Human caused climate change is an agreed upon scientific fact. Every major scientific association in the world that deals with some aspect of climate change agree that human activity has increased the levels of carbon dioxide [CO2] in our atmosphere, and subsequently, the temperature of the planet. As a result, polar and glacial ice is melting at phenomenal rates, threatening to destabilize the salinity of the oceans, destroy whole ecosystems, and submerge thousands of miles of coastline around the world. In recent years we’ve seen record temperatures, extreme weather, and changes in animal migratory and breeding patterns. If we continue down the path we are on, seasons will be permanently altered, ecosystems and food systems will fail all over the world, species will slide into extinction at a rate unseen in millions of years, and human beings will face their most uncertain future since the last ice age. If we continue to conduct business as usual and don’t do something to reduce the 90 million tons of CO2 we are putting into the atmosphere every day this is the legacy we will leave our children.
According to most demographers I am a member of Generation X. I was born in 1972 and my lifespan includes a time when the cell phones and the internet didn’t exist to a time when you could get, do, see or say almost anything online. I am also the father of two wonderful daughters, one is about to be a sophomore in high school, and the other is entering the second grade. Both are brilliant, beautiful and full of wonder about the natural world. It is largely because of them that I chose to fly to San Francisco in August, 2012 to take part in the Climate Reality Project’s Climate Leader Corps Training. Despite their obvious similarities as sisters and in life experiences, according to demographers, my two daughters are members of different generations. According to those experts my older daughter [born in 1998] is a member of Generation Y, while my younger daughter [born in 2005] is a member of Generation Z. While I understand the reasons behind putting my daughters into different generations, I respectfully disagree. I have started to classify everyone born in 1992 or after as part of one generation, the Climate Generation.
Much like the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers, the Climate Generation is defined by the single most important impact on their lives, and that without a doubt, is and will be climate change. The Climate Generation begins in 1992, coinciding with the Rio Earth Summit, the first of its kind and an unprecedented effort by the United Nations to bring together heads of state to establish a responsible roadmap for environmental stewardship and sustainable development. Regardless of the successes and failures of the first Earth Summit, it marks an important juncture in human history, and marks the beginning of the Climate Generation.
The Rio Earth Summit was important for establishing a worldwide awareness and expectation about the environment, but it is what we as the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and mentors of the Climate Generation do about climate change will determine in large part what kind of global environment they inherit. Never before have older generations had so much responsibility heaped onto their shoulders. Not even the Greatest Generation, who defeated fascism preserving the promise of democracy during World War II, faced this kind of challenge. For no matter how great a threat fascism was to free people all over the world, it hadn’t been building for hundreds of years, infiltrating every dimension of the global ecosystem, until it reached a critical point and immediately threatened our survival as a species. Climate change has done just that. Over hundreds of years of intensive resource extraction and fossil fuel use, we have saturated our global atmosphere with CO2, methane and the other greenhouse gases to the point where the entire system is infected. We have started to see the effects of this infection, in extreme weather, resulting in severe drought, intense flooding and uncontrollable wildfires. How we, as a global community, respond to this crisis, will determine if our children, the Climate Generation, have the better future we all hope for them, or if they face catastrophic fallout and a threat to their very survival.
On June 29, 2012 a “derecho” traveled across the Midwest of the United States. A derecho is an extreme weather event that produces massive winds and often, intense downpours and can affect huge areas. The derecho arrived with little warning, and devastated huge areas of the country, including the area outside Athens, Ohio, where I live with my family. It destroyed homes and crops and left millions without power during a time of record heat and humidity. In fact, the days that followed the derecho were part of the hottest July in Ohio and other parts of the midwest since the 1930’s. The week that followed the derecho was one of great challenge and distress for many, filled with more extreme storms. The rains that came with the storms provided little respite from the heat or the catastrophic drought that continues to grip over 65% of the country. The derecho, however, was just the tip of the extreme weather iceberg. The first part of the main body struck four months later on October 29th when Superstorm Sandy made landfall in the Northeastern part of the U.S. Sandy was responsible for the deaths of over 100 people and billions of dollars in destruction. The devastation of Superstorm Sandy was beyond anything most people in this U.S. had seen in a single storm, and it served as a wake-up call for much of the country. Since Sandy we have seen more extreme weather, more often and in more areas of the country.
The extreme weather conditions are not isolated to the United States, though. Drought has struck much of the developing world, leaving those reliant on growing their own food facing starvation. Drought is not the only danger facing other nations around the world. Widespread flooding has destroyed entire communities across Asia, leaving thousands without homes, to face uncertain futures as climate refugees.
