OK, Doomers! The Climate Generation Has Arrived

A group of protestors in Paris, one holding a sign that reads "cool kids saving a hot planet"

As the news of Australia’s fires overwhelm us, as climate activism mounts, and as youth are leading the charge, it is becoming clear that the Climate Generation has arrived. Young people care more about climate change than any generation before them. Who are they, what do they want, and what can the rest of us learn from them?

Although Greta Thunberg has become the face and voice of the Climate Generation, it would be a mistake to assume that she is the first or only strident youth worried about the fate of the planet. Her success is the result of a groundswell of young people raising concerns, pressuring parents, taking risks, and demanding action. That Thunberg would become the apple of the public’s eye on climate activist youth is testament to dominant expectations about what kinds of people care about climate change. In truth, youth climate activists of color and from the global south, such as Autumn Peltier, Isra Hirsi, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Ridhima Pandey, Aditya Mukarji, and many others, have been putting in the hard work of organizing, protesting, protecting, and inspiring youth on climate issues for at least the past five years. Youth climate activists are coming of age convinced of the connections between pesticide exposure of migrant farmworkers and loss of biodiversity, between colonial land theft and unequal access to ecosystem services, between a person’s health and their zip code. Unlike my own generation’s climate movement, which often separates concerns over climate change from concerns of social justice, this default orientation to climate justice is second nature for the youth movement.

A young person wears a face mask and holds a sign reading "climate justice now"
A young climate activist protests in Lafayette Square, across from the White House in Washington, DC. Photo by Victoria Pickering.

Lack of attention to youth activists of color means that older climate advocates are not learning the first main lesson that the Climate Generation can teach the rest of us—that climate change is a social justice issue. The structural injustices that create human suffering, unregulated global capitalism, and colonialism are the same structures that degrade ecosystems. Fighting climate change is not just a prerequisite for addressing social injustice; on the contrary, addressing social injustices is necessary to address climate change. Unfortunately, the media’s coverage of Thunberg, as inspiring and important as she is, undermines a key contribution of the Climate Generation. A more accurate representation of who makes up the youth climate movement would make more visible to the public how intersectional the movement really is, and how they’re offering an analysis of climate change that has been missing from the climate movement thus far.

The youth climate movement is necessarily and crucially more intersectional and diverse because young people are experiencing the effects of climate change more immediately than previous generations. That is, youth are growing up in a world that is perceptibly shaped by climate change. In the U.S., this means that young people understand that extreme weather events, hotter and longer summers, increased health problems associated with pollution and heat, fires, and flooding are all connected to climate change. The Climate Generation sees climate change as more immediate in time and space—happening in their literal backyards and in their own lifetimes—than older generations. Studies show that young people are more likely to experience the negative physical and mental health effects of climate change and extreme weather events.  In the past, caring about climate meant you had the privilege of time and distance to worry about polar bears and ice sheets, and the fate of a very-far-in-the-future planet, because your and your family’s immediate needs were covered. As the Yale Center on Climate Communication and scholars like Kari Marie Norgaard have shown, the best indicator for people caring and changing their behavior about climate change is if they feel it: in the weather, in economic security, or in health impacts. Thus, it is not a mere coincidence that young people are becoming more politicized about climate change as they are experiencing its effects more and sooner.

A group of young activists raise their fists while holding a banner reading "Indigenous justice is climate justice. Time for real action"
A group of Fridays for Future climate activists at COP25, the United Nations Climate Change conference held in Madrid in December 2019. Photo by John Englart.

As climate justice scholars and activists have long argued, the people who will experience the effects of climate change the most severely will be the people with the smallest role in producing the emissions that are causing it in the first place. Because climate change affects people unevenly across racial and economic lines, and because Gen Z is the most diverse generation the U.S. has ever seen, they are better able to draw connections between big oil, the wealth gap, and environmental exploitation. This explains why they are getting more politicized around climate change, and why they are frustrated with the older climate movement, which has been predominately privileged, predominately white and male, and whose “doom-and-gloom” mantras and hockey stick emissions graphs are no longer resonant. The Climate Generation—what we might also now call the generation of “ok, doomers”—grasps the structural critique of how capitalism and colonialism shape people’s unequal access to environmental costs and benefits. Indeed, it has been argued that the Climate Generation is behind the transformation of the old-school climate movement into the newer, more intersectional, climate justice movement.

