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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | September 2019 | 8 minutes (2,168 words)
There’s a scene not quite midway through Mermaids, the ’60s-set coming-of-age drama starring Cher and Winona Ryder in which the mom acts like a kid and the kid acts like a mom, where Ryder is walking through her small town just after JFK has been assassinated. She passes adult after adult, each of them staring at the ground, shell-shocked, mourning. Then she comes across a bunch of children playing in some dead leaves and her voiceover breaks the silence: “It feels like there isn’t a single adult left on the entire planet.”
No kidding. I’m an adult but that is exactly how I feel right now, and it must be worse for kids: For Mari Copeny, now 11, as she sits cross-legged, alone, holding up a sign: flint mi has been without clean water since april 24th, 2014. For Autumn Peltier, now 14, the First Nations Canadian who confronted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2016 about his continued support of oil pipelines: “People my age are starting to notice how adults are treating the planet.” For the tens of thousands of students in Hong Kong who attended demonstrations instead of their first day of school in order to stand up for democracy amid violent protests. With no future, there’s no need to go to class, one sign read. For the sea of kids who took part in the March For Our Lives to call for U.S. gun legislation in the wake of a cascading number of school shootings. For all the children who continue to strike alongside Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist initially inspired not by the adults finally taking action, but by the kids calling out their inaction.
Most of these people can’t vote, remember. Imagine how that must feel. Imagine knowing what to do but not being able to do it. Imagine how frustrating that must be, how powerless. Now imagine being the person who can do it. And imagine laughing instead. Asked for her message to world leaders at the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York earlier this week, Thunberg said, “My message is that we’ll be watching you.” Delighted, the audience laughed and clapped. How adorable! But Thunberg remained stone-faced. Then her eyes reddened, then she started to cry. “I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean,” she seethed. “Yet you all come to us young people for hope? How dare you!” Her anger came from knowing that, despite sounding scientists’ climate alarm for the millionth time, there would be no solution, because, “you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.” And this is where it’s at right now as we face the end: The children, who have no power, are the only ones who know what to do with it.
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Okay, let’s get through this quickly because it’s fairly obvious most adults think they have better things to do than to worry about climate change (it’s here and it’s going to kill us, so fuck it, right?). Two minutes: The U.N. just released the last of three reports from its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. More than 100 scientists from 36 countries contributed to the latest warning that increased greenhouse gas (including CO2) emissions could cause sea levels to rise by almost three feet by 2100, which won’t affect me, for example, unless I have amazing longevity, but will affect hundreds of millions of people like your grandkids. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the main action to limit global warming to acceptable levels and reduce the occurrence of extreme events and abrupt changes,” the report clearly states, which sounds measured but is the academic version of ALARM BELLS. It comes less than a year after the nightmare-inducing bombshell announcing that global net carbon dioxide emissions will have to be pretty much cut in half by 2030 — reaching net zero by 2050 — to keep the climate disaster at the level it is now. Avoiding worse droughts, floods, fires, and food shortages requires extreme changes to industry (notably, as the second report affirms, to farming), to energy, to transportation, to building, to everything basically. In short: People will die for sure, but way fewer people will die if slashing emissions is literally everyone’s priority.
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The fact that the people in power have not been prioritizing the climate crisis is the reason Thunberg started out as a denier. Like any normal kid, she believed that if it was an emergency, it would be treated like one by the grown-ups. By the time she realized the grown-ups were not in fact acting like grown-ups, she started looking to other kids, specifically the Parkland shooting survivors. Inspired by their school walkout, she started sitting alone outside the Swedish parliament on August 20, 2018, prior to the general election, in the wake of a summer of record-breaking heat, demanding that the government reduce carbon emissions. Thunberg posted a picture of herself holding her now-famous school strike for climate billboard and captioned it, “We children don’t usually do what you grown-ups tell us to do. We do as you do. And since you don’t give a shit about my future. I don’t give a shit either.” And people slowly started to join her. One of them, a teacher, called her a troublemaker for not listening to her elders, but even he had to admit, “In this situation the only reasonable thing is to be unreasonable.” Obviously, it was absurd for adults to advise her to get back to class in order to prepare herself better for a future that was set to be entirely obliterated by them.
