By Chris Bryant
John Lanchester’s new novel, The Wall, imagines Britain after “The Change”. Following a dramatic shift in temperature and sea levels, the UK has barricaded off what remains of the coastline; in Lanchester’s dystopia, there aren’t any beaches left. Young citizens bore no responsibility for any of this, but they are the ones who must guard the wall and violently repel increasingly desperate migrants, known as “The Others”. If they fail, the young are themselves cast out to sea as punishment. Not surprisingly, they are pretty unhappy about their lot.
“None of us can talk to our parents”, says Kavanagh, the novel’s protagonist. “It is guilt: mass guilt, generational guilt. The olds feel they irretrievably f*cked up the world, then allowed us to be born into it. You know what? It is true. That is exactly what they did. They know it, we know it. Everybody knows it”. It is a sentiment shared no doubt by the schoolchildren protesting around the world on Friday to demand far more decisive action on climate change. Inspired by 16-year old Greta Thunberg’s weekly vigil outside Sweden’s parliament, the movement has expanded to dozens of countries, including the US. Thunberg has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Can you really blame the kids? The planet has warmed by “only” about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times and yet the destructive effects of climate change have become frighteningly apparent. The heatwaves, floods, deadly wildfires and violent hurricanes we have experienced lately are mild compared to what our children will contend with. The world is on track to heat up by more than 3 degrees by 2100 and the warming won’t miraculously stop then. “The climate system that raised us, and raised everything we now know as human culture and civilisation, is now, like a parent, dead”, writes David Wallace-Wells in The Uninhabitable Earth. Unfortunately, this isn’t another Lanchester-like work of speculative fiction. It is non-fiction.
Wallace-Wells’s book documents the horrors and chaos that those cutting class on Friday want to avoid: Tens of millions of climate refugees, trillions of dollars of economic damage, deadly heat, fresh-water scarcity (the glaciers of the Himalayas will lose at least 40% of their ice by 2100, he notes) and “much more fire, much more often, burning much more land”. A single California wildfire can undo all the emissions gains made that year via the state’s environmental policies, just one of several terrifying climate feedback loops he describes. Wallace-Wells’s writing is of course more vivid than the conservative, consensus-driven reports produced by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A journalist, not a scientist, he makes no attempt to hide his alarm nor pull his punches about who to blame. Why should he? More than half of fossil fuel-related emissions have occurred in the past 30 years, during which humans have known this will make the earth far less hospitable. Thanks to Asian demand, we consume 80% more coal today than in 2000. Destroying the environmental conditions that gave rise to the human species “has been the work of a single generation”, Wallace-Wells writes.
We adults are proud of the progress we’ve made in other areas—life expectancy, equal rights, education and poverty, to name a few. But when later historians write about this period, that isn’t what they’ll remember. Despite the rapid adoption of wind and solar power, big improvements in energy efficiency and electric vehicles, our carbon emissions are still rising. We’re locking in more destruction for our kids to cope with. Linking the Fridays For Future movement and young people’s enthusiasm for policies like the Green New Deal is the belief that the time for incrementalism is over. Yet, governments and corporate bosses continue to drag their heels. Even those, like Germany’s Angela Merkel, who support the kids’ right to protest, are guilty. Supposedly a climate leader, Germany is recklessly phasing out nuclear power but plans to continue burning coal for another two decades. Car manufacturers like Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV tout their electric plans while gorging on US truck and SUV sales. In mining, Glencore Plc is committed to capping coal production at current levels to appease climate-concerned investors, yet it expects fat profits from coal this year, and probably will for years to come. Airlines talk about carbon offsets but they’re banking on so much growth that their emissions might rise seven-fold by 2050.
Telling teenagers to be patient or realistic, as US Senator Dianne Feinstein tried to do, won’t wash. With the United Nations warning that we have only 12 years to fix the crisis, kids aren’t inclined to hang around. It is even more reprehensible that some adults are trying to stymie even our insufficient climate change efforts, by maligning experts and retreating from international cooperation. President Donald Trump, who wants to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, happily expresses his skepticism about the science, but often demonstrates his total ignorance of the subject in the process.
His rise showed the oncoming cataclysm still wasn’t a big enough priority for many Americans of voting age in 2016. If he is re-elected in 2020, the die casting today’s adults as climate villains will have been cast. Three cheers for the kids, then.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.