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youth action

The Children Won’t Save Us From Climate Change

It’s long past time for adults with real power to force change to join the climate movement.

Greta Thunberg leans her head on her hand.
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg takes part in a press conference at the UNFCCC SB58 Bonn Climate Change Conference on June 13, 2023, in Bonn, Germany.

Greta Thunberg, who might be the most famous climate activist in the world, was just 15 in 2018 when she began sitting outside of the Swedish parliament building on schooldays to protest the government’s inaction on climate change. Thunberg’s actions inspired a global youth-driven movement called Fridays for Future and dovetailed with a wave of other youth-driven climate gestures. The next year, amid a roar of publicity around kids’ newly charged activism in confronting the climate crisis, Thunberg was named TIME’s Person of the Year.

Now, five years after Thunberg began her protests, 16 children are suing the state of Montana for inaction on the climate crisis. While other kids and groups of kids have brought similar suits—including Juliana v. United States, a lawsuit filed in 2015 that’s often recognized as the first legal movement of its kind—Held v. Montana is the first one to come to trial. The young plaintiffs are not seeking money, but policy change. Arguments concluded last month, and a judge is expected to rule on the case soon.

I hope they win, but I can’t help but think it’s too late to continue to frame climate as a children’s issue. Five years after Thunberg began her school strikes, “think of the children” feels like an outdated climate narrative. Thunberg and her generation succeeded in calling attention to the climate crisis but with the odd consequence that the issue has now become associated with young people.

And while these children have been skipping school to fight for their futures, adults have kept passing the buck on climate action. It’s well past time for the rest of the world to grow up and for groups with much more power than the young to take accountability.

Children are an obvious choice to represent a need for urgent action on climate: It is their history we’re bargaining with, the narrative around Thunberg and other young people has gone, making young people particularly powerful symbols of the climate movement. But this also presents a unique rhetorical problem: No one cares about the future when there are so many problems in the here and now. We’ve learned that this isn’t an effective way to motivate people on climate; if a problem is in the future, most people are more than happy to ignore it. That’s partly psychological—as John Maynard Keynes said, “In the long run, we’re all dead”—but also cognitive: Research shows most people have trouble imagining more than 20 years into the future, making rhetoric about what might happen in 2050 quite abstract.

The narrative of climate as a future problem is not only unpersuasive—it’s also outdated and misleading. As anyone who was affected by wildfire smoke or extreme heat this summer can attest, climate change is here now. Even the plaintiffs in Held v. Montana showed this on the stand. The young people mostly did not mourn lost futures, envisioning trouble for their own descendants. Instead, they movingly described the effects of climate change in the present.

“As we were running, just sprinting up and down the field, it just fills your lungs,” 19-year-old Grace Gibson-Snyder testified, describing a soccer game called off after 20 minutes because of wildfire smoke. The lead plaintiff, 22-year-old Rikki Held, lives on a ranch and described the impact of drought and wildfires on her family’s livestock to the court. “It’s just stressful ’cause that’s my life and my home is here,” she said tearfully. The stories are heartbreaking but not much worse than what adults are experiencing, at present, in the climate crisis.

The breathless coverage of the trial made me think: Why are we still focusing so much on a group with no political or social power? Thunberg herself has repeatedly criticized all the attention given to young activists by adults who have the power to solve the problem themselves. “You come to us young people for hope,” she said bluntly to world leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York in 2019. “How dare you?” One almost suspects—and perhaps this is what Thunberg was getting at—the media and ruling class are focusing on children precisely because they can’t do much to change policy.

But climate change is too important to be left to people who can’t solve it alone. It’s high time for the kids to take a break and for people with much more social power to start speaking out.

How about voters? Every citizen who is not a child is potentially part of one group that policymakers in a democratic society do care about. While conventional wisdom has long held that voters don’t prioritize climate change, the Environmental Voter Project’s research has found that this misstates the problem: Many people who care about climate change vote infrequently (or not at all), but when they do, they can potentially swing crucial elections.

Speaking of groups with power, how about homeowners? They have outsize political power locally and nationally—one reason it can be hard to pass much-needed legislation expanding renters’ rights. Politicians listen to them because of their perceived stability in a community and (perhaps more importantly) their contributions to the tax base. Homeowners also are disproportionately affected by climate change. Not only is it no fun bailing out your basement in every superstorm (trust me, this is autobiographical), but climate change is costing homeowners serious money and trauma. Hurricane Sandy alone damaged or destroyed some 650,000 homes. The vast majority of the 1.58 million insurance claims in that storm’s wake were filed by homeowners, a statistic of note given that private insurance companies are beginning to refuse to cover climate disasters. Last month, Allstate, for instance, announced it would no longer even sell homeowners’ insurance in California, thanks to intensifying wildfires. That’s going to make climate change even more expensive and disastrous for homeowners than it already is.

Let’s not forget old people, who vote in greater numbers than the young. The elderly are far more likely than the young to die in a heat wave, and those with limited mobility are extremely vulnerable in a flood (recall the tragic deaths in nursing homes and elderly housing during Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy). Some groups, like Elders Climate Action and Grandparents for a Safe Earth, have begun organizing elder people around this issue—and the media should pay closer attention to those efforts.

And how about unions that represent laborers who work outdoors? Unions still hold significant power in our political system. While in some places—Illinois, for example, where in 2021 unions organized and passed the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, a huge investment in clean energy that also advanced workers’ rights—they’ve used this weight to advocate for green jobs, labor could be far more visible on the issue, especially as workers begin to face more health consequences from toiling in excessive heat and smoggy air.

Five years may seem like the blink of an eye to an adult, but to a kid, it’s a lifetime. Greta Thunberg is now 20; not enough has changed since she became a public figure. It’s time for the climate movement to grow up too—and it’s long past time for adults with power to force change to join the movement.