Climate action future is for the young



Twenty thousand school students are chanting 'climate action now!' and he is silent. He has been shouting the same thing for decades, first in scientific papers and then, with an increasingly urgent tone, in newspapers, televised debates and many rallies just like this one. Now he stands with a new generation taking up the fight, but he can't open his mouth to join them.

Chris Johnston cartoon shows young people walking away from Baby Boomers towards 'the future'His voice is hoarse, but that's not the reason. He is scared of what will come out. He is scared he will say what he knows he can't say.

He can't say the Great Barrier Reef will be dead in their lifetimes, even if we cut emissions to zero today. He can't say the Australian government will probably keep opening up new coal mines, yes Labor too, because coal's economic value is just too tempting. He can't say that renewable energy won't be enough and we need to consider nuclear. He can't say we've probably already locked in two degrees of global warming, and natural tipping points could render all our efforts to cut pollution totally irrelevant.

Behind him a little girl, maybe eight years old, is holding a homemade sign. She has painted a blue and green Earth on brown cardboard in clumsy brushstrokes. The words read 'Look after our home'. Instead of a pole, the sign is taped to a tree branch. This small detail touches him, and he smiles, then the smile becomes a wince. He definitely can't say those things with her listening.

What he really wants to say, when it's his turn to step up to the microphone, is just one sentence. No, two sentences. 'I'm scared,' he wants to say. 'And I'm sorry.' He knows this wouldn't be helpful. He has read all the psychological studies about maintaining a careful balance between fear and hope so that your audience does not slip into paralysing despair.

He's been a climate scientist, a climate activist, a climate communicator. He's addressed Senate Inquiries and has run for Parliament. But now, looking at these kids, he doesn't have the energy to craft a compelling narrative that inspires collective action. He just wants to be honest. And he can't.

A few metres ahead of him, on a makeshift stage supported by green milk crates, a 14-year-old student is sharing her story. This is one of the girls who started the school climate strikes in Australia. The man looks at her, standing in front of a massive crowd wearing a T-shirt reading 'Climate Justice Now', and he feels a kind of grandfatherly pride. Amazing, these kids. He remembers the effort involved in getting even 50 climate activists on these same steps outside Parliament in the early 2000s. Now they can organise something this big in a few weeks on social media.


"He lifts the mic, opens his mouth, and secretly hopes they have the courage to walk away before he has finished."


Tuning into her speech, the man wonders what isn't being said. Do the students also feel what he does, but can't say it aloud? Do they have this sense of inevitable doom, but also guilt for being the species causing it? Can they enjoy hot summer days at the beach, or are they also distracted by niggling dread? Is their boogey monster the same as his, a graph with a jagged line trending upwards?

The student speaker is nearly finished. It will be the man's turn at the microphone soon. He thinks through the speech he has prepared. Less than 12 years to act. Our emissions are still rising. The government needs to do more. It's depressing how little this script has changed. He frowns. That's another thing he can't say.

An announcement snaps him out of these spiralling thoughts. After the next speech, his speech, the march will begin. But there's a change from the running order. This time, the students will be in front and the adults will have to wait for them to pass by — every single student! — before following. He smiles. It's a good analogy, future generations leading. He's glad, but he wants them to take it much further.

Former Climate Change Minister Ed Miliband looks on as Swedish environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg addresses politicians, media and guests with the Houses of Parliament on 23 April 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)He wants the speaker in front of him to stop talking, building a tense silence. When the crowd is hushed, he wants her to turn around to face him and say, 'We heard your thoughts.' He wants the crowd to echo in unison: 'We heard your thoughts too.' And then he wants them all to yell at him, to rebel against his very presence. 'Your cynicism isn't welcome here,' he wants them to shout. 'You are wrong, and your pessimistic view of the future is wrong. Go home. Go home old man.'

The student finishes, motions for him to step forward. He rubs a hand over the hollow in his weathered cheeks. He pauses and surveys the sea of young faces. Many of the students are still in their school uniforms. He wonders what kind of world they will be looking at in 50 years' time.

He lifts the mic, opens his mouth, and secretly hopes they have the courage to walk away before he has finished. All of them, marching down the hill, his tired words bouncing off their shoulders. The first act of a great rebellion. Because to have a future they need to turn their backs on all Baby Boomer authority, and that includes his own.



