God Bless the Children: Where Hope Rises (and Falls) on Earth Day

“They speak with a moral clarity and determination that is unmatched by anyone or anything else.”

During the 2016 presidential debates, I was astonished and dismayed by the lack of attention given to climate change. Over a combined six hours across three debates, none 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 candidate about the single-most critical, all-encompassing crisis of our times. At best, this was an utter “failure of journalism.” At worst, it was a grievous case of generational neglect, all too widespread among the powers and principalities, from left to right.

On the eve of Earth Day a few days ago, journalist Chris D’Angelo published a must-read piece called “The Climate Kids are Alright,” in which he chronicles a number of recent 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.”

Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg joins Italian students to demand action on climate change, in Piazza del Popolo, Rome, Italy April 19, 2019. REUTERS/Yara Nardi

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, has since been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.) But D’Angelo also issues an implicit 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, 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.

D’Angelo concludes his piece 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.”

There’s room for debate about what those solutions and concrete strategies for action should be — hence the inexcusable lapse of not pressing candidates to demonstrate credibility and leadership on this front. There’s no longer room 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)

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 15: Young people during a Climate Change Awareness March on March 15, 2019 outside Sydney Town Hall, Australia. The protests are part of a global climate strike, urging politicians to take urgent action on climate change. (Photo by James Gourley/Getty Images)

(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.

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