Author’s Note: the following post was first published a year ago but has been emended to reflect the present reality on this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, namely, the COVID-19 pandemic now encircling the globe.
They [the children] speak with a moral clarity and determination that is unmatched by anyone or anything else.
Four years ago I was astonished by the lack of attention given to climate change during the 2016 presidential debates. Over a combined six hours across three debates, not one of the moderators asked a single question about climate change. One could replay those debates today and wonder what planet they were actually staged from, since we heard almost nothing from either major party candidate about the most critical, all-encompassing crisis of our times. At best, this was an utter “failure of journalism.” At worst, it was a willful and grievous case of generational neglect, all too widespread among the powers and principalities, from left to right.
On the eve of Earth Day last year, journalist Chris D’Angelo published a remarkable piece called “The Climate Kids are Alright,” in which he chronicles a litany of examples of generational neglect regarding the politics of climate change, ranging from willful blindness, to generational hubris and dismissal, to outright contempt. He writes:
When 29-year-old freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) introduced the Green New Deal in February, a nonbinding climate resolution to rapidly decarbonize the U.S. economy, senior Republicans were quick to dismiss it as a pie-in-the-sky proposal ― “tantamount to genocide,” one said ― from a naive young lawmaker.
“You only have to be 25 years old to be a member of Congress,” Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), 64, said at a congressional hearing in February. “We have young people that bring a lot of great qualities, but maybe they don’t bring a lot of life experience.”
When a group of children ages 7 to 16 showed up in February at Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office in San Francisco to demand that she support the Green New Deal resolution, the 85-year-old Democrat lectured them and argued.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I know what I’m doing,” the senator told them. “You come in here and you say it has to be my way or the highway. I don’t respond to that.”
And when students went on strike from schools around the world in March, people in power insisted they were out of line. British Prime Minister Theresa May, 62, criticized students for wasting valuable class time, and an Australian education minister warned that children and teachers would be punished for participating in March 15 rallies.
How have these young activists responded to such critiques? “We hear you. And we don’t care,” 16-year old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg said on Twitter. “Your statement belongs in a museum.”
As D’Angelo points out, not a few adults have recognized and praised these student activists for galvanizing hope, when so many of their elders seem entrenched in denial, or perhaps creeping despair. (Thunberg, for example, was nominated last year for a Nobel Peace Prize.) But D’Angelo also issues a cogent warning, namely, that “this activism and pressure were born out of a feeling of desperation, and the youth on the front lines of this fight for a more sustainable future have made it clear they’re here to stay.”
In other words, the time for action has grown very short, and the line between hope and despair, very thin. If that is true for the grownups in the room who are losing sleep over this reality, just imagine how much more for young people who stand to inherit a climate crisis — burning forests, food and water shortages, sinking coastlines — not of their own making.
Just weeks ago, during Holy Week services in Rome, Pope Francis stood alone in St. Peter’s Cathedral, self-isolating like hundreds of millions of his fellow Christian and Catholic worshipers around the world. The images of the Bishop of Rome presiding at Eucharist before an empty cathedral were quite striking, and painfully symbolic. He offered these thoughts about the COVID-19 pandemic now engulfing the planet:
There is an expression in Spanish: “God always forgives, we forgive sometimes, but nature never forgives.” We did not respond to the partial catastrophes. Who now speaks of the fires in Australia, or remembers that eighteen months ago a boat could cross the North Pole because the glaciers had all melted? Who speaks now of the floods? I don’t know if these are the revenge of nature, but they are certainly nature’s responses. . .
Every crisis contains both danger and opportunity: the opportunity to move out from the danger. Today I believe we have to slow down our rate of production and consumption and to learn to understand and contemplate the natural world. We need to reconnect with our real surroundings. This is the opportunity for conversion.
In his Earth Day article last year, D’Angelo concluded by citing Stephen O’Hanlon, the 23-year-old co-founder of Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate advocacy group that took their concerns directly to Congress, and found themselves largely dismissed by the leaders of the free world.
It’s no longer acceptable for politicians who say they want to take action on climate change to just acknowledge the science and propose piecemeal solutions. If they want to be taken seriously by our generation, they need to back solutions that actually take action.
Certainly there is ample room for debate about what those solutions and concrete strategies for action should be. Hence the inexcusable lapse four years ago, and even more so today, of not pressing candidates from both major parties, at every level of office, to demonstrate credibility and leadership on this front. (A recent piece by Republican Tom Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania, underscores this point.) But as COVID-19 sweeps the planet, there can be no more room in our political discourse — neither in our religious and theological discourse — for dismissing the hopes and fears of a rising generation of youth who already stand to inherit the disastrous costs of our inaction.
May God help the children maintain their hope, and may God help us older folks, especially our elected leaders, to earn theirs. (1)
(1) My own attempts to address the environmental crisis from a theological and Catholic faith perspective, drawing from the writings of Thomas Merton, Pope Francis, and others, and with special attention to young people, can be found here. For a view of issues facing my home state of Colorado, see here.