OpEd

Story published: 03-05-2013 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

Nation’s youth calling for climate action

By Frances Lamberts

They came to Washington, D.C., by the tens of thousands on Feb. 17, from Bristol, Johnson City and Jonesborough, from the Cumberland region and Nashville and Memphis, from Boone, N.C., and Abingdon, Va., and far-away communities all across the U.S.

They were students — from nearby East Tennessee State University and Emory & Henry College, more than 100 from Appalachian State University alone — and younger-age youth and children, amid throngs of adults and elderly citizens.

All had come to bring pleas for “Forward on Climate” leadership to the door of the White House.

As motivating force for the young who came, one might recall an observation by 19th century philosopher-economist John Stuart Mill, as to the “hardship it is to be born into the world and find all of nature’s gifts previously engrossed.”

For millions of years, the green mantle of the earth has worked to create and maintain the conditions that nurture life, the only such planet we know of (or could reach). Through forests and grasslands, the oceans’ sediments and plankton and carbon-binding creatures, it has withdrawn from the earth’s atmosphere the carbon dioxide overload that makes our nearest solar-system neighbor, Venus, a dead planet.

Over geologic time as well, the earth’s natural systems have worked to regulate the water and nutrient cycles, stabilize climate and keep global temperatures within tolerable limits. But their modern-time “engrossment” in the human industrial enterprise, as the philosopher termed it, has ceaselessly damaged nature’s functioning. The United Nations’ Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, a comprehensive international study by more than 1,000 leading biological scientists, in 2005 found two-thirds of the world’s natural systems degraded and in decline, a serious threat to the human life-support services they provide.

Our modern-day habit of burning fossil fuels — gas, coal and oil — for energy, is shifting back to the atmosphere the carbon which nature had sequestered away over eons. We are doing so at a pace a million times faster than earth had taken to bind the carbon in vegetation “sinks,” thereby to create the conditions in which life could develop and thrive.

The destructive weather events of 2012 and their cost in lives and money were a stark lesson of nasty, worse perturbations ahead if accelerating global climate change is not soon arrested. Pictures of Superstorm Sandy still in mind, and of wildfires, floods and searing drought, the citizens assembled on the National Mall and at solidarity rallies in more than 30 other cities demanded action from their government to combat climate change. The words of the newly re-elected President had given them hope. Americans, he had declared in his second inaugural address, must “respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

Vigorously in posters and chants, the young voiced their moral claim to a “right to a future” and a “right to protect the earth.”

As Bill McKibben, among the organizers of the national climate rally, remarked, “My bet is: the kids are going to win.”