While I was at the climate action demonstrations on Friday, someone told me that it was “nice” of MauiTime to have published a story about three local eighth-grade climate activists who walked out of school to demonstrate for climate action (“We Can Make a Difference,” Sep. 19). It felt like a compliment, but the framing of my story as a favor to the three teenagers made me pause. Although well intentioned, the comment betrayed an underlying, patronizing attitude toward youth.
It’s understandably common. As adults, we take and virally share photos of kids dressed like grown-ups, giggle at their mimicry of athletes and professionals, and pat them on the head when they show an interest in important affairs (“So cute!”). We may accept them in token roles, but rarely, if ever, do we actually put teenagers in charge. Leadership is for adults, who (supposedly) know what we’re doing, after all.
In reality, however, there are many cases where adult “leadership” has utterly failed. The impending climate crisis, and the ongoing degradation of the Earth and its natural resources are major examples. With this in mind, and in the wake of last week’s international climate demonstrations, I feel the need to clarify: I didn’t write about 13-year-olds Sage Campbell, Georgia Eyerman, and Siena Schwartz, and publish my interview with them, in the mere interest of applauding and validating the opinions of three token young people.
I ran the piece because the climate crisis is arguably the greatest threat facing humanity, and these three youth are some of the few exercising real leadership by recognizing and declaring, as 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has, that “Our house is on fire.” It has long been the time to act with this sense of urgency, and the longer we resist radical action and dither between denialism and incrementalism, the more this world burns to ash and the less time we have to salvage what’s left. Despite opposition from peers and adults, the three are seriously addressing a crisis stoked by generations prior, and rising to fill the void of action left by “grown-ups.” Theirs is a human story of the most vulnerable among us rising to meet the challenges of exceptional times, in the face of powers complacent with a destructive status quo.
In other words, I didn’t run the story to be “nice.” I ran the story because it’s necessary.
Some might think I’m being dramatic. But as the United Nations stated bluntly in the opening of its annual climate change report last week: “The bottom line is that while momentum exists, we need much more climate ambition. There is simply no time to waste. Climate change is fast outpacing us and needs an urgent response by all segments of society.” The world is approaching tipping points where some of the more severe consequences of climate change can no longer be avoided, the UN added in a report on ocean temperatures released Wednesday.
“You all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!” she rebuked the world leaders. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words and yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing.”
Among elites, Thunberg’s scolding seemed to elicit one of two reactions. First, from the right and Fox News pundits, to infantilize the 16-year-old and dismiss her anger as childish and unworthy, and as an underhanded tactic of the left to manipulate the public by shielding their agenda behind a naive youngster. The other response came from the neoliberal left, to patronize Thunberg, praising her with memes, making clips of her side-eying Donald Trump, and co-opting her message and passion into their brand of incremental climate action.
I won’t reprint Trump sycophant Tucker Carlson here, but among democrats, for example, presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar quickly jumped on the Greta-train Monday, tweeting a four-second clip of Thunberg glaring at Trump with the words, “Same.”
But that’s untrue. The two aren’t the same.
“The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50 percent chance of staying below 1.5 degrees and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control,” Thunberg said. “Fifty percent may be acceptable to you, but those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution, or the aspects of equity and climate justice. They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist. So a 50 percent risk is simply not acceptable to us, we who have to live with the consequences.”
Meanwhile, Klobuchar, while happy to claim “Same” with Thunberg, has refused to sign onto the Green New Deal and is only calling for a 45 percent cut in greenhouse gases by 2030. Likewise, Chelsea Clinton was happy to publicly thank Thunberg, oblivious of her family’s hand in the climate crisis during decades past, embrace of extractive capitalism, and efforts to defend fracking and pipelines.
Or perhaps, in the vein of oil and energy companies that “greenwash” their practices to preserve profits, it isn’t obliviousness – it’s the blatant co-opting of the Swedish activist’s message in order to placate the masses while making no significant changes to power and the status quo. Part of Thunberg’s skill is in seeing through and rejecting these insincere and inconsequential efforts.
“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth,” she stressed on Monday. “How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just business as usual and some technical solutions? … You are failing us, but the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you and if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.”
Some politicians, however, are taking action and offer young activists more support than a disposable “Yas queen!” tweet. Progressive presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have platforms with ambitious goals for net-zero emissions in the near future, outpacing the Paris Climate Agreement with commitments for real change. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has spearheaded the Green New Deal and continues to doggedly call out corporations for their destructive practices, products, and emissions.
