FRI 5 - 6 - 2020
Date: Apr 24, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Future of the environment governed by the young
Najib Saab
When 16-year-old Swedish girl Greta Thunberg went on a solo strike last summer to demand more serious action to tackle climate change, she began a daily vigil in front of the Parliament building in Stockholm. She didn’t expect, then, that her initiative would kick off a worldwide movement, Youth for Climate Action. Yet in the months to come, protests spread to more than 100 countries, and millions of school and university students took part in strikes for the environment, stretching from Germany, Belgium and Britain to Australia, Japan and the United States.

In December, Greta addressed world leaders at the climate summit in Poland, calling on them to stop acting like irresponsible children. Later, she confronted business leaders at the Davos summit, urging them not to ignore fundamental humanitarian principles by destroying the world’s natural wealth, motivated only by greed to generate more profits.

As the surge of strikes spread to reach 123 countries in March, the initiative had swollen into a global movement that could not be ignored anymore. This was the first time that students have taken to the streets in such large numbers in defense of the environment, whereas past similar movements were prompted by protesting wars and calling for peace, especially during the Vietnam War era. What may have added fuel to the protest flames was the scientific report released in October by the International Panel on Climate Change, which set a limit of 11 years to take action to prevent the catastrophic consequences of global temperature rising above 1.5 C.

Students consider that government and business leaders are blocking and delaying deliberately, by failing to take adequate action to meet the challenge. In response to some officials demanding that the students return to their classes to “do their homework,” the students requested that the government officials themselves do their own homework, by safeguarding the right of future generations to resources and a healthy environment, instead of protecting the private interests of some companies. “I will do my homework when you do yours,” was the response of a student in Belgium, where the environment minister was forced to resign under the pressure of protests and accusations of dereliction of duty. A German student accused the industry minister, during a public discussion, of serving polluting industries and not the interests of people and future generations.

Young people realize how critical the situation is and fear for their future, for they have much to lose if the catastrophic effects of climate change approach soon at a large scale, in case no action is taken fast. They look forward to life in the second half of this century, not limiting their ambitions to the coming 20 or 30 years, which is the highest life expectancy of most politicians.

A sign held by a young campaigner in Sydney, saying “You are burning our future,” expressed that exact fear. The consequences of climate change, which are irreversible if they happen on a wide and nonrestricted scale, will entail a heavy price to be paid by future generations, giving them the right to a decisive say now.

There will always be those who are skeptical of the students’ motivations, just as they are skeptical of climate change itself. A Belgian minister claimed that he had intelligence reports confirming that outside forces were behind the protests, before the intelligence services denied that claim, which prompted the government to apologize. The scene of students coming out in coordinated, organized and peaceful strikes around the world was shocking to some. But the older generation has to get used to a new system of life ruled by social media, which young people may be better at exploiting than intelligence agencies.

On the other hand, climate change skeptics have resorted to their last line of defense, in defiance of the scientific consensus confirming that the climate is changing due to increased emissions due to human activity. Now, they are promoting what they claim are “positive” impacts of climate change, such that drought in some areas will be offset by increased rainfall in others, and that the melting of polar ice will open new shipping routes and ensure access to additional natural resources. They also say that milder weather conditions in the Polar regions will make it possible for people in warmer areas to move north and create new human settlements on previously frozen lands.

These wild fantasies, however, bluntly ignore that increased rainfall in some parts of the world, caused by climate change, will be in the form of wild hurricanes and catastrophic flash floods, and cannot produce real benefits. Nor can we ask entire communities, from the Arab region for example, to leave their lands and homes, within a period of 50 to 100 years, to start a new life and culture in the North Pole. It is true that mass migrations of this kind have occurred in history, but they happened gradually and over millions of years, while the radical change that scientists are warning of may take place within 50 years, which is the estimated lifespan of the students who are demonstrating today.

Of course, there is a big difference between the motives of fresh young people with fewer current financial and practical worries, whose genuine concern for the future drives them to demonstrate today, and a generation that is pressured by everyday life challenges. Besides these two parties, there are the governments which believe that the problem can be postponed, through populist policies that sell people short-term benefits stolen from their own future accounts, or corporate leaders who are eager to double their profits by taking advantage of the limited window of opportunity remaining before the rules of the game change.

The most prominent achievement of the Youth for Climate Action movement is making its voice heard and opening a serious discussion. Throughout history, young people have been a catalyst of change. The higher their voices, the harder it is for officials to turn a deaf ear, because today’s children and youth will soon be controlling the fate of these officials.

When I started writing, I was planning to end with a call to reconcile the ambitious and innocent demands of young people with the more “realistic” programs of politicians. However, I found myself this time in the ranks of the young people, because they are right, what they are saying is the only realistic thing, and there is no more time to lose.

Najib Saab is secretary-general of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development and editor-in-chief of Environment and Development magazine (

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 23, 2019, on page 6.


The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy
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