This insight reinforces data about the Climate Generation’s overall views on social justice and the environment, data that shows these issues are high priorities for this demographic. Millennials and Generation Z stand apart from their elders in some significant ways. About 81% of young people care about climate change, and the generational gap is notable across political parties: one report shows that 42% of Millennial Republicans recognize that climate change is caused by human activity, compared to 30% of Republican Boomers. (What this means is that if Republicans don’t change their tune on climate, they are in danger of losing a generation.)

A group of students in school uniforms hold signs, including two that read "this is our future" and "you're burning our future"
Students protest at a massive climate strike in Melbourne, Australia. Photo by John Englart.

Young voters across the political spectrum ranked climate change in their top 10 concerns that would affect their decisions in the 2020 election. Another report shows that Generation Z is also the most diverse and most well-educated generation yet, and they are entering adulthood with values emphasizing racial equity and climate change. In both issues of racial justice and climate change, the starkest differences are within the Republican party; generation is a better gauge of environmental and social justice values. The Climate Generation, then, has a much more robust analysis than older generations of how large-scale system change is needed to address climate change and inequalities. This is why you see the youth climate movement demanding “system change, not climate change,” and this is why Greta Thunberg is schooling politicians in Davos about feedback loops instead of wasting her time shaming consumers about single use plastics. They demand nothing less than the wholescale shift to a different political, economic, and social system that internalizes the social and environmental costs of economic growth and eschews the ideology of growth from the start. Having observed the failed efforts of small-scale behavior change by do-gooders of the middle class, they are in the throes of transitioning us all to something bigger and better.

Climate Change Is Personal

The picture scientists paint of Gen Z’s future is bleak. The Climate Generation has a better grasp of science than most of the rest of us do; they’re aware of the projected impacts laid bare in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. Apparently, they have a better imagination for what life on earth might be like with few coral reefs and exponentially less carbon sequestering capacity in the ocean and diminishing forests. They also understand feedback loops in the atmosphere and ocean and how they heat both faster; they know these feedback loops mean that the burning of carbon is not just about emissions, but also leads to warming that releases more carbon and methane (and water vapor), which then leads to more warming.

A young person holds a sign reading "we all want to die of old age"
A young protestor in Toronto, Canada. Photo by Francis Mariani.

Forget polar bears: the loss of plant and animal biodiversity is no longer just about losing cute and charismatic megafauna; biodiversity makes ecosystems resilient to climate change. Combined with manufactured resource scarcity (a legacy of colonialism that suits late-stage capitalism), which results in things like social unrest, climate refugees, greater inequality, scrambles for wealth, and xenophobia, you can start to see why the youth climate movement doesn’t feel like they can sit in a classroom while their futures get gambled away to the highest bidder. The adults in the room—politicians, teachers, parents, economists, and pundits—are so invested in business as usual and seem to care little that the results of their current actions will be felt by people who are now under 25 years old, not long after they themselves get to enjoy cushy retirements. The fury of the youth makes a lot of sense in this context. Youth don’t care about climate change because they are naively attached to cute animals. They care about climate change because they think they know the planet will be a hostile place to live when they are adults, if it isn’t already.

Indeed, the climate generation is not just imagining a doomed future. They are increasingly experiencing climate change first-hand. The most recent IPCC report suggests that the reach of climate change across socioeconomic class and geography will only grow. My students are evidence that this is true. I used to teach material about Hurricane Katrina and sea-level rise in Alaska to students for whom these climate change case studies felt distant or like something that those aforementioned adults in the room would sort out before the problems encroached on their relatively sheltered lives. But increasingly, students are becoming the object of these case studies in classes. In the past few years, for example, fires in California have put them on the frontlines of climate disruption. We are now studying their personal tragedies. The climate generation no longer has the luxury of understanding climate disruption as something happening “out there” or in the future, and to other people. It is happening now, here, and to us.

Two young people hold signs reading "you're killing our future" and "just because you had a future doesn't mean we will!"
Climate strikers at a protest in San Francisco, California. Photo by Peg Hunter.

No wonder the youth are organized; they are doing what the rest of the country refuses to do—find common ground across party lines, sacrifice personal gain and immediate consumer pleasures, and take actions, now. There’s nothing like the common ground of survival. If climate change can ever be a bipartisan issue, it will be so because of them.