And on Friday, the morning of the Sep. 20 Global Climate Strike, Maui’s councilmembers recognized the youth with a ceremonial resolution “Recognizing the efforts of Maui County residents to highlight climate change, especially through participation in the global climate strike on September 20, 2019.”
The resolution was passed unanimously, and during the Sep. 20 climate rally at UH Maui College, Council Chair Kelly King announced plans to develop a county Office of Climate Action and form a youth council to inform the County Council on issues that matter to the future generation, such as climate change.
But the question remains, is the council’s action a sign that our local legislators are taking climate action seriously? Or is it another inconsequential, ceremonial act?
After all, a year into the councilmembers’ two-year terms, we have yet to see meaningful legislation regarding the impacts of tourism (which causes airline greenhouse gas emissions and environmental degradation) or the regulation of single-use plastics like disposable utensils. The council only recently approved (by a 5-4 vote) the settlement of the Lahaina wastewater injection wells case, after decades of seeping effluent has been linked to poor West Maui coral health. And, projects like the Wailuku Civic Complex, which are rooted in outdated models of car-based transportation, continue to move ahead.
As Thunberg said, “We’ll be watching.”
I was sitting at my friend’s house in Kahului last weekend, staring at a 50-foot wall in his backyard, trying to visualize what was on the other side of the labyrinthine barriers of his neighborhood, when I realized that he should have access to multiple restaurants, a shopping center, coffee shop, yoga studio, and convenience store within walking distance. The planning of the houses and streets made this impossible. What would take two to five minutes of walking if paths were in place instead takes five minutes of driving or 15 minutes of walking on the roadside.
It’s one example of how our dependence on fossil fuels and development around an outdated commuter culture has disconnected our communities and enables pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. It also goes to show that efforts to avert climate crisis will require paradigm shifts in the thinking of those in power – or the election of new leaders with fresh ideas. Aside from embracing multimodal transportation, youth climate activists pointed to other systemic changes.
“In the climate conversation, it is important to acknowledge Indigenous peoples,” said Punahele DeCosta, a Maui organizer for the Hawai‘i chapter of the US Youth Climate Strike. “Indigenous people have known the land the best – we took care of it and it took care of us. With colonization and disregard to Native knowledge came the impending climate crisis. What was seen as progress was really only progressing us into doom.”
DeCosta told me that she and fellow climate organizers around the state recently visited Maunakea to pay respect and lend their support to the cause of the kia‘i, or protectors, on the mauna. To her, as well as climate action organizations such as 350.org, the struggles for Indigenous rights and sovereignty are intertwined with the fight for a sustainable future.
“Our culture, traditions, and beliefs are all connected to our relationship with the land. We are interwoven with the oceans we swim in and the trees we stand under. We are not the first climate movement,” she said. “From Standing Rock to the Amazon Rainforest to Maunakea, Indigenous communities have always been on the frontlines… Those that contribute the least to climate change are facing the most of it. Native people comprise of five percent of the world, but protect 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. We cannot build a sustainable future without respect of Native communities.”
DeCosta concluded, “Native Hawaiians – kanaka maoli – have thrived sustainably for thousands of years and it is based on aloha ‘aina, not exploiting it. Our knowledge is essential in the climate discussion.”
A New Era
The shift – or, I should say, return – to aloha ‘aina is fundamental to restoring this planet. Decades of incrementalism under a Western framework are why little has changed except the time left on the Doomsday Clock. It shows that a change in our relationship to the land and to each other is necessary if we’re to seriously address climate change, and that if we continue to commodify our forests, reefs, islands, and culture, they will continue to be pimped, sold, abused, and lost.
As long as profit motives drive corporations and there are natural resources remaining to commodify, the Earth is in peril. But after decades of peril, worsening conditions, and a closing window of action, a new era seems like fantasy.
Or at least seemed like one, until I met Maui’s youth climate activists. It might seem sad to say that without the bravery and leadership of teenagers, things would seem hopeless, but here we are.
“Every revolution has been started by the youth. We are really going to change the future because we see how it’s going to affect us the most, and we’re refusing to accept that,” DeCosta said. “We’re not trying to play clean-up crew, we’re just trying to get the adults to do their job and leave the world a better place than they found it so that it can be passed down, even better and better, throughout generations.”
So enough with the patronizing. For the sake of this planet and future generations, it’s time to step up, vote, take leadership positions, and expect more from our elected officials. It’s time to take a lesson from the youth and do our jobs – not because it’s a “nice” thing to do, but because it must be done.
Photos by Axel Beers