The Climate Crisis Is Dividing Generations and Households
The climate crisis and debates about its severity were at the forefront of the U.S. election, but in private homes and communities, the rift between the sides often took a generational rather than party-line split. While young people often cited a sense of despair and outrage over global heating, their alarm was often met by indifference and even dismissal by some of their older relatives and acquaintances, reported The Guardian.
For example, Gemma Gutierrez, a 16-year-old in Milwaukee, was inspired by Greta Thunberg to contact her local elective representatives to voice her concern about the climate crisis. Her grandparents, self-described conservatives, think that she's been misled by popular opinion. Gutierrez plans to write a letter to her grandparents to explain her distress but also knows that discussions may end up, as they have in the past, in a stalemate.
She said, "I feel [older people] are voting against the better interests of our climate and I want them to see a different perspective. I think I would be doing the world a disservice by not trying."
17-year-old Lily Jarosz told The Guardian, "I can see a really clear generational split," when talking climate with her "apolitical Gen X-er" parents and "openly hostile" grandmother. "That hurts me so much, like she doesn't care about me or understand the immediacy of the issue."
Statista found that 51 percent of surveyed 18- to 34-year-olds agreed that the climate crisis would pose a serious threat within their lifetime, while only 29 percent of those surveyed aged 55 and older agreed with the statement.
"The climate change generation is a generation of young people born into a warming world, who will be alive to see which climate model scenario plays out, and who have spent — and will spend — essentially our entire adult lives fighting for a just and stable future," Harvard postdoctoral fellow Geoffrey Supran told Manomet. He pointed out that many younger members of the "climate change generation" will outlive the climate projections that scientists have created through 2100.
Similarly, Zach Fayer, a business sustainability college program alum, explained to Manomet, "Members of my generation care about climate change because we're going to live through it."
"[W]e need to recognize that the climate crisis will arguably be the defining issue for younger generations," said Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of Amnesty International, in an Amnesty International report. "The right to a healthy environment, including a safe climate, is essential for the enjoyment of so many other rights. It is a right that young people today have been forced to take the lead in asserting."
A report by David Karol cited in a Columbia University blog demonstrated that disagreements surrounding the climate crisis revolve more around an age gap than a party distinction. While millennials grew up widely discussing climate change, the same was not true of baby boomers and generators prior to them, Karol said. Comparing the generational gap within the Republican party revealed "widespread recognition" in college-aged Republicans that climate change was real and in part caused by human activity. These younger GOP scholars were also open to solutions to the climate crisis and 57 percent of them believed there to be "solid evidence" of climate change, Karol found. By contrast, the majority of GOP baby boomers and those older than them did not accept that there was solid evidence.
A Yale survey did not find the same generational differences between young and old Democrats. While more than 90 percent of both groups believed that global warming is happening, more Silent Generation Democrats supported the idea than millennial Democrats. The groups flip-flopped on anthropogenic influence, with 81 percent of millennial and 74 percent of Silent Generation Democrats believing that global warming is human-caused.
Yale offered that young Americans concerned about the climate may be able to transform it into a voting issue and thereby help advance mitigation policies. In particular, "young Republications... may be critical to bridging the political divide on climate change and building bipartisan support for reducing carbon emissions."
Kathryn Stevenson, who has studied how climate education for children can raise concern for parents, told The Guardian, "Climate change is visceral for young people. They can see this coming down on them in their future."
Stevenson noted that even simple conversations at home and at school can also help bridge the generational gap, especially because "[i]t's hard to look a kid in the face and ignore them when they are talking about their future."
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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