Why it took a 16-year old to wake up the world to climate change

The year 2019 was marked by many animated personalities and countless current events. The year was captured by a continuous cycle of Breaking News covering issues ranging from Brexit to the U.S. impeachment hearings, the suspended manufacture of Boeing’s 737 Max to the record-breaking IPO of Saudi Aramco, the heartbreaking Notre Dame Cathedral fire to the horrifying and devastating wildfires in California and other regions of the world.

The year was also influenced by remarkable people, including a 16-year old Swedish environmental activist named, Greta Thunberg. If you haven’t heard of Greta Thunberg, I must ask, what rock have you been living under? Greta Thunberg left such a mark on the world this past year that Time Magazine named this courageous climate activist its 2019 Person of the Year.

Greta Thunberg, Swedish climate activist, outside the General Assembly Hall at UN Headquarters in New York, August 30, 2019 – UN Photo by Manuel Elias – Posted for media use

But above and beyond this incredible honor and recognition, Greta Thunberg has become for many, a beacon of hope and inspiration as she calls on all governments and people of the world to wake up to the realities of climate change and take more progressive action on human-induced environmental degradation.

Given her ability to effectively mobilize more than 4 million people to join in the single largest climate demonstration in history, Thunberg has been lauded as a pioneer and transformationalist. Further, in calling for more moral leadership, service and action, Thunberg has changed the climate debate narrative, shifting attitudes among political and business leaders from debating the ambiguity and passiveness of climate change to having clarity and purpose enveloped in her climate strike. And she’s succeeded despite the attempts at public ridicule from President Trump, who, upon hearing about Thunberg’s Time Magazine accolade mocked Thunberg when he Tweeted, “So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!”

While contrarian voices and ignorant views on climate change remain, this past year Thunberg represented the ideals and actions of the generational shift that has been underway, for humanity to become more sustainable. She has captured, where presidents and other public officials have not, the hearts and minds of millions of people who are starved for authentic leadership.

This is your future student

In late fall I had the privilege to provide opening remarks at the State of NY Sustainability Conference hosted at Rochester Institute of Technology. When preparing my remarks to speak before nearly 200 higher education sustainability leaders I thought about Greta Thunberg and felt energized. I initiated my remarks by speaking about the state of ‘sustainability’ affairs in the U.S. and throughout the world.

"We don't have time" student with protest sign

As I got more into the clarity of my message, a picture of Greta illuminated two large presentation screens behind me. Her image possessed a piercing humility and quiet maturity that does not seem to accompany many 16-year old’s. I deliberately put her picture into the presentation to make a point, something that I had only thought about a few days prior to provide levity and accessibility to the talk. I have found over my years of public speaking, that it pays to have the audience relate to you as much as possible. 

With Greta peering out from behind me I asked the participants if they knew who this intense young person was. Immediately saw some nodding heads and a few admiring smiles. I asked the audience again, “who is this brave girl?” This time, a few more smiles, a few shifting chairs, and a handful of people who simultaneously affirmed her name, saying aloud, “Greta Thunberg.” I said, “yes, yes, that is her name,” and then I asked, “but who is she?” The room went silent, and roughly 200 faces gazed back at me, looking a little puzzled, wondering where I was going with my reasoning.    

With the room at attention, I then said, “this is your future student.” I reminded myself to then pause and stay quiet for an extra second or two so that the audience could fully absorb and interpret what I meant. I said it again, “Greta is your future student.” I could see that many in the room were really thinking this statement through. I then went on explain that the brilliant person embodied by all that Greta is and has done, is illustrative of thousands and millions of youth across the U.S. and the world. There are, quite literally, tens of thousands of 16-to-17-year old’s who, like Greta, are looking at the world and asking it to see what they see, an alarming rate of ecological degradation and destruction due to human-induced climate change.

My question to the room was, “is your college and university prepared for this student, their ambitions, and their growing intolerance for institutions that are silent or inactive when it comes to progressive social, economic, and environmental concerns?” The audience shifted again in their seats and the balance of my comments provided some observations and perspectives by which they could prepare themselves for the imminent change of culture that will descend upon their campuses soon.