In South America, drought, followed by intensive flooding has washed away the livelihoods of millions, leaving them without food, or worse. All the while, record temperatures around the world continue to dry up fresh water sources that millions rely on, killing crops, animals and people. With the wildfires in the west, the drought in the plains, the extreme wind and rain in the east and our propensity to focus on all things American, it’s easy to see these weather events as being U.S. in origin and scope, but that’s not the case. The extreme weather patterns and their fallout we are observing in the U.S. are part of a global phenomenon. People all over the world, from every walk of life, are dealing with the impacts of climate change everyday, and it promises to get worse, unless we take action.
The challenge presented by climate change is great, and the scope of the problem could hardly be larger, but this is a challenge we must to rise to face. This is a battle we have to win. If we don’t, we will pay a price during our lifetime, but it will be our children and their children who suffer from our failure. It will be our children, and their children who face a world where temperatures have made massive areas of the globe inhospitable. They will face a world where sea level rise has consumed thousands of miles of coastline, creating millions of climate refugees. They will live in a time where species die off at a rate unseen since the extinction of the dinosaurs. If we do not rise to face the challenge of climate change, our children will live in a world where the crops we all rely on will not grow, and the animals we utilize for food will die of disease, starvation and dehydration. In short, if we do not win the battle against climate change, our children and grandchildren will be trying to win the battle against extinction.
Despite this grim prospect, there is reason to have hope. Over the past ten years the global community has made great strides to reduce our collective carbon footprint. We have decreased our dependence on fossil fuels, by increasing our production of renewable energy. We have increased energy efficiency standards across the globe, and developers are now incorporating smart energy use and greening of areas into their designs. The Climate Reality Project continues to train thousands of presenters who go out in their communities and together share the reality of climate change with millions around the world, from South Korea to San Francisco. Groups like 350.org and the Climate Citizens Lobby continue to empower citizens around the U.S. and across the world to demand that our leaders take action on climate change. The National Center for Science Education, along with its allies continues to defend the teaching of sound climate science in public schools. There is no controversy, only consensus, and teaching anything else is a disservice to the Climate Generation. Independent researchers and scientists from groups like NASA continue to work on ways to reduce the amount of CO2 we put into the atmosphere and ways to remove the CO2 that is there already. Then, there is the Climate Generation itself. Our children care about Earth and they want to protect and help heal their home.
I remember while packing for my trip to the Climate Leadership Training in 2012 my younger daughter asked me why I had to go to San Francisco to learn to present about climate change. Without hesitation I looked at her and said simply, “So you don’t have to.” Like most kids her age, she’s intensely curious and she wasn’t totally satisfied. So, in her typical take charge manner she replied, “What if I want to work on the climate problem?” After stopping to admire her can-do attitude and her genuine desire to care for “Mother Earth” as she calls our planet, I smiled and told her that if she wants to work on the climate problem when she grows up, I will help her in any way that I can, but I’m going to work on it now so it’s a choice for her and not something she has to do. After hearing this, she simply said, “Thanks Daddy, I love you.” In that moment my daughter, who was about to turn seven, understood what everyone should about climate change. The problem is real and poses a great threat and the “grown-ups” have to do something about it, or it will be worse for the kids of today when they grow up. She also helped me understand what we all need to about her generation. If we, as the “grown-ups”, set the example and lead, she and the rest of the Climate Generation are eager to follow and carry on our work.
We, as a global community, need courage. We need leaders who accept the reality of climate change, the threat it poses to our survival as a species and who will put the needs of humanity above their own selfish interests. We need leaders who will follow the advice of every major science organization in the world and put into place policies that will combat the causes of climate change. We need individuals who will demand that their elected officials act in such a way and who refuse to support leaders who do not. We need communities that will commit themselves to reducing their collective carbon footprint and to battling climate change at every turn. We need nations to end their addictions to fossil fuels and develop viable renewable energy sources and alternatives. This will take some sacrifice, but more than anything, it will take the courage to stand up for the future of our children.
One day the Climate Generation will tell their children, and grandchildren about the great battle of the early part of the 21st century. Their story won’t focus on the “War on Terror”. It won’t focus on countries fighting against each other over resources, territory or ideology. Their story will focus, instead, on the global community, working together to combat the causes and impacts of climate change. Their story will focus on how their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and mentors faced a threat greater than any generation before them, and what they did about it. One day the Climate Generation will tell their children and grandchildren why the world they live in is the way it is. It is up to all of us to decide what kind of world they will be describing. Will it be a world where our species is struggling to survive, or will it be a world where humanity faced the threat of climate change and won? It is time for us to ask ourselves, as a global community, what will be the legacy we leave to the Climate Generation?