it. No party held a commanding lead among young people. A poll in B.C. on election day found over 42 per cent of young people engaged in strategic voting, the highest out of any age group.

This is what the Harvard International Review found so exciting about Canada's election. Across the developed world, youth voting has been on the decline.

What Canada shows is that this is not inevitable. It can be reversed. And what Canada's election shows to me is that when a group of politically independent young people come together to vote for their survival, they can achieve profound and immediate change. They can demonstrate that the status quo is more fragile than it appears.

Economy of survival

This lesson is equally applicable to our economic system. I'm going to tell you a story now about a small youth-led movement that within three years was shifting trillions of dollars worth of economic activity and drawing the attention of some of the world's largest banks.

In many ways, this movement begins with a former Harvard student named Chloe Maxmin. When she was in her second year at Harvard, she became convinced that our economic system was threatening her future survival. She read an essay by the climate change author Bill McKibben, in which she argued that if we are to ensure safe levels of global warming, we need to keep 80 per cent of the planet's oil, coal, and gas reserves in the ground.

The problem is that the fossil fuel industry was doing the exact opposite. In 2012 alone, it spent over $670 billion finding, extracting, and developing new fossil fuel reserves. Chloe knew that this was crazy, but how does a Harvard sophomore take on $5-trillion industry?

In 2012, she started a fossil fuel divestment campaign at Harvard. Now Harvard has a $31-billion financial endowment. It's the largest in the world. Though in public it talks a lot about its commitment to sustainability, an estimated $79 million of that endowment is invested in oil, coal, and gas companies.

Chloe wanted to start a campaign to pressure the school to dump those investments. She knew that this wasn't going to have a direct financial impact on companies like ExxonMobil, but that wasn't really the point.

She wanted to make a moral point. She wanted to say that young people want an economic system that values their survival just as much as profits. And this viewpoint appears to be widely shared.

A global survey done by Deloitte found that over 75 per cent of millennials think businesses are way too focused on short-term profits. A similar study that it did the year before found that a majority of young people suggested that businesses should be doing much more to address climate change.

This is a significant generational value shift, but until recently, it had no outlet. Chloe wanted to provide one.

At the first divestment meeting she organized at Harvard, only 10 people showed up. But within a month, it was one of the top issues on the campus, and within another month, divestment was in the New York Times. Similar campaigns had started in about 28 campuses that fall, and within a year, they had spread to 300 campuses. And within another year, they had spread to 400 campuses.

Stanford University was one of the first major schools to divest, and it was followed not too long after by the Rockefeller Foundation. And by the summer after that, Norway's $900-billion sovereign wealth fund. By the time the Paris climate talks happened, institutions worth $3.4 trillion had joined the movement.

Now we are still very far from where we need to be to put that $3.4 trillion in perspective. It represents less than five per cent of the world's total investment capital. But by this point, major banks were starting to realize that divestment had a significance that went beyond just money.

The Swiss bank UBS held a series of meetings to determine their views on divestment. What it found was that young professionals and interns in particular were very concerned about fossil fuels. The bank said this is significant because these young people are going to be the voters and the consumers and leaders of the next several decades, which is why, UBS predicted, that the values embodied in divestment would have a profound and long-term impact on our global economic system.

'A moral crisis'

At the Paris climate talks, these are the sorts of things that Anjali was talking about when she spoke on a new way of being. As Hansen's study reminds us, climate change is not just some abstract scientific issue: it is a moral crisis that literally threatens the future survival of an entire generation, and we're not willing to tolerate a political and economic system that doesn't take that threat seriously.

In Canada, 10 years of Conservative rule ended in a single night when a group of politically independent young people came together to vote for their survival. And at Harvard, a small youth-led movement that made the demand for an economic system that values survival as much as profits, had helped influence trillions of dollars worth of economic activity in three years.

So the next time that somebody says to you that fixing climate change is impractical or impossible, remember the stories of Andrew and Chloe. When enough of us believe that the status quo can change, it will.  [Tyee]

Read more: Environment

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