About 252 million years ago, the Permian-Triassic extinction event killed “90 percent of the planet’s species,” according to National Geographic, and exterminated 96 percent of marine species. The culprit? Some scientists say runaway climate change played a role. Today, we once again stand on the brink of climate catastrophe, and it may pose a similar existential threat.
“Runaway” climate change refers to nonlinear warming, when a chain reaction of physical processes trigger and accelerate each other, making the Earth unbearably warm for most life. We are already seeing such feedback loops in action. For example, Arctic permafrost — frozen soil — has begun to melt, sending methane into the atmosphere, which makes the earth warmer, which melts more permafrost, which makes the Earth warmer, and so on.
We don’t know when these feedback loops will become unstoppable. James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost climate scientists, has suggested runaway climate change could induce what he calls “Venus syndrome” if we burn all of the earth’s available fossil fuels, making the planet about as uninhabitable as Venus. Other scientists find this unlikely, and argue that focusing on these worst-case scenarios is unhelpful. What is certain, however, is that even if we manage to avoid runaway climate change, we are already suffering the destabilizing impacts of existing climate disruption. And that will inevitably grow worse, regardless of our interventions.
The upshot, for millennials, is that we’ll spend our lives watching the Earth become less and less suitable for humans and many other life forms — and possibly for civilization as we know it. The next generation will witness even further risk of collapse. Perhaps Generation Z is a most apt name for them.
I recently wrote that climate change inspires resentment in millennials toward Baby Boomers, particularly those elite Boomers who bear the greatest responsibility for climate change, those who command a vast majority of the world’s capital and virtually all of the world’s political power. Those Boomers are most equipped to prevent climate change, but many stubbornly refuse to even acknowledge its existence. It seems unlikely they will suddenly change course and start doing something about the problem.
So it’s up to the young. The task before us will require the full attention of state force and economic production, deployed in coordination, to oversee the global energy transition required to avoid human extinction. This is an engineering and technical feat on a scale no humans have ever attempted; channeling the necessary resources into solving that technical problem is an administrative challenge on a scale no nations have ever endeavored. This blows America’s war mobilization or Europe’s postwar rebuilding out of the water.
The most critical challenge now confronting millennials and Gen Z, atomized, precarious and hopeless as we are, is how we seize power quickly enough to prevent runaway climate change from making earth unsuitable for civilization, or even human life.
Corporate media and neoliberal institutions have tried to convince people that the best way to confront global issues like climate change is through isolated personal actions like adopting new purchasing habits and lifestyles. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with going vegan, buying fluorescent bulbs or riding bicycles — in fact, they are probably good things to do regardless — these will not be sufficient to mitigate climate change. Only collective action can do that.
So what does that look like? Here are four actions we young people can take together, though it’s certainly not an exhaustive list.
First and most importantly, we must take control of the government, in whatever country we reside. In the United States, millennials must start running for office and winning, en masse. Many new candidates are running, but not nearly enough. There are good reasons we’re not, from economic insecurity to (justified) political cynicism. But some are eschewing public service out of banal selfishness, pursuing prestige careers in finance and consulting, or sexier jobs at Silicon Valley startups.
This must end if we’re going to survive. Apps won’t save us. Those of us who can, must get ourselves elected and make climate change central to our platforms. This means putting aggressive energy transition at the top of the policymaking agenda. Some of the most progressive candidates now have admirably given a 100 percent transition to renewables a place on their platforms. But 2050 is the deadline Sen. Bernie Sanders and others have set. This is woefully inadequate. The government must propel immediate, aggressive transition to 100 percent non-carbon energy not by 2050, but as soon as physically possible.
Carbon capture and sequestration will also likely be necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change. The market alone cannot deliver these engineering feats in time. At the rate of market-driven energy transition today, it will take 400 years to get where we need to be in ten or twenty, according to MIT Technology Review. Sufficient energy policy will be essential for survival, and millennials must develop and institutionalize that policy.
Second, millennials should help organize community renewable energy projects. These projects are popping up around the world in which neighborhoods, cities and organizations are building new renewable energy production that they own and govern. In Scotland, for example, some communities on the Isle of Skye and elsewhere have banded together to found nonprofits that raise funds for, oversee, and ultimately govern new wind farm projects, and then distribute revenues to those members who helped invest. Projects like this are up and running all over the United States, too. The small town of Northport, Mich., for example, has set a goal of 100 percent renewable electricity derived from locally owned wind and solar initiatives.
There are many benefits to organizing these kinds of groups. They provide civic organizations the means to bring disparate individuals together around a concrete project and forge social capital necessary for political change. They can give communities control of the means of their energy production, which is one of the most important ways of building democratic polities and free and fair economies. They can fund community renewal projects and social services for underserved people. They can undermine the centralizing impact of oil and gas production on wealth and power. Millennials who know Boomers with money and property — or who themselves have money or property — can begin the process of organizing their communities, whether apartment buildings, city blocks or suburbs, to go in together on building new solar and wind infrastructure.
Third, millennials need to talk about climate and energy constantly. It’s hard to talk about; it’s daunting, depressing, sometimes boring, and technical. We have to learn a lot of new information to talk about it with fluency. But if we are going to get the people with power and money to care about this, going to get our friends to care about it, get our government to care about it, and our parents, grandparents and skeptical uncles to care about it, we have to talk about it. We have to educate others and make them know we want this prioritized. The fact that even young Republicans are vocal about climate change is good indication that this issue can unify our generation — our very lives are at stake. We need to have good faith discussions with each other about how to solve it, and extend those conversations to older folks who don’t believe or care that it’s happening.
Finally, we need to organize and commit to direct action. We need to scale up acts of courage and selflessness, and build communities of solidarity and mutual commitment in our universities, our workplaces, our churches and our families. Many activists, young and old, are putting their bodies in danger to prevent oil pipeline development around the world. Many students have won battles against their universities to divest endowment assets from fossil fuel development. A group of teens has waged a landmark climate change case against the government; a federal appeals court recently ruled in their favor, enabling the case to go to trial. Many other such cases are being tried around the world. These actions should be recognized for what they are: necessary and heroic.
But too few are currently engaged in this movement to sufficiently nudge carbon emission levels, or dislodge the immense power of the fossil fuel industry. These actions must scale up from the niches they currently inhabit to a mass movement. Many, many more of us must refuse to participate in our own destruction. This is easier said than done; it requires unusual heroism on a generational scale. But if a critical mass of us fail to band together to force our institutions into immediate, dramatic change, we all may face disaster, and sooner than many dare imagine.