The older generation has taken to saying how sorry it is to leave behind a climate crisis that young people will have to fix.
I’ve been the recipient of this condolence dozens of times. Family members, teachers, and politicians are full of regret: the boomers have made a mess that we must clean up. It has become a comfortable adage for enlightened older liberals. It compliments young people’s optimism and innovation. It acknowledges guilt.
But these words do little to soothe me. Instead, I feel deceived.
Under the guise of shame, this apology tacitly excuses adults in their prime from taking action. It suggests that the older generations are too stuck in their ways, too comfortable, and too tired to adjust their lifestyles or increase their political engagement. The use of the present tense — boomers are leaving a mess behind — implies they already have a foot out the door and, therefore, are unable to help. The future tense — kids will have to clean up — suggests that something must be done, but at some undetermined point in the future. It’s no wonder that the “Okay, boomer” retort has gone viral.
In reality, people between the ages of 50 and 80 wield immense power through financial, institutional, and social resources that young people cannot yet access. They determine environmental policy and greenhouse gas emission standards. They also have the experience and skills required to innovate solutions like mitigation technology. Therefore they must take action, precisely because they are older and in positions of influence.
I report on the environment and sustainability for the Independent. Every day at work, the climate crisis is in plain view, and the rate of change is staggering.
And yet I have been tempted to become complacent. Climate change feels farther removed from my daily life than it did a few years ago, when I was studying at Yale. As I left campus, started working, and accrued responsibilities, the world became less malleable. Without my radical peers and unable to forge a new system alone, I tried to fit myself into the preexisting one.
My capacity to be inspired, however, has not diminished. During the annual Harvard-Yale football game, when I watched student activists storm the field at halftime in a climate protest, my imagination loosened. The future was pliable again.
Students from Harvard and Yale jointly planned the protest, which delayed the football game by an hour. They chanted, held banners, and refused to leave, even under threat of arrest, demanding that the two universities completely divest from fossil fuels investments.
Older alumni booed the protestors from the stands. Although shaken by their dissent, I was not surprised. I now understand the responsibilities of adult life and the need to make “practical” decisions. But I do not mistake students’ activism for idealism.
Unlike previous generations, young people today are not afraid of a nuclear-armed political enemy. Rather, we fear a bomb that has already exploded. The climate crisis is inescapable, seems unpreventable, and has already arrived.
Older people might find it difficult to sympathize if they won’t be around to experience the worst effects of climate change.
But their lives may be affected more than they realize. Within the next two decades, 20 to 30 million more climate refugees will be in need of new homes. Aquifers that support farming in the Midwest will be almost completely depleted, threatening the food supply. Heat waves, which are particularly fatal for elderly people, will continue to intensify.
The youth have taken the football field, commanding attention and demanding to be heard. But we have not yet seized the referee’s whistle. Demonstrations do not equal power, and the institutions that can effect real change — from governments to university endowments — are still out of our hands.
Yale’s endowment managers control over 30 billion dollars. Their actions set an example for institutions around the world. As long as Yale believes that it’s fine to invest in fossil fuels — along with Puerto Rican debt, private prisons, and ammunition manufacturers — other investors, who hope to emulate Yale’s success, will also think those are smart investments.
Students can delay football games, make speeches, and cause disruption. But older folks must do more than praise young people’s activism. They must allow themselves to be inspired by it and believe that they too have the power to effect change. Our future is only as fixed as we imagine it to be.