In this year of COVID-19, the voices of young people protesting against climate inaction have been somewhat muted. It is time to revisit and seriously consider these voices of protest. They reveal a form of discrimination that generally goes unrecognized. Our governments’ inadequate response to the climate crisis that they have themselves recognized – and our own complacency in the face of this – discriminates against young people.
Sometimes we discriminate against people without intending to or realizing it. Unconscious bias is neither benign nor a good excuse for the behaviour that it yields. Discriminatory practices – e.g., slavery, residential schools, racial segregation, and paying women less than men – arose and continued for years without people considering or seriously questioning them.
In general, discrimination occurs when one group of people treats another as if their interests don’t matter or don’t matter as much. The Black Lives Matter movement is a response to the systemic failure to treat Black men and women as equals, especially in the use of police violence to maintain white privilege.
The climate crisis is rapidly escalating. As time passes without significant reductions of greenhouse gasses, we face more and more intense storms, floods and fires.
One thing is clear: the greatest harms and risks are imposed on those whose full lives lie mainly ahead of them. As Greta Thunberg has pointed out, “we have to live with the consequences” of these inadequate responses, while many of today’s decision-makers will not. Indeed, many older people may well live out their lives without ever being seriously inconvenienced by the warming of the planet. Looked at in terms of narrow self-interest, it may be in the short-term advantage of many adults to simply ignore the problem, to elect governments that preserve the advantages of a fossil-fueled economy for the few. Many other things are much more likely to kill us (cancer or COVID-19) or maim us (Lyme disease) or render us miserable (losing one’s job). This reasoning may help explain why it is so hard to make the changes that are necessary if we are to head off catastrophe. But it certainly does not show that this inaction is justifiable or right. In fact, this is discrimination: treating younger people unequally, as if their lives don’t matter in the way ours do.
Greta Thunberg, founder of Fridays for Future and one of the leaders of the youth climate movement, said in her 2019 speech to the UN: "This is all wrong… You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” Indeed, it is a strange world when young people must warn adults of the risks and harms that they are imposing on their children by failing to heed the clear warnings of our best science.
To learn more about their climate concerns of young people, watch the premiere of the 60th season of the “Nature of Things: Rebellion” on Nov. 6, which will feature Greta Thunberg, David Suzuki and David Attenborough.
Nathan Brett is retired philosophy professor, a grandparent and a member of the La Pêche Coalition for a Green New Deal.