Comment: There is an intergenerational injustice at the heart of the climate crisis – that the people most responsible for it in the past and the people who today have the most power to blunt its impacts are not the ones who will experience its greatest excesses.

This is not a new observation. Recently, Vanuatu asked the International Court of Justice to clarify the legal obligations of states to protect the rights of future, unborn generations. There is a long history of this discussion in climate circles.

But, today, as thousands of students once again take to the streets in cities and towns around the country in support of climate action, it is worth reiterating.

In fact, it should be something held deeply by all those in a position to improve the future these kids are growing into. The cognitive bias that prioritises a response to immediate threats over long-term issues is well-understood. It’s why the world could muster a crisis response to the Covid-19 pandemic but struggles to treat climate with any urgency. The fact that many of the people calling the shots on climate aren’t going to live to see its worst effects only heightens this discrepancy.

That is not the way young people experience the climate crisis.

Globally, studies show younger generations are more likely to be concerned about climate than older generations. They are more likely to experience distress, anxiety and even depression as a result of climate change. In New Zealand, young people are more likely to have given up on climate action due to a sense that it is too far gone or that the rest of society isn’t doing enough.

This is because they have experienced a far greater degree of change in their short lives than today’s politicians and business leaders witnessed in their own adolescence.

For someone born in 1960, it took until they turned 40 to see the world warm by half a degree.

Some millennials and Gen Z-ers were still teenagers when that same boundary was crossed.

The average MP is 50 years old, the average senior leader in the public service is 51 and the average private sector board member is 52. They were in their late 20s by the time the world had warmed 0.5C, while a child born today would see the same change in 21 years.

Even if we take action and slow the pace of change, today’s youth will live out their lives in a world fundamentally different from that enjoyed by older generations.

The upper limit for the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that still falls within a “safe” planetary boundary is widely considered to be 350 parts per million. Currently, we’re at 420 ppm. In fact, the NIWA measuring station at Baring Head in Wellington hasn’t measured levels below that 350 ppm limit since 1988. Anyone born after that year will live their entire life beyond the “safe” boundary.

The world is currently not on track to meet our targets, which themselves are still not consistent with limiting warming to 1.5C. Even if we did end up following a 1.5C pathway, however, atmospheric carbon levels won’t fall below 350 ppm until the middle of the next century.

In the meantime, all the impacts of climate change – the heat waves, the storms, the droughts, the flooding, the biodiversity collapse and ocean acidification and glacier melt – all of it will be a feature of daily life. Where older generations enjoyed at least a youth of relative climatic stability, that is not a privilege available to today’s young people.

By the time the world crosses the catastrophic 2C boundary – which is “very likely” under current policies to occur by 2060 – the people calling the shots now are unlikely to be alive. In contrast, a child born today will be 37 by then. The student strikers will be the same age in 2060 as our policymakers and business leaders are today.

Perhaps their children’s children will, in the old age in the 22nd century, get a glimpse of life within that “safe” 350 ppm boundary.

Today’s strikers, however, won’t. Their lives will be shaped not by their decisions but by the ones made today and in the coming days – and over past decades. By and large, successive governments have talked a big game on climate change but failed to actually do enough about it. Sometimes they failed to do anything at all. No wonder there’s little faith this situation is about to change.

That’s why the students are marching today. They’re protesting the injustice of this situation, sure, but they also correctly identify that much of their futures are in our hands, not their own. Their anxiety and concern and anger are not an over-reaction but a rational response to an irrational world.

In her book Generation Dread, mental health and climate researcher Britt Wray references Martin Luther King Jr. on the value of maladjustment to a society with the wrong values.

“Being maladjusted does not mean you are sick when the maladjustment is in response to a sick society,” she writes. “It serves an important function by pointing out what is deeply wrong, and gets you to try to change your situation.”

Today’s youth are doing everything they can to change their situation. But they aren’t the people making decisions to subsidise fossil fuels, or cutting funding for climate policy, or undermining the carbon price, or pledging to restore oil and gas exploration.

They’re just the people who will suffer for it.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

Leave a comment