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Kids Get Climate Change, So Why Won't Adults Adjust Lifestyles To Give Them A More Livable Future?

MoJo columnist Lance Olsen says the world's youth have ample reasons to question the selfishness of their elders

Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate change activist from Sweden, is a part of a growing youth movement, challenging assertions that adults are acting in the best interests of future generations by denying climate change, refusing to adjust consumptive lifestyles and elect politicians who believe in science. Photo courtesy Anders Hellberg/Wikimedia Commons
Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate change activist from Sweden, is a part of a growing youth movement, challenging assertions that adults are acting in the best interests of future generations by denying climate change, refusing to adjust consumptive lifestyles and elect politicians who believe in science. Photo courtesy Anders Hellberg/Wikimedia Commons
Sixteen year old Greta Thunberg’s school strike on behalf of 
"the climate generation" seems likely to witness the beginnings of a grueling, traumatizing, potentially brutal heat-driven reversal of the human population boom. Why? Because we’ve continued to pack the atmosphere with a little more CO2 with almost every move we make, thus forcing heat higher and higher day after day after day. We’ve collectively waited too long before taking the situation seriously. 

A study led by Susan Solomon found that the carbon dioxide we add to the atmosphere every day remains there for centuries, “so that atmospheric temperatures do not drop significantly for at least 1,000 years.” Kids of today and for for the next thousand years thus face heat-driven risks that are no longer avoidable, no longer preventable. 

But the risks can be reduced. Will that be too much to ask?

As of 2016, even before we collectively forced the heat 1C higher than pre-industrial times, EPA had already reported that, “Children are particularly vulnerable to heat-related illness and death, as their bodies are less able to adapt to heat than adults, and they must rely on others to help keep them safe.”

Writing for The Age, one of Australia’s leading newspapers, journalist Caitlin Fitzsimmons tells her readers, “Let’s not pretend that children and teenagers can’t understand what’s going on.”  She reports that 86 percent of Australia’s surveyed teens view climate change as a threat to their safety, “with 73 per cent saying it affects the world ‘a lot’ now and 84 per cent saying it will affect the world ‘a lot’ in the future.”

Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teen, clearly understands what’s going on, and is markedly more conversant with the science than most of the world’s adults. For example, when German celebrities gave her a prestigious award for her climate activism, she told them that “we live in a strange world,” with a “disappearing "carbon budget”, and that “hardly anyone” knows the carbon budget exists. Today’s toddlers are still too young to have learned the dark consequences of exceeding that ever-slimmer carbon budget, but they’ll be learning it the hard way, if they survive it. 

A November 2011 Ambio article by heavyweights in climate science has clarified the implications as well as any. A team including the likes of Will Steffen, Paul Crutzen and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber begin the abstract of their article by saying “Over the past century, the total material wealth of humanity has been enhanced …”  

They end it saying,“ … we risk driving the Earth System onto a trajectory toward more hostile states from which we cannot easily return.” Their stance has since been widely reiterated by other climate scientists. The IPCC 5th Assessment, for example, makes explicit reference to lifestyle as a contributor to this dangerous era of rising heat. 

But it doesn’t take a scientist to get the drift of what’s been going on, and the concern has been reaching across broader and broader expanses of the adult world. 

Liam Denning is a former investment banker, former columnist for Financial Times, and former editor of one of The Wall Street Journal’s most closely read columns —Heard on the Street. Writing for Bloomberg about the realism of and the need for the Green New Deal, Denning warns that, “We have built our standard of living on forms of energy that we now know pose a threat to our very existence,” and that, “this is a conversation that is long overdue — and necessarily begins with a shout, not a whisper.”

To be clear, we can still soften the blows. That’s what all the talk of mitigation is about, softening the blows. To be equally clear, it’s already too late to stop the blows from falling, and for many long centuries to come. But it’s still possible to soften them, although time is running out for that, too, and there lies the urgency of taking action now. Is that too much to ask?

Too dangerous to go outdoors?

We don’t need more data. Scientific research is still a good thing, but we’re long past the day when the call for more research can be used as an excuse for delay. Enough is already known to give us all the reason we need for taking action.

The basics are already clear enough. For humans, the potential for killing heat starts to kick in at around 104F, and the risk of dying increases as temperatures climb higher. One study found that risk of death “increased up to 51 percent for every degree above 106F” and that “preventive efforts are complicated by the short time interval that may elapse between high temperature exposure and death.” Physical exertion heightens the risk, and we’re already seeing healthy teens killed, often suddenly, by high school football practice in summer heat

As of June 22, 2017, the distinguished science journal Nature could tell its readers that, “A death zone is creeping over the surface of Earth, gaining a little more ground each year,” Nature referred its readers to a study published by sister journal, Nature Climate Change. That study found that outdoor “deadly heat” already affects 30 percent of the human population at least 20 days a year

One day of deadly heat is bad enough to push a kid into potentially lethal “heat exhaustion.”