Greg Foyster headshotGreg Foyster is a Melbourne writer and the author of the book Changing Gears.

Cartoon by Chris Johnston. Bottom image: Former Climate Change Minister Ed Miliband looks on as Swedish environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg addresses politicians, media and guests with the Houses of Parliament on 23 April 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Greg Foyster, climate change, School Strike 4 Climate



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Existing comments

This poem is radical and dangerous. Climate change is real and there is no denying it. The leaders of the country are dealing with the changes elected democratically by the public. Our nation is one of the many nations that must come together, but destroying the economy is only harmful to the future and wellbeing of the students who are being misled by far right ideals without adequate factual knowledge. Cole is an abundant resource that is a major driver of our economy. In the round table of finance it pays through taxes and wages for student education, health and many of the welfare needs of our country. Australia is a democratic nation. Socialism is the gate way to Communism. Far right agenda.
Edward M | 01 April 2019

Thanks, Greg. This baby-boomer shares something of your struggle and your sadness. Go Kids!
Ken Rookes | 01 April 2019

I found this article intensely sad. "Despair is not an option". the young people and the baby boomers share a concern for the state of the world - not saying is not helpful. somehow, we have to find a way of working together on this. young people have always learned heaps from their grandparents, and the generations have loved each other, and shared. surely we could find a way of doing that now? as a baby boomer, I am just so excited by the passion of the young, who see climate change for what it is. we have to work together, or at least aligned, in our own spheres. despair is not an option.
Helen Kane | 01 April 2019

Thank you for this imaginative piece. I was wondering why 'he' seemed so tongue-tied, and finally discovered he is tired of mouthing his own spiel on the need to act on climate change - and believes the younger generation is tired of it too. Yet one of the great campaigners on the issue is David Attenborough, and I feel sure many young people listen to him. On the school students who marched recently, I was disturbed though not surprised to hear some Government ministers and members of the conservative commentariat say immediately that they were all manipulated by the green left, or sinister forces of that kind. There seemed to be no evidence of this at all, but plenty of evidence that the students had come to their views of their own accord, and were very well informed about the urgency of the situation affecting eg the Great Barrier Reef.
Rodney Wetherell | 01 April 2019

Thanks Greg. The same applies to this WW2 survivor. Although I’m filled with more hope than my parents were when they saw the brightest & the best of their generation marching into a war at the behest of vainglorious politicians & megalomaniacs. The children of this generation are marching because they are more aware that the grown ups refuse to recognise that we have been selfish in our use of the Earths resources. Stop & think, they are crying.
Uncle Pat | 01 April 2019

Well written Greg, As a retired teacher whose specialities were social sciences- history and geography, I spent years teaching my students about "Global Warming", now called Climate Change. Many of them are now middle aged adults with families . I often wonder if what I taught resonates in their lives today as they watch their own children skipping classes to protest at the inaction by us adults ( I am a 'baby boomer') to tackle the greatest peril of our times. In my retirement I spend hours examining the climate records to ascertain just how serious climate change is becoming to my region, Australia and the world. The numbers don't lie. We keep observing new records for extreme temperatures, not just in Summer when the impact is greatest, but even in the 'cool season' .We have less frosts, less cold days, more hot days. I am observe the impact on our fruit trees which require a minimum number of cold days to produce fruit. "Cool region" grapes, indeed even our eating grapes are ripening up to three weeks earlier now than a decade ago. I wonder what my grandchildren will think of our generation when they inherit a vastly degraded landscape, heatwaves and punishing droughts, catastrophic bushfires and disastrous floods. Teaching in Catholic education, I taught R.E as part of my teaching load . In my later years, I accepted the concept that when we face our Creator, He will ask EACH of us: " How well did you care for my creation?" We need to accept that we are the caretakers of creation, we have no right to pillage the wellbeing of future generations. The old Protestant Ethic is unsustainable. Finally I support our kids- well done children!
Gavin O'Brien | 01 April 2019

Thanks Greg, a beautiful piece of writing. Edward, many people do not realise or understand that taking action on environmental issues and in particular climate change will save the economy, not destroy it. These are not 'far right' ideals but a global reality and Australia is behind on taking real action stuck fast by a misplaced ideology. It is wonderful to see the kids making a move - just as when we were the same age, we marched against the damming of the Franklin and other causes.
Jorie Ryan | 01 April 2019

