OPINION: Young activists demand to be heard on climate crisis

by | Oct 9, 2019 | Opinion

Alireza Naraghi, Editor

If the scale of the challenge to the political system and the planet was not clear last month when Canadians came out in droves to demand climate action and joined the global school strike organized by the movement’s founder, Greta Thunberg, now there’s certainly no doubt. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” said the teenage climate activist. “My message is that we will [be] watching you.”

Grassroots movements and the idea of protecting our natural world have been around for decades. But since the school strikes for climate began last year, young people called on adults to recognize the gravity of the problem – and to demand to be heard. Trade unions and NGOs representing hundreds of millions of people globally mobilized in support: employees left their workplaces, teachers, and nurses marched, and workers at giant tech companies, such as Amazon, walked out to join the climate protest.

People march in the climate strike march in Montreal on Sept. 27, 2019. (REUTERS/Andrej Ivanov)

The idea of protecting the natural world has been around for decades, but this past year the explosion in youth climate activism has dramatically altered the debate around the issue and shifted the perception among the broader electorate. Driven to desperation by the repeated failures of governments and the limitations posed by the economic system and increasing fearfulness about the warming and ecologically degradation the young are set to inherit, youth movements are sending a message to political classes and highlighting the dire consequences forthcoming if they fail to respond.

How politicians can take such sentiments seriously is still unclear, and much of that depends on how they view the climate emergency and whether they treat it as a problem directly connected to prevailing economic and political narratives.

Early indications show some of these ideas are gaining ground in Canadian politics. A recent Forum Poll for the Toronto Star found the environment and climate change is the top issue among 32 per cent of the 1,853 people asked between Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, even over the economy and jobs, at 21 per cent.

Also, for example, the aggressive campaigning by the Liberal Party around the issue in recent weeks on campaign trails and implementation of a carbon tax. The Green New Deal, championed by young Democrats in the United States and supported by the NDP through  its “Green New Democratic Deal,” is just another example of this massive shift, which was unimaginable only two years ago.

Such a comprehensive policy, if enacted, would transform the energy sector, the very concept of transportation, and reconfigure the approach to agriculture. Canadian climate emergency advocates can take heart their plight, and direct actions like school strikes, are having a significant impact, even if the political will among governments is moving slowly.

It is hard to argue how much movements can achieve by translating this momentum, which is gained through social movements, into considerable political power.

Internationally, the trends are mixed. The rise of Donald Trump and, subsequently, the emergence of far-right politics, which are inherently suspicious towards the issue of climate change, resist genuine change while dragging the progress backward. Such variations, as well as the unprecedented nature of the climate activism of the past year, make it hard to predict where we go from here.

But the climate emergency is not the only issue to have strong support among voters. In Canada, First Nation rights, job security, and affordable housing, especially among the young, are other issues that have an intergenerational dimension. Indeed, the dire predictions for the future of the planet, and, by extension, the western political economy, show the divisions between old and young.

With Millennial voters making up the biggest voting bloc in the upcoming federal election, a new fault line in politics is crystallizing.