Across generational divides

Recently I had a very nice conversation with a colleague based in Dublin, Ireland, discussing Greta and this topic. We talked about the fundamental shifts in attitudes regarding climate and sustainability happening globally. We discussed differences between the U.S. and rest of world. I realized during our conversation that there are stark differences on what we see and perceive as change, and across generational divides. Here’s an analogy to visualize the differences on climate more specifically.

The Boomer Generation and older were born into the global melting pot during a time when for all intents and purposes, the proverbial water temperature was just fine. It was comfortable and soothing. Generation Xers grew up as the water started heating up but was not anywhere near scolding. Global climate changes had already been occurring, but not yet in a way that was dramatically impacting daily life. Millennials and younger however were born into a world where the fire, calamity, and visible changes associated with climate disruption are literally at their doorsteps. Parents and grandparents of Millennials and younger have had time on earth, feeling and sensing their environment prior to the dramatic changes we see today.

To be clear, older generations have seen, during their lifetime, the visible impacts of climate change and ecologic destruction. They also saw the positive impacts of progressive environmental policies like the Clean Air and Water Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act or CERCLA (in the U.S.), which their generation initiated and introduced into laws, to protect water, air and land resources from pollution.

Millennials are not the first generation to take stock of ecological change and pursue progressive action. Each generation has a mark that they leave on the world, positive and negative. In this case however, Millennials and those younger can articulate and act on climate differently than prior generations, largely due to the lens by which they more clearly see the world. For example, Millennials and younger generations have not been in the global melting pot to assimilate to rising temperatures. Rather, they were born and thrown directly into the boiling water. Logically, their worldview and tolerance of what’s happening around them is experienced with a higher degree of concern and alarm than older generations who have been desensitized over decades of delusionary consumptive behaviors.

Further, Millennials and younger generations are born into a world of conflict and contrast, brought on by a world in continued political, spiritual, economic, and technological transition, that appears, at face value, as insane. Again, older generations have seen a transition in technology, over a lifetime, from fossil fuels to renewable energy, from centralized to decentralized models of innovation, from gas powered vehicles to electric drivetrains, from consumption-based lifestyles to sustainable living. Younger generations look at the world, with all its advanced technology, intellect and know-how, and logically question why on earth would we continue to perpetuate any consumption behaviors that negatively impact human health and the environment, particularly if we have solutions for use right now. Older generations take pride in their past and the lives they have led. Younger generations may lack historical perspective and context.

The incredible wisdom of youth

But together, we must find a way to bridge the wisdom of old and the spirit of new to advance humanity toward a more peaceful, just and sustainable future. Together we are advancing a ‘sustainability generation.’ Each of us have a distinct role to play in this transformation. This transformation is not about one person or one issue, but the ability for us to treat each other with dignity as we work together to solve the most pressing and pertinent challenges of our time.       

Consider this, it has taken an independent person, someone who would be deemed by most people as a ‘non-expert,’ and who is completely removed from the scientific, technological, religious, political, and economic communities and circles of influence, to show the world that we are wasting precious time and resources stewing over how hot it is, how hot it will be, who lit the first match, and who put the last log on the fire. Without pretense or politic, Greta has illuminated the fact that the fire is at our door, the time for debate is over, we’re all boiling and it’s time to act.

Sometimes you can be too close to something to be independent and unbiased. Wisdom gained by years of experience is important, but it’s only as useful in so far that it is continuously applied and adapted to the needs of today. Wisdom is garnered by being aware of your biases or “blind spots,” by being open to new ideas and the differences of opinion and thought from others. It is a willingness to learn through the lens by which others see themselves and the world. Last year a 16-year old spoke her mind as a concerned global citizen which led to a global alignment of people for what was the largest climate strike in history. I’m of the belief that we all learned something from Greta Thunberg in 2019.

Our youth have incredible wisdom. They see the world, relatively unfiltered, for what it is, good and bad. We need to be more mindful of what our kids and students see and listen carefully to what they are trying to say. For in their minds and through their hearts there is a brighter future to be designed and lived. We must be open and willing to listen to our youth and be prepared to support and guide their (and our) aspirations.  

Additional photos courtesy of Pexels.