Let's Build a Safe Bridge for the Next Generation

Recently I found myself standing in front of 25 second graders, talking about the plight of pollinators, and specifically monarch butterflies. My job requires me to engage a range of influencers - from heads of government to business leaders - to inform them about the deteriorating state of our planet and what can be done to preserve it. But second graders were new territory for me. I spent more time preparing for this talk than any in recent memory, mainly because I had no idea what to expect. How do I walk that line between keeping the content accessible, but not talking down to them? How do I walk the line of being honest, but not scaring them about the future?

The good news was these kids were not only ready to receive the message, they were eager for it. To them, the idea that humans depend on a healthy environment for survival is plainly obvious. Instead of questioning the content, they questioned the decision-making of grown-ups today. Questions like: "Why are we cutting down so many trees when we need trees to breathe?" Or "Why are we spraying chemicals that kill butterflies and bees when we need them to grow food?" Or "If burning coal, oil and gas makes pollution, why aren't we using more solar power?"

I have given several elementary school talks since on a range of topics. In these moments, and in conversations with my own kids, I have realized that the future is in good hands. Children today have a much deeper understanding of how interconnected we are with nature. They know that the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil where we grow our food, and the oceans that provide our protein all depend on healthy and stable ecosystems. I have confidence that this next generation will never use the word "sustainable" because for them the idea of doing anything "unsustainably" will not be an option.

So when they question what we grown-ups are doing to the planet they will inherit, it's hard to look them in the eye and say we're doing the best job we can.

WWF's recent Living Planet Report - a scientific assessment of the overall health of the planet and its ecosystems - provides a stark reminder that we are headed down a bad path. From 1970 to 2012, there has been a 58 percent decline in the populations of vertebrate species, like mammals, birds and fish. If this trend persists, that number may reach 67 percent by 2020. And the biggest drivers are habitat loss and degradation, driven primarily by our global food production system and energy consumption.

Our food system is massive--both physically and in regards to impacts. Agriculture occupies about 34 percent of total land area of the planet, accounts for almost 70 percent of freshwater use, and emits 25-30 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. We are destroying habitat for agricultural land, depleting water reserves for thirsty crops, and fishing our oceans beyond capacity.

And we're not even doing a good job getting the food to the right people. Up to 40 percent of all the food we produce is wasted. More than 600 million people on the planet are obese, while nearly 800 million are undernourished.

As I write this, I am in Marrakech, Morocco attending the United Nations COP22 climate negotiations. Here, we are attempting to further define and amplify the commitments made by nearly 200 world governments in Paris last year to address the climate crisis. The reality is that the Paris Agreement, while ambitious in its goals, does not go into effect until 2020. The best science tells us that if we hope to meet the goals set forth in that historic agreement, we need greenhouse gas emissions to peak and decline before 2020.

By the year 2050, when my kids are about my age, a lot of the damage from runaway climate change and unsustainable resource use will be done. Rather than advancing civilization, their greatest ideas and inventions will be aimed at repairing destruction from rising seas, habitat destruction and overharvesting.

But this is not a foregone conclusion. We can seize the opportunity to construct a bridge between our generation and the next that gives them the best shot at a thriving, healthy world.

Business and government hold a lot of power for change, but it is important to remember that they are in service to people. So we can tell our local and national governments and the businesses we support that we want smart climate policy and an accelerated transition to 100% renewable energy. And with our collective voices and consumer dollars, we can hold these decision-makers accountable for ensuring that the products we buy and the food we eat are produced legally and sustainably.

And let's be an example for our kids by honoring the planetary golden rule that we must treat the planet the way we expect others to treat the planet. There is no silver-bullet list of "dos and don'ts", but there is a lot of guidance out there. Whether it's taking more public transportation, making dietary changes, buying products with sustainability certification, installing solar panels or adjusting your thermostat a few degrees. Model this behavior and explain why you're doing it.

Turning words into action demonstrates that we all are accountable for protecting the environment. And not just for the nature's sake, but for the sake of humankind. So when you see an opportunity to make your voice heard or take a simple step, please seize it. Raise your voice, raise your hand, and demand that our children and grandchildren inherit a planet that will not only sustain them, but will inspire them with all its beauty and magnificent creatures left intact.