Friends, If you are weighing whether to support your child in striking this Friday during the global climate strike, can I have a minute? First, let’s put this on the table: it’s not easy being a parent, and in the era of climate change, it’s unnerving.
Whether you think about the problem a little or a lot, climate change requires us to hold two opposing beliefs in our minds at once, which is the definition of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, that our most important job is raising these people up right. And on the other, that the world in which they’re supposed to be good people and live good lives is becoming inhospitable to the acts. It’s like thinking “I hope you settle down someday and raise a family yourself”. And then “someplace safe from the flood, fire, drought, deadly heat, and other growing threats of climate change. So, nowhere I can think of.”
If you spend a lot of time in that state of cognitive dissonance, you know it’s not just bewildering, it’ll break your heart. But hold those two things we must because we’re their parents and it’s a fact: the future ain’t what it used to be.
On most days spent as a parent we focus on the mundane but necessary features that make up a family’s life: clean bodies, cooked meals, finished homework, folded laundry. Assuming we’re lucky enough not to live under the strain of poverty, we give these things and our 9-to-5 jobs nearly all our energy. We do this because, the story goes, they move the enterprise of our families and the people in them forward. Devotion to our day-to-day industry is supposed to help ensure our children’s safety, expand their choices, and secure their future. It’s not a formula that all in America can believe in, given racism and other enduring inequities, but it’s a formula most of us sign up for, believing or not.
But either you know or I have to break it to you (and in either case, I wish we were doing this over coffee or a beer): because of climate change, no amount of your day-to-day hard work and preparation can do that. You can no longer give them a secure future because the whole future is at risk.
Today, we’ve warmed the planet 1 degree Celsius over pre-industrial levels, and with just this modest warming, each year brings new unprecedented hurricanes, floods, heat waves and wildfires. Young people, from recent high school graduates on down, have only known a world of record-breaking temperatures. Kindergarteners starting school this month have lived in the five hottest years on record. And with this warmth, the world’s sensitive systems from the poles to the equator (you know, the really wondrous ones) have suffered. E.g., during two of those years, warm water killed half the coral of the Great Barrier Reef.
We could surpass a global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees C in just the next 5 years, which would accelerate harm like shrinking water supplies and strained crop production. And scientists expect an increase of 2 degrees C, which today looks hard to avoid in our kids’ lifetime, would be accompanied by devastating changes, upheaval, displacement, and loss: a world transformed.
A world no child should inherit.
Youth climate strikers. Photo: Laura Campbell
But on our watch and with our participation, we parents and grandparents, the future got broken like a hundred-generations-old family heirloom that we disregarded and dropped. As that meme tells us, “You had one job.” And that’s the thing about being a parent in the climate era. We still have to fulfill the day-to-day compact of raising good people to live good lives. But we have to face it: presently, the legacy we’re going to leave all children is a dangerous, damaged future. Emissions reached an all-time high last year and are continuing to rise, critical policies like our federal Clean Power Plan are being repealed, the US intends to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, the list goes on. If we don’t get it together right now to do this one all-important job and work for a safer, more stable future, then the rest of our labors won’t count for much in the long run to the good people we raised.
It’s a raw deal. When they deserved to be children with uncomplicated hope for the future, they were instead made stewards of a 21st century all but sacked by natives of the 20th. When they needed us to act to safeguard their future, they got complacency and deepening injustice, an irrational devotion to business-as-usual, and a winding down of the climate clock while they were still learning to tell time. If they’re not yet furious with us, they will be.
For many adults, we feel busy, stressed, and overworked. The status quo and its emissions are just comfortable enough, to date, and in that comfort, some of us don’t perceive and others of us ignore what a rapidly growing threat the status quo is. Polling will tell you that a large majority of Americans think climate change is real and caused by human activities. But to date, there are never enough bodies, voices, or votes in the climate fight to make the difference. As Swedish youth activist, Greta Thunberg, warned us earlier this year, “I want you to act like the house is on fire, because it is”. Many adults, it seems, understand that something’s burning, we’re just not getting that it’s the whole damn house and everything that matters is in it.
Not so, our kids. Separate polls released this week show how deep their concern runs, and how seriously they are taking the science. But it also shows how resolved they feel, and how very many of them – one in four teens according to one poll – have taken some action, including joining a school walkout. Someone has to make the difference while older generations are MIA.
Our kids have stepped up in huge numbers to become the vanguard in the climate fight. And they’ve been using the limited tools at their disposal – their bodies, their absence from school, their gathering in numbers – to disrupt and demand attention through the school climate strikes. With business-as-usual eating their future, and without money or power, what else can they do?
Fair question, asked by student strikers at the March 2019 strike, Columbus Circle, NYC. Photo: Pamela Drew
On September 20th, they are aiming for the biggest global strike yet. There are over 4,500 strikes planned in over 150 countries – 958 strikes here in the U.S. alone at last count. But this time they are asking us to join them. And many thousands of adults will do so, including members of major labor unions, employees of companies large and small, and now a growing coalition of employees from 8 big tech companies including Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter (hopefully Apple by Friday).
If it’s not a fully “mainstream” view, that it’s necessary to miss a day of school or work to help shift the balance in the climate fight, it’s clearly a widely held view. More than a hundred companies are supporting the strike, the NYC public schools have given its 1.1 million students a green light to strike, and more than 600 doctors and medical professionals have signed a “medical excuse note” to help justify student absences. And it will inevitably become a mainstream one. As extreme weather events get even more frequent and devastating, and even more people are harmed, then it will be mainstream. And some people will wait until then to act, landing on the wrong side of history and the future.
My whole letter comes down to this: as parents, it’s our fight, too.
If the young people in your life want to strike, will you support them?
And if you can take the day or a few hours to strike yourself, will you join them?
Please do. Read this post for a round up of what adults need to know about the strike. Accompany your younger children to a strike near you. Let your older teen strikers know that you have their back. (Tell them you’ll be the one with the “One Mad Dad!” sign; you can probably do better.) Be an ally. Not for nothing, your kids will know that, while anyone could see this threat coming, you got it and you stepped up and you did it for them.
And, look, we can do this. It’s possible to steer the world in a different direction. It will be hard. And it requires us to make some “heroic assumptions,” what scientists call it when we assume the stars align and best-case scenarios prevail. But there is uncertainty in all directions. Just as the frightening things could be worse than we know, breakthroughs and game-changers are out there, too, societal, technical, and political. Take these young and determined people. No one was counting on them, but there they will be on Friday, all around the world. A glorious game changer.
When we, on my team, try to hold the two things in our minds it once — the climate odds and the people we love — and we acknowledge the heroic assumptions required to make it all go well, my friend Kate will say: “then I’m going to assume heroes”.
She means you, too.