Are Millennials Cynical About Climate Change?

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Answers by Fred Rich, Author of Getting to Green and Christian Nation. Environmentalist and lawyer, on Quora.

A: Have we stalled? I would ask "have we started?" at least at the national level. Toxic politics have prevented any meaningful Federal action on climate. Climate legislation failed in 2003, it failed in 2005, and even with both houses in control of the Democrats and a progressive President promising climate action, we failed to move cap and trade in 2010. This was deeply traumatic to the movement and made many of us question whether we could ever move ahead on climate other than on a bipartisan basis. (History shows that in environment we have never made progress at the national level other than on a bipartisan basis.) Do we really think we can undertake the epic long-term project of decarbonizing the American economy with half the country in determined opposition? Even the Paris Agreement is wholly dependent on US politics. But there has been progress, especially at the community, state and regional level, e.g. California's cap and trade, REGI, etc. Of course in the mean time, we blew past the safe level of 350 ppm and last November blew through 400 ppm. The planet is not going to wait for us to get our act together. So it's time to try something different, and that is refusing to accept a country where environment is a wedge issue and not a common cause. (Of course, easier said than done, but that's why I wrote the book; it's why the book is called "Getting to Green" - the urgent issue is how to make it happen.)

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A: This is an important question. The environmental movement is not ideally configured for success in the 21st century. In 2012, the average age of members of Green groups was over 60. In 2012, the average age of members of The Nature Conservancy was 62, exactly the age of the people who were 20 at the time of the first Earth Day in 1970. Although Bill McKibben has made a valiant effort with 350.org, we have not succeeded in attracting and retaining a sufficient number of millennials and youth. There is much speculation about why, and I am interested to hear your views. But factors I have identified include a deep cynicism regarding politics and the possibility of progress, discouragement by all the failures to make progress on global warming, not being "joiners" by general disposition, and reluctance to accept "labels" (like environmentalist). All these can be overcome. But this will require the Green movement to change its culture to be more welcoming to younger people of all political persuasions, and this includes embracing a more interactive technology (not just top down email blasts) and a vision that is more hopeful (and acknowledges the critical role that future technological advance is likely to play in solving environmental problems).

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A: We've known for decades that climate change is a global problem requiring, for its ultimate solution, global action. But global action is hard, and reaching for the big win has not been a good strategy (Kyoto, Copenhagen, etc.); it has cost us decades. Moreover, failure at the global level has provided an excuse for paralysis at the national level. In the mean time, the record of voluntary community, state and regional action (and action by other countries) shows that we can and should do the right thing even in the absence of a binding global treaty. 

Nonetheless, have said all that, Paris was a breakthrough and a good thing. But it rests on a tenuous foundation. Realistically, it all falls apart if the US cannot meet its own commitments, i.e., find a means to meet its initial emissions reduction target, pay of billions to the developing world, and make additional ratchet-up commitments by 2020. And does it look like we can meet any of those commitments? It all dependson US politics. Congress did not (and is unlikely to) appropriate the necessary funds, and the President's Clean Power Plan (the main tool for meeting our emissions reduction target) is the most contested federal regulation in history, under attack in Congress and stayed by the Supreme Court. So, in my view, unless we can get out of this partisan trap, it's hard to see how Paris succeeds.

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