No, the smartest thing to do was to disrupt the system destroying them. It’s not like there’s no precedent for this kind of precocity. Adults have a fairly long and embarrassing history of failing children who have had to stand up for themselves as a result. As child labor proliferated in the 19th century, so too did the children who striked against exploitative working conditions. In 1903, the March of the Mill Children saw textile workers, a number of them minors, traveling from Philadelphia to New York to protest long hours and night shifts (newspapers had ignored their plight because their stockholders included mill owners). One strike had a child photographed holding up a sign reading, We want to go to school. Once they got to school, however, students from Poland to South Africa back to America again had to walk out at various points in history in order to claim their right to learn free of everything from oppressive language to overcrowded classrooms. What’s with all this engaged youth? Thunberg has said that being unused to the system, young people are not yet convinced that they can do nothing about the way it’s always been. On September 23 of this year, she and 15 other children filed a complaint with the U.N. and essentially sued five countries — Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey — for failing to comply with the Convention of the Rights of the Child. The 1989 U.N. human rights treaty, which the U.S. signed but never ratified, outlines all the ways mature members of society are supposed to protect the immature, and, explicity reads, “The best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”
It is in the best interest of the child for adults to reduce carbon emissions by almost half by 2030. It’s also in the best interest of the child not to have to give up their childhood to convince adults of that. But instead of securing their own futures, they’ve been forced to clean up our past. Some adults acknowledge this. In February, 224 academics pledged their support for the school strikers, stating, “Human planetary abuse is, in a very real sense, child neglect.” Others continue to make infinitely nuanced bids for exemption. But there are no exceptions — particularly not for greed, though the children, as immature as they are under the eyes of the law, are very aware that this is the main driving force. As Thunberg spat at the climate summit this week: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” They dare because life is good for so many of them — the more money they have, the better it gets — and will continue to be good for them even if it sucks for everyone else. Even if it sucks for their own grandkids. Because that’s so far away, God, who has the time to think about that. The scientists are so dour all the time anyway, how do you really know when to listen to them. Everyone knows it’s not like one person can change the world. The companies, the people in government, that nebulous mass, let them handle it; it’s okay if just a few of us fly and eat steaks. Let someone else make sacrifices, like this tiny Scandinavian troublemaker who spent two weeks on a boat to get to America. Who has time for that shit? We’re grown-ups, we have work to do, bills to pay, lives to keep up. These Amazon Prime deliveries won’t sign for themselves.
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That’s the great thing about kids, though, they don’t just go away when you don’t give them what they want. They keep showing up. They keep asking. That’s what Thunberg is doing. And so the adults, unable to squarely face what she is saying, choose to question her instead. In response to being called out at the U.N., French President Emmanuel Macron pulled the you-get-more-bees-with-honey argument: “These sorts of very radical positions are likely to antagonize our societies.” Members of his government doubled down, accusing Thunberg of depressing the world, as if the world weren’t dejected already. Donald Trump, meanwhile, after morphing into yet another meme by strolling past a scowling Thunberg, tweeted, “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” (The teen responded by briefly making the description her Twitter bio.) Thunberg’s critics can’t seem to decide: Either she’s too adult, or she’s not adult enough. In an op-ed for The New York Times, Christopher Caldwell called her outlook “unrealistic,” outlining her lack of experience. He claimed those who read the climate reports were not necessarily in denial, they just “have other priorities.” Meanwhile, the conservatives — Tiana Lowe, Andrew Bolt, Michael Knowles — pathologize the very neurodivergence that makes Thunberg their greatest threat: a tenacious activist undeterred by their bullshit. “Yes, the climate crisis is the most complex issue that we have ever faced and it’s going to take everything from our part to ‘stop it,’” Thunberg has explained. “But the solution is black and white; we need to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases.”
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It’s not that there are no adults left on the entire planet, it’s that none of them are acting like adults. They are behaving the way we expect children to behave, making a mess, taking no responsibility, expecting someone else to clean it up. In May, the U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres admitted he was relying on the world’s kids to act because the world’s governments were “not showing enough political will.” Think about what this means. This man who was once the prime minister of Portugal, who occupies one of the most senior positions in the world, was surrendering the Earth to a bunch of children who the law has stated are not mature enough to even vote. When Guterres was asked by a student how they could go about solving the climate crisis before it was too late, he literally said he was “waiting for you to be as noisy as possible.” What kind of adult, in the face of an emergency, just stands by and waits? Don’t we usually arrest people for less?
“People tell me that they are so hopeful when they see me and other children ‘school-striking,’ and they say, ‘Oh the children are going to save us.’ But no we aren’t,” Thunberg told The Financial Times in February. “We are too young to be able to do that. We don’t have time to wait for us to grow up and fix this in the future. The people who are in power now need to do this now.” But no. That doesn’t work. Because it means the people in power giving up their power. Because solving the climate crisis means upending everything that caused it in the first place, it means upending the system that established those in power. As a kid, you start with nothing and you build on that. As a grown-up, how do you go back to that? Grown-ups know how to compromise, they know how to grease the wheels, they know how to make money, they know how to get more and more. But they are bad at making less, at taking it all apart. They see starting over as a failure, which in their position, hurtling toward the end, is such a pure instance of irony even a child could grasp it.
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.