Youth climate strikes – a climate game-changer?

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On Friday 15th March, schoolchildren worldwide took the day off school in order to gather at more than 2000 events to register their protest against inaction on the part of adults, policymakers and world leaders in tackling global climate change. At the epicenter of the climate protests, Greta Thunberg, the founder of the climate strike phenomenon, addressed the crowd in central Stockholm: ‘we are facing an existential crisis, the largest mankind has ever faced. Those of you who have ignored this crisis know who you are and are most guilty. It is not the young who are responsible for this strike. We are striking to have a future and we will not stop.”

Across Sweden, and in over 120 countries, the climate strikers spoke of their hopes and fears and endorsed a range of policy measures and behavioral changes that older generations had resisted: higher taxes for petrol and aviation fuel, fewer trips by plane, phasing out of one-time plastics, and a reduction in meat consumption were all championed. At partner events in Australia, other children demanded a moratorium on new coal-mines and natural gas projects, as well as renewable only energy production by 2030. Writing in The Guardian, Thunberg and others explained that ‘these strikes are happening today… because politicians have failed us. We’ve seen years of negotiations, pathetic deals on climate change, fossil fuel companies being given free rein to carve open our lands, drill beneath our soils and burn away our futures for profit…Politicians have known the truth about climate change and they’ve willingly handed over our future to profiteers whose search for quick cash threatens our very existence’ (Thunberg et al 2019).

Two of the most striking elements of the protests were, first, the diverse but eminently achievable measures that many of the schoolchildren demanded (reductions of meat consumption, decreased use of consumer plastics, shift to renewables, and reduces use of carbon intense energy, are all eminently achievable and have been promoted by many environmental groups and green political parties, if with very limited success; and, second, the focus on the ‘existential crisis’ caused by an inadequate climate response run by, of, and seemingly for, older generations who will not face the consequences of their failure.

There are, in fact, three interconnected climate crises that, when better understood, readily support Thunberg’s appeal to the existential threat posed by climate change and her diagnosis of our failure to address this threat.

First, there is a climate mitigation crisis.  Mitigation involves policies and measures that prevent avoidable climate change by reducing sources of greenhouse gas emissions or by enhancing natural processes that take these emissions out of the atmosphere. Good examples of the former measure are those that reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases in energy production, agriculture, and cement manufacture. Good examples of the latter measure are those that prevent deforestation. The problem is that, even if all of the national commitments under the current global climate regime were implemented in full, greenhouse gas emissions will far exceed those required to trigger an excess of 2oC warming by the end of the century, an outcome that many identify as the threshold of dangerous climate change, and the modest measures of afforestation, and avoided deforestation, are simply too insignificant to pick up the slack (IPCC 2018). As many ethicists have pointed out, the problem is that, given the time lag between reducing emissions and the positive effect this has for reducing global warming, each generation has an incentive – if not a moral excuse – to pass the burden of climate mitigation to the next generation since no generation will benefit greatly from its mitigation efforts.

Second, there is a climate adaptation crisis. Adaptation, like mitigation, aims at preventing adverse climate impacts from materializing but it does so not by addressing the root causes of the problem (the atmospheric accumulation over time of gases that drive global warming by trapping heat in the atmosphere) but rather by adjusting our behaviour and institutions to avoid, or moderate, the disruption that physical climate changes would otherwise cause. Adaptation measures (such as flood defences, improved building codes, and water retention in agricultural areas) are a highly effective complement to mitigation measures since they are often quicker and cheaper, as well as less disruptive, for the communities implementing them than many of the changes in global economic structures (such as transport infrastructure, energy creation, and cement manufacture) necessary to reduce global carbon emissions. But, here again, there is a huge gap between what is needed for the poorest populations to adapt successfully to unmitigated climate change and what has been secured by way of funding, or promises of future funding, made under the global climate regime. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), for example, estimated the need for adaptation in developing countries from 2014 onwards to be in the order of $70-100 billion per annum (an estimate subject to radical upwards valuation looking into the future) whereas only $12.5 billion was sent to developing countries in that year for this purpose (UNEP2016). The first two crises unhappily intersect in that insufficient mitigation has led to the prospect of a need for greater adaption at the same time as it has led to the prospect of unmitigated climate changes outrunning the capacity of developing countries to adapt.

Third, there is a loss and damage crisis. Whereas mitigation and adaptation both seek to prevent climate change damaging human wellbeing, loss and damage measures seek to minimize the socioeconomic effects of damaging climate change impacts that are not, or cannot be, avoided. They are often called the ‘residual’ of mitigation and adaptation since they arise after mitigation and adaptation have been attempted, but they are far from limited or manageable. Although the Paris Agreement of 2015 took steps to embed loss and damage into the climate regime through a separate protocol, its focus is largely on knowledge sharing and support for self-financing measures, such as insurance and early warning schemes, rather than direct assistance to rehabilitate the victims of climate change. In fact, the price for the enhanced legal status that loss and damage gained at Paris was developing countries having to agree that any support offered does not ‘involve or provide a basis for liability or compensation’ on the part of developed states (UNFCCC 2015a). Put simply, the developed states agreed to fund discussion of what might be done about loss and damage so long as this is was not tied to a systematic compensation mechanism or any admission of liability linked to the developed world’s historical contribution to, or great wealth created from, the activities that led to the emergence of the climate problem.

Bringing these threads together, despite a global climate change convention being in place since 1992, global annual greenhouse gas emissions have yet to peak and are currently over 50 per cent above their level in 1992; global adaptation finance is currently running at one sixth of what is required to fill the gap created by insufficient mitigation; and there is no systematic compensation mechanism envisaged to assist developing countries to cope with the inevitable loss and damage associated with inadequate adaptation. On the UNFCCC’s (2015b) own analysis, the current regime, if fully complied with, will result in a 2.7oC rise in global temperature by 2100 that will trigger losses and damages from which many populations will not recover.

As Thunberg and her fellow strikers write, her generation, at least in developed countries, may well live to see a 2.7oC warmer world (they will be in their mid-nineties by this time) that earlier generations will avoid. Without a profound change in mindset and action, then, those living in 2100 will inherit, and pass on to their children, a warming which, along with its with grave consequences, was foreseen more than eighty years previously. With all this in mind, it is hard to argue with Thunberg’s claim that her generation is now facing an ‘existential crisis’ created by a prior crisis of inaction amongst older generations. It is perhaps more surprising that it took a school strike to wake so many of us up to our role in this crisis.


Dr Edward Page
Department of Politics and International Studies
Warwick University
18 March 2019

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