Scientists have understood climate change as a reality for over a century. Svante Arrhenius was the first to actually calculate the potential effect of rising carbon dioxide concentrations on global temperature in the late 1890s, but was not the first to recognize the potential impact of the combustion of fossil fuels on global climate. Starting in the 1980s, especially with increased computing power and general circulation models, our scientific understanding of global climate change has increased. Each journal article and IPCC report published since that time has expressed increased urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and more calls for action on a global scale. This culminated in the most recent IPCC report suggesting that 2030 might be the climate “point of no return.” This report was shocking because of the time frame involved. No longer was climate change something to be dealt with in the future, the future was here and worrisome. Yet…nothing. Despite world gatherings since the 1990s, despite the Paris Agreement, despite talk and discussion ad nauseam. The leaders of the world have utterly failed the next generation, and the next generation has not accepted this lack of action.
The young people are rising up. Though maybe not the first, but certainly the most famous, Greta Thunberg’s climate strike and powerful pleas for action have captured the imagination of the world. She is not alone. In the United States, the Sunshine Movement has emerged, and young people are mounting legal challenges against the United States for inaction on climate change. Most recently, the activism of the young culminated in the international climate strike on September 20, 2019. Driven by young people, but attracting young and old alike, a global “enough is enough” rose up through the daily din of work and consumption in a global economic system that prizes growth over all. Young people like Greta are well educated on the topic of climate change, but understand, they also realize that climate change is a symptom of a much larger problem. They understand the link between climate change and a global economic system that demands ever increasing consumption linked to carbon dioxide emissions. They understand that the global economic system driving climate change is synonymous with inequity and that not everyone on the globe has equal blame for the problem. They understand that the current economic system does not care about them, their future, or the future of the planet. And they are rising up and demanding change.
I do wonder, however, if the young people of wealthy, developed nations fully grasp the nature of the challenge. The demands of those participating in the climate strike are three-fold (from climatestrike.net). First, develop a 100% renewable energy system. Second, keep fossil fuels in the ground. Third, help those affected by climate change. These are certainly noble goals. However, significant challenges face these demands. Currently, only a few percent of global energy is met by renewable energy systems. Building these systems and batteries for energy storage, like the development of any infrastructure, will require the extraction of significant amount of mineral resources from across the globe. Currently, the only way to extract the needed minerals and manufacture solar panels, wind turbines, other renewable systems and electric cars (not to mention all the minerals needed for infrastructure construction in the developing world) is to use fossil fuels. The amount of minerals required is stunning. Many more times the current levels of consumption of cement, copper, steel, aluminum, and glass would be required for a global transition to renewable energy. The minerals for these resources will require new mines, many of which will be in places like the Amazon and will displace indigenous peoples. Thus, the noble goals as stated have a price, particularly if the goal is to bring renewable energy to less developed countries, transition to renewables in wealthy countries, AND grow the global economy. This is a pipe dream.
So, what is really required? Any serious attempt at addressing climate change will require addressing the global economic system by dramatically reducing material consumption in the wealthy nations. For example, the green new deal proposed in the United States sets net zero emissions as the major goal with 100% renewable electricity and a major expansion of electric cars, public transport, and high speed rail. Along with this energy transformation and infrastructure development will come many new high paying jobs. However, reduction in consumption is never mentioned, and the underlying premise is continued economic growth – which requires resources, including fossil fuels that provide energy to extract the minerals to develop the renewable energy sector. Thus, on the surface, the green new deal is an interesting and radical concept, but perhaps not radical enough. And what about less developed nations? If wealthy nations consume vast amounts of our current mineral resources for the energy transition, will there be mineral resources for others to develop renewable energy systems to meet the basic needs of their citizens? Is there enough for everyone? What is a just and equitable solution to the distribution of natural resources? These are difficult challenges, ones that the young of the world will need to address in order to solve the climate change problem.
Navigating such a challenging future will require courage, fortitude, and sacrifice on the part of the next generation, for we have failed you. I believe the young people of the world are demonstrating these characteristics and taking an important first step towards changing the world by speaking truth to power and demanding change with the climate strike. However, the climate strike is just the first step along the long road to changing a global economic system that is based on never ending growth in consumption that generates both environmental problems such as climate change and social problems such as economic inequity.
Brannon Andersen is a biogeochemist interested in how and why humans transform environmental systems. He has become increasingly interested in how the field of sustainability science can develop a pathway to a plausible and desirable future for his two daughters and his students. He is a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Furman University in Greenville, SC and an Academic Council member of the Institute of Political Ecology, Zagreb Croatia.