The righteousness of the youth-led climate justice movement
Adapted from GreenBuzz, a weekly newsletter published every Monday. Subscribe here.
I’ve been wondering for years when it would finally happen: an uprising by the world’s youth against grownup inaction on climate change. As a child of the Vietnam era, a time when politics, arts, culture and almost everything else was infused with antiwar fervor, I’ve been amazed, and often disheartened, that today’s young people haven’t similarly been out in force to protest the theft of their climate future.
It’s finally happening, although it’s not exactly what I was expecting. It’s better.
Witness the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, Youth Climate Strike, even the young people supporting the Green New Deal. They’re not talking merely about reducing the accumulation of greenhouse gases or otherwise stemming the worst impacts of a changing climate. The young leaders behind these movements are talking about "climate justice."
In doing so, they’re a step or two ahead of their elders. The rest of us would be well-advised to pay attention — and try to catch up.
Climate justice, for the uninitiated, looks at the interconnectedness of climate change with various forms of inequity and discrimination. At its core, it recognizes that what is happening to the climate is a symptom of a rigged economic system, in which those with money, influence and power are, wittingly or not, oppressing those who lack these things. The movement recognizes that the world's poorest and least powerful will bear the brunt of climate change's worst impacts; indeed, they already are.
The movement’s call to action: "System change, not climate change."
Consider: A peer-reviewed study released last week by two Stanford University professors found that the climate crisis "has very likely exacerbated global economic inequality." Based on a review of 21 climate models, the Stanford profs found that climate change is impacting economic growth, "which over the course of decades has accumulated robust and substantial declines in economic output in hotter, poorer countries — and increases in many cooler, wealthier countries."
Specifically, the researchers found that between 1961 and 2000, climate change dampened per-capita incomes in the world’s poorest countries. India, one of the hardest hit, would have been 30 percent richer without climate change, they concluded. Meanwhile, Norway, a wealthy oil and gas producer, grew 34 percent wealthier.
This isn’t exactly news. The United Nations is among many that have been warning us about the linkage between climate change and global inequality. A 2016 policy brief noted that "the impacts of climate change and structural inequalities are locked in a vicious cycle. Large inequalities in access to physical and financial assets; unequal access to quality health services, education and employment; and inequality with respect to voice and political representation aggravate the exposure and vulnerability of large population groups to climate hazards."
And it’s not just a rich-versus-poor-country thing. Another academic study reported in 2017 that climate change will aggravate economic inequality within the United States, essentially transferring wealth from communities in the Southeast and Midwest to more prosperous communities in the Northeast and on the coasts.
Hence, climate justice.
The young leaders behind these movements understand, implicitly or explicitly, that climate change isn’t a standalone problem. And solving it — or at least minimizing its impacts — demands a broader view, one that incorporates other environmental issues — unhealthy air quality, contaminated water supplies, toxic facilities near poor neighborhoods — and traditional social justice issues: the education and empowerment of young girls and women, living wages, food insecurity, affordable health care, mass migration, homelessness, political authoritarianism, the lack of economic mobility and more.
The Green New Deal reflects a similar laundry list of issues, some of which have long been pet causes of leftist and progressive movements. That has played into the hands of critics seeking to dismiss the GND’s vision as a utopian grab bag or a socialist pipe dream.
But it’s not. In many ways, it’s a systems view of today's wicked problems.
These youth movements aren’t going away, any more than the antiwar crowd of my youth would rest until the United States finally evacuated Vietnam, in 1975. Climate justice, by whatever name, will be around for a while. Its voice will likely swell in lockstep with the rise of extreme weather and other perturbations that already have led to economic hardship for millions around the world, sometimes forcing them to flee their communities and nations.
How should companies think about young people's calls for "system change"? After all, their ideals threaten the status quo, including the present economic systems in which we all live and work, and in which investors place their bets. These systems, and the companies within them, are built for the long haul, designed to maximize shareholder profits, but they’ll likely face increasing pressure to address much more than just their Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions.
And it’s not merely a matter of blending corporate environmental efforts with traditional corporate social responsibility. CSR, in large part, has lived at the margins of company strategy and operations — a little community engagement here, some philanthropy there, perhaps a dollop of employee volunteerism. It hasn’t been core to most companies’ profits and productivity. And it ebbs and flows with changes in company management and economic cycles.
What’s being called for by this new generation is more than an acceleration of the good work companies already are doing. The battle cry is for a bigger overhaul of how companies behave and interact, and of the systems of commerce in which they operate.
How much and how fast companies will be pressed to address climate justice and system change will be one of the more fascinating business stories of the next decade or two. That the movement is being led by your company's future employees, neighbors and customers should be of considerable interest, and more than a little concern.