By the twentieth day of deadly heat waves, risks soar. But the Nature Climate Change article also found that, even with “drastic” reductions of emissions, deadly heat will be affecting 48 percent of the human population for at least 20 days a year. 
By the twentieth day of deadly heat waves, risks soar. But the Nature Climate Change article also found that, even with “drastic” reductions of emissions, deadly heat will be affecting 48 percent of the human population for at least 20 days a year. 
That’s the best case scenario for the next 1,000 years. Without the major reductions, 75 percent of the human population will be affected by deadly outdoor heat for the next 1,000 years. Is avoiding that risk too much to ask?

The authors conclude that “An increasing threat to human life from excess heat now seems almost inevitable, but will be greatly aggravated if greenhouse gases are not considerably reduced.” The upshot is that many of today’s kids will, in their lifetimes, likely risk their adult lives by going outside to work in construction, farming, forestry, or landscaping. The simple joys of outdoor camping will became hazards to avoid.

Staying indoors won’t guarantee safety. As heat intensifies outdoors, it brings risk of mortality indoors, too. Not every family can afford an air conditioner, and heat waves have a proven record of creating so much demand that delivery of electricity fail, shutting off air conditioners across large areas. A May 2019 study found that, just in the US, 50 million household are at risk of indoor “heat disaster."

Heat ushers in a plethora of risk

The effects of heat’s sprawl across broader reaches of Earth don’t stop with the direct threat of death. The effects also include the spread of disease-bearing insects moving into regions that used to be too cold for them. In their lifetimes, today’s teens and toddlers will increasingly be at risk from mosquitoes carrying Zika virus, West Nile virus, Chikungunya virus, dengue, and malaria. Even when these diseases aren’t lethal, they can be debilitating, sapping health and energy necessary to hope of a normal life. 

Indirect threats to kids don’t stop there. As heat melts polar and mountain glacial ice, millions of kids will be swept up in increasing need to run from shores of rising seas. Now add heightened heat-driven risk of life-threatening wildfires across grasslands, scrublands, and forests. And we can’t ignore that hotter oceans are already losing capacity to hold enough oxygen to keep fish alive to feed kids and adults alike. As if that was not enough, we’ve been forcing the oceans toward acid, and that too is going to slash the supply side of food we could have expected from the oceans. 

Add, too, heat-driven drought created by using the atmosphere as a dump is increasingly likely to make key food crops unimaginably scarce. A recent study published by the distinguished journal Nature predicts “unprecedented” drying of “large agricultural areas,’ with “severe consequences” for humans — within the next 10 years.

. This will hit the babies born today by the time they get to their 10th birthdays. And if drought doesn’t strip food off their tables, floods will. Data from the past three decades suggest that excessive rainfall can affect US corn crop yield as much as excessive heat and drought. Then, each of these  studies found confirmation when another study looked broadly across heat waves, drought, and flood impact on corn, rice, soy and spring wheat across the world. The researchers cite evidence of crop decline up to 43 percent  with heat playing a globally “dominant role.

Any one of these above repercussions of packing the atmosphere with CO2 brings its own clout over the future lives of children. Add them up, and it’s no wonder then that more and more people around the world are talking out loud and in public about climate catastrophe, climate crisis, climate danger, climate emergency.  When thousands of wild bats simply fell dead from extreme heat in Australia, there was even talk of a “killer climate.”

Who’s responsible?

Yes, for sure, the corporations absolutely must get their act together to keep the kids from taking brutal hits. They bear clear responsibility for the emissions driving us all into dangerous heat, so they have to shoulder their own share of responsibility for softening the beating that kids will take from heat. But we had better not fall into the trap of thinking that that gets the rest of us off the hook. 

The IPCC report on avoiding heat at 1.5C higher than pre-industrial times said we have to begin “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” Note the word all in the reference to all aspects of society. That means responsibility for protecting the kids from catastrophe comes right on down to household, personal, individual level, including unprecedented steps, taken soon. 

And the reference to far-reaching change means that individuals and households will have to make many changes, not just the most convenient few. In her invited address to the European Parliament, Greta Thumberg cited IPCC’s reference to “all aspects of society,” and told Parliament members that “Everyone and everything has to change.” Then she said it again. “Everyone and everything has to change.” 

