Young people are about to utterly transform climate politics, in the UK and US

The steady burn of Extinction Rebellion’s occupations, blockings and willingness to be jailed continues across London, other cities in the UK and even globally. As an element of bottom-up assertions of power, ER’s loving and peaceful direct action is something we support.

What is most interesting about it is the way it is tapping into young adult enthusiasm (perhaps tapping into the “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” generation). Take this blog, Why I’m Rebelling against Extinction (wait, should that really need explaining..?), by Shaun Chamberlin:

I got arrested for the first time in my life this week. And I’m proud of it…

As I sat in my cell, I felt peace. I knew that I was doing all I could for our collective future, and am proud to have that recorded against my name for the rest of my life.

Perhaps, as ever, Wendell Berry said it best: “Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success, namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.”

Maybe we can’t stop what’s unfolding, but it would diminish us not to try. And yesterday was the first event I’ve attended that felt as though it might be a historic turning point. 

Equally, it might not. That’s up to us.

One child held a placard saying “When I grow up, I want to be alive”.

This commitment is what’s fuelling Extinction Rebellion. But what are its roots? The environmental activist Alex Steffen - coming from a US perspective, but with salience here - has written a piece about how “young people are about to utterly transform climate politics”:

Climate change and the planetary crisis it drives are, above all else, generational in their politics.

We olds may individually be doing amazing kick-ass work; the interests of the old and the young on the whole are still in obvious and direct conflict on a number of issues.

First, and foremost, there’s the issue of speed. Every day we delay, climate risks worsen & the costs of inevitable change rise. If we care about intergenerational justice, moving at the most disruptive speed we can on cutting emissions is a clear ethical imperative.

That’s because while those risks and costs will fall almost entirely on the younger two-thirds of the population (and future generations) the money from climate destruction is being mostly accumulated by the older third. Delay is, in this sense, predatory.

On top of speed, though, there’s access. The reality of American life is not only that younger people are being preyed upon by climate delay, but also that they’re largely shut out from building the lives they want.

We see this in myriad ways, from the housing shortage caused by anti-housing planning policies, to the death grip of car commuting on transportation planning, to the massive costs of education for the young (and its out-dated lack of focus on the tools they really need on a changing planet).

Almost everywhere in America, it’s hard to build the low-carbon new, even though younger people have shown that the low-carbon new is exactly what they want, from car-free neighborhoods to clean energy, bike infrastructure to green multifamily buildings…

So, if you’re a younger person, what you want is a) fast action, b) the chance to build a new low-carbon life and c) a good and meaningful job.

It’s the jobs part that’s going to really jack up the tension in the climate movement. Because for all our enthusiasm for “green jobs,” young people installing solar panels is just the tip of the iceberg, and most of the submerged ice is going to be far more controversial as it rises.

See, many older people have this idea that climate action will be a “transition.” That it’ll be slow, incremental, based on personal choices, largely about small behavioral changes and retrofitting today’s lifestyles with cleantech gadgets — composting food waster and driving a hybrid.
It’s not. Real climate action is disruptive af. To get the speed of the emissions cuts we need, we’re going to need to build the new on an unprecedented scale, in ways that intentionally alter the fundamental workings of older systems, foreclose high emissions choices and tilt the economics of pollution everywhere.

That build of the new is not a trend that will influence the economy of the future, it IS the economy of the future. A giant building boom is what successful climate action looks like. That means jobs. Jobs younger people want and will be better prepared to take up.

Young people have a massive self-interest in pushing that boom to happen as fast as possible — a self-interest every bit as strong (and far more ethical) as the self-interest that older people pursue through gradualism and delay.

As young people become more and more powerful in the climate movement, fault lines are going to open. Those cracks are visible now. Older leaders are just in the habit of ignoring them.

The climate movement of the 2020s will be fierce and focused on building the new world we need. The conflict between old movement interest groups and that new call for action at scale and speed is going to be a — maybe the — major climate story in the coming decade.

It’s worth noting that Extinction Rebellion also has a program for laws, policies and institutions that must be implemented speedily and radically. Though, responding to an earlier version of this blog, Shaun Chamberlain has sent us a piece which takes issue with Steffen’s employment perspective (by a consideration of the late David Fleming’s ecological thinking).

“Many of us have far more radical aims than @AlexSteffen's call for "good and meaningful jobs”, tweets Shaun. “Doing what someone else tells you for a good wage was the previous generation's ideal (and see where it got us..)”.

Might the bottom-up energies and focus of Generation Zero-Carbon meet the top down anxieties of our grand structures of security and stability? See this story about how global insurers may compel constructing for zero-or-negative-carbon conditions, as the consequences of climate change will begin to make buildings and settlements uninsurable