Critics of the youth climate movement might argue that climate disruption is no different from other forms of social disruption in U.S. history. But other crises, like the Great Depression, World War II, or the Vietnam War did not fundamentally alter the ecological basis of life on the planet, and people in those situations in general remained convinced that the crises would be resolved. Given the scale and nature of what will happen to the planet as temperatures rise, it seems clear to many of us that climate change could be bigger, worse, and less reversible than previous crises. Past strategies of avoiding these threats—political will, national sacrifice, and technological innovation—seem either too inadequate or unlikely to respond quickly enough. If the global 2019 strikes have shown us anything, it is that faith in existing institutions, like education and law, and in leaders with vision to mobilize public will, is at an all-time low among young people.

The cover of A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety by Sarah Jaquette Ray, a yellow background with a large, red exclamation point

The climate generation, then, is understandably resentful that they are inheriting the problems of previous generations who have selfishly doomed them to this fate. Older generations seem to expect young people to save the planet themselves, and throw salt on the wounds of an already painful mix of anxiety, depression, social media landscape, school shootings, political gridlock, and economic precarity. While older generations reap the benefits of an extractive economy and secretly assuage themselves knowing that the worst of the disruptions will not happen in their own lifetimes, putting these responsibilities on young people seems particularly cruel.

The climate generation are not “snowflakes”; they are on the frontlines of their future. They would be worse denialists than we are if they weren’t freaked out. On the contrary, as Jennifer Atkinson has written about her climate-anxious students, they are “badasses” in boot camp preparing for their lives and deaths. They are experiencing feelings of grief, mourning, despair, and fear that comprise what professionals are increasingly calling “solastalgia,” “climate anxiety,” “pre-traumatic stress disorder,” or “ecological anxiety disorder.” Studies are showing that climate scientists and professional conservationists are experiencing these forms of trauma and grief.  As climate change becomes felt by more and more people, the boundary between those who worry about a future apocalypse and those who are experiencing that apocalypse right now will blur. The climate generation is the harbinger of this story.

Thriving in a Climate-Changed Future?

But any bleak picture about how justified the climate generation is to be angry and fearful is just one side of the story. As I write, a shift in climate politics is occurring, and many are attributing the shift to Gen Z’s burgeoning activism, the international student strike, and new movements like Extinction Rebellion, Earth Guardians, and the Sunrise Movement. As Business Insider writer Aylin Woodward put it, “Millennials and Gen Z Are Finally Gaining Ground in the Climate Battle—Here Are Signs They Are Winning.” Such reports signal what I perceive to be a turning point in climate politics, which is why I believe it is crucial to focus on youth resilience in the climate movement.

A young person wearing overalls and smiling holds up a sign that reads "we borrow the earth from our children"
A young activist holds up a protest sign in New York City during the global climate strike held on September 20, 2019. Photo via UN Women.

It’s important for all of those of us who care about the climate generation to recognize what’s uniquely powerful about them. Climate change creates a demand for skills that young people have and that the planet needs: social media savvy for innovative forms of civic life and community organizing, a lack of faith in existing institutions that will compel them to reorganize those structures, and the unavoidable necessity to face an existential adversity that will call forth even more resilience and solidarity. They also have qualities that always make youth so powerful in movements for social change: a sense of urgency about getting things done, detachment from long-standing, destructive habits, the flexibility to change, and that essential ingredient missing in doomers like me—radical idealism.

The climate generation is crafting its own emboldening story about itself, not just listening to the stories that older generations are telling about them. They are rejecting the story of doom and gloom, the story of self-erasure, and the story of succumbing to myths of powerlessness and consumable happiness. Instead they are manifesting what is desirable about living in a climate-changed world. The climate generation is poised to organize and effect real change, and they will have tools the rest of us have never thought of to build a world they deserve. The least we can do is not get in their way.

Featured image: Students in Paris march during the global climate strike on September 20, 2019. Photo by Bastian Greshake Tzovaras.

Sarah Jaquette Ray has been leading college environmental studies programs for ten years and is professor of environmental studies at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. She is author of The Ecological Other: American Exclusion in American Culture (University of Arizona Press, 2013) and recently co-edited Latinx Environmentalisms: Place, Justice, and the Decolonial (Temple University Press, 2019). Her forthcoming book A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet (University of California Press) is an existential toolkit for the climate generation. It comes out this Earth Day. Website. Twitter. Contact.