In her 13 minutes before the European Parliament, she spoke in terms of doing everything “humanly possible.” She told her increasingly attentive audience of political leaders that political leaders must act, and said, “But I fear they will not.” 

At the end of her talk, despite the scolding she gave them, her audience of political leaders rose to give her a standing ovation. Alas, her message also meets with open hostility. Australian journalist Caitlin Fitzsimmons reminds readers that, “Predictably, people who don't want to hear her message choose to attack her instead - they mock her appearance and stern manner, her Asperger's, claim she is paid to protest, and dismiss her on the basis that she has only just turned 16.

The same thing happened to Australian kids who wrote letters critical of the government’s lack of attention to climate change. Fitzsimmons reported that “The incident was reported in The Daily Telegraph, which quoted two right-wing think tanks and a conservative academic in a story about how teachers are ostensibly subjecting children to a political agenda in the classroom and ‘brainwashing young, immature and vulnerable children with their politically correct ideology’.”

Fitzsimmons says, “The same rhetoric was used to belittle the children and teenagers in the school student strike for climate - even the 17-year-olds who were nearly of voting age were dismissed as ‘pawns’.”

She adds, “climate change is an existential threat for Generation Z. Did you think they wouldn’t notice?”

Will it be too much to ask?

The kids would be lucky if open hostility was the only problem. 

Huffy indignation is almost certain if we suggest that someone disconnect the garage door opener, or retire the leaf blower and pick up the rake. The first response might be too laugh off the suggestion, reply that small actions like these are, well, too small to matter. But any sign of huffy indignation will be a sure sign that we’ve asked too much. 

Opening the garage door by hand or working a rake requires some real effort, effort that can be excruciating difficult to contemplate, let alone do. Going to a diet without meat can seem easy, compared to trading leaf blowers for rakes— or trading snowblowers for shovels.

But this is where a lot of rubber can hit the road, and trendsetters in asking too much will be critical to setting these seemingly little lifestyle changes into motion. Anyone can start leading in that direction now, without waiting for an Act of Congress. It will be difficult, yes, but not impossible to talk about setting electric can openers on the shelf, and using hand tools instead. Likewise for mashing potatoes or mixing a cake. The shift to hand tools as part of a new kitchen routine may seem like only a little help to the cause, but at the same time people can feel like they’ve been asked to do too much.

And what about the objection that little steps like these aren’t enough? Of course they aren’t. Nothing we do can be enough by itself, and that’s as true of buying an electric car and home solar as it is of disconnecting garage door openers. People who can afford to buy an electric car after installing home solar can’t stop there, and feel complacent, because even that’s not enough to hold down the heat at levels kids can live with.

In its April 27 2017 issue, Nature Climate Change published an article whose main point was that ”The big challenge is still to deliver emissions reductions at the pace and scale needed, especially in a world where economies are driven by consumption.” That point was underscored by no less than a senior executive of JPMorgan, who said “Reduced consumption is going to have to be a part of the equation.”

Greta Thunberg told the European Parliament that everyone and everything must change. Green New Deal supporter Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said we need to add up actions equal to the scale of the problem. In describing that scale, IPPC scientists have said we must achieve rapid, unprecedented, and far-reaching changes across all aspects of society. 

When she spoke to German celebrities who had given her the prestigious Goldene Kamera award, she calmly told them, “Avoiding catastrophic climate breakdown is to do the seemingly impossible. And that is what we have to do." Watch her on youtube at the end of this column.

When Thunberg spoke to climate demonstrators in Berlin, she said, “We should panic. And by panic I don’t mean running around screaming. I mean we should step out of our comfort zones.” Is she asking too much?

The trendsetters in a movement for doing too much themselves, setting examples, will meet with rolled eyes, snorts, and a smattering of retorts. “Is the risk so high that all this is really necessary? Is the need for all this really that great?” Put briefly, yes, to avoid barbequeing the kids for the next 1,000 years will require some emotionally heavy lifting, lifestyle changes too excruciating to contemplate, let alone follow through with action.

The more dramatic gestures such as giving up frivolous air travel to distant vacation spots won’t be enough. We have our work cut out for us. Are we up to the job? 

EDITOR'S NOTE: For further reading on what climate change portends for the Rocky Mountain West, click on these links to other Mountain Journal stories:

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Lance Olsen
About Lance Olsen

Lance Olsen was president of the Great Bear Foundation for 10 years and author of Field Guide to the Grizzly Bear. For about 20 years since then, he’s run a restricted listserv on climate and species for scientists and conservationists.

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