Thanks Greg for this inspiring piece. I have educated about climate change now to primary, secondary, tertiary and post tertiary people for over 25 years. I have met with many of our best scientists and along with you they feel we have already done too much damage. Yet, I am inspired by the young people who will face more and more of this catastrophe and are so energised to face it when those on power refuse to.
Tom Kingston | 01 April 2019

Can they enjoy hot summer days at the beach in Hawaii or California, or skiing in the Swiss Alps? Will they be able to continue do bring in millions of immigrants to work for them, to live in their investment properties? "Less than 12 years to act. Our emissions are still rising. The government needs to do more." How important is it to convince these children of the elites that it is not their jetsetting, hyperconsuming lifestyle, and their families' investments that are fueling greenhouse emissions. "The government needs to do more." It's not the fault of the elites, it the fault of the government that does their bidding. "Less than 12 years to act." But none of these elites are swearing off overseas holidays or calling for an end to mass immigration and all the greenhouse emissions that drives.
Jerzy | 03 April 2019

Australia’s Chief Scientist has said that shutting down Australia completely would have virtually no impact on the world’s climate. And the latest scheme to electrify Australia’s cars will also have little impact on the climate, but will be a huge cost to taxpayers. Last year it was reported that despite government announcements, China was building 259 gigawatts of coal power—equivalent to the entire coal power of the US, as well as building coal plants in Egypt, Pakistan, Iran and elsewhere. Since 2011, China has been building 10,000km of motorways every year, and building mammoth structures like the 32km long Donghai bridge and the Sidu River bridge. In Australia you couldn’t build the Snowy Mountains Scheme today, nor could the US build its Hoover Dam. Westminster is impotent to recover the sovereignty of the UK from the EU. And in the USA, the 90% of the mainstream media that pushed the fake Russia/Trump collusion story also pushes climate alarmism. No wonder President Xi Jinping thumbs his nose at The Hague ruling against China’s militarization of the South China Seas. I too wonder what kind of world our kids will have in 50 years.
Ross Howard | 03 April 2019

Edward, There is no point using coal to "drive " our economy, if climate change renders our fragile continent uninhabitable due to extreme heatwaves and crippling droughts .There will be no economy to drive! Ross, You are completely missing the point of Greg's essay. We can and should lead by example. Our domestic contribution is small by world standards and you are quite correct our efforts will be minuscule in its impact when compared to India, China or the U.S.A. But per capita, we are one of the worst polluters. We are the biggest exporter of green house emitting coal and gas, therefore we have an ethical and moral responsibility to care for creation, not destroy it. If the EU and other countries can do their bit with energy efficient transport and building insulation, why can't we? I saw many domestic solar roof panels and solar farms and wind turbines while in Europe which is cloudier and has less sunshine then we do , so they seem to be taking the issue seriously. We have abundant solar and wind over our vast continent and the space to put collectors/generators .Even if the sun is not shinning and the wind blowing in one region of this land, it is sure is doing so somewhere else. Our children/grandchildren are concerned enough to protest as they can see the writing on the wall if we don't act now!
Gavin O'Brien | 06 April 2019

Yes Gavin you do need to lead by example. The example you need to set is to take personal responsibility for the carbon emissions of you lifestyle choices. Stop blaming anyone else. All you rich people are destroying our planet with you decadent, profligate lifestyles, and your greed to become ever wealthier. None of you elite care about climate change enough to give up your overseas holidays or to end you demands for millions of immigrants to line your pockets. None of you elites are prepared to accept a lower standard of living to save the planet, but you all want to impose a lower standard of living on your less well off fellow Australians, and you all demand the spending of vast sums of public money to reduce your carbon emissions.
Jerzy | 09 April 2019

I agree with you Greg that climate action is mostly for the young. It is very obvious that we need to take urgent action to manage pollution and climate change very quickly. However, I would also say that older people have a duty to help the school students who are taking to the streets. Amongst those older people are environmental and climate scientists who have the expertise to help young people forge a way forward to developing effective strategies. I would say that with a government that is totally opposed to phasing out coal and advancing sustainable and clean energy production and an opposition that sat ion the fence on the Adani proposal, we have a moral duty to support the young so that they and those who come after them have a viable future.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 27 May 2019


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