During the past few weeks the debate surrounding climate change and denial of it were once again brought to centre stage, not by politicians or A-list celebrities, but by the climate system itself. Without respite, hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria have decimated communities along almost identical paths through the Caribbean islands and then on to the south and southeastern United States. Over the past few years the reaction to devastating events such as these are almost formulaic and effortlessly predicted both in terms of governmental and media response. Initially, at least, the messages from Presidents and Prime Ministers pledging varying degrees of support and assistance are genuine and beneficial to the causes of those affected. However, it doesn’t take much more than a single news cycle for the story to be drawn in and absorbed as part of the media hurricane into something reflective of current political discourses.
At present it is inevitable that the debate will refocus and centre on the White House administration and its own climate change denier-in-chief, Donald Trump. As soon as he sets foot in Texas to experience first-hand the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey, dressed in the traditional presidential windbreaker and the slightly less traditional ‘Make America Great Again’ baseball cap, the barrage of questions over climate change and its future impacts begins immediately. Whilst he and his administration may swat away such questions as opportunistic and insensitive in light of the devastation, the questions will not be going anywhere and neither are the people asking them.
Of course three, albeit exceptionally powerful, hurricanes in quick succession are not proof of a changed climate. Climate is a 30-year average of daily weather conditions, of which hurricanes and other synoptic scale events are a part. Some overzealous politicians and media outlets can sometimes overstep the mark on this front, making claims that science cannot simply give a binary answer to. What can be said is that the strength and frequency of these events is indicative of future change and are almost guaranteed to continue. But what of the future, in terms of politics, society and the earth system as a whole? Is there hope?
It is these questions which scientists and laymen alike would kill for the answers to. But these questions are impossible to answer. Whilst every new assessment report produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) strengthens its language and reduces the error bars on many variables within the realm of physical science, there is one area which seems wholly unpredictable and seemingly inexplicable, and that is the human component. It is easy to outline multiple emissions pathways and run the models into the future, in comparison to redirecting the corporate and political juggernauts towards an acceptable end. This redirection may have been daunting at best, impossible at worst in the past, entrenched in the ideologies of previous generations, but change is coming. Change in the form of the often slandered and vilified, iPhone wielding, flat white drinking, Generation Y, better known as… Millennials.
Originally coined in 1987, by the authors William Strauss and Neil Howe, the phrase “millennials” came into being just as the children born in 1982 were beginning preschool. The media at the time noted that these children would comprise the high school class graduating in the year 2000, the new millennium. Whilst there are no strict birth years determining a member of Generation Y it is generally considered to extend between the 1980s and mid-2000s. A lot of attention has been afforded this generation for many reasons, but two really stand out; they are the first generation to grow up in the age of the internet, and they exist as a dramatic break from the generations preceding them.
Liberal is a word commonly used to describe millennials, that and lazy if the media are anything to go by. Their liberalism and tolerance stands counterpoint to the ideas of conservatism and the status quo of the ‘system’ that offers very different prospects for the future than those of their parents. The unforeseen popularity of the left-wing candidate Bernie Sanders during the American primaries and the election of Justin Trudeau in Canada are testament to the values of millennials and their political ideologies, or perhaps lack of and indicative of the potential influence they possess. A level of political disenchantment and frustration is understandable considering that those born in the latter half of the millennial age bracket have witnessed a decade of economic upheaval, dramatic increases in inequality and the rise of the populist movements particularly in the ‘West’.
This is no small group of people we are talking about, in terms of numbers it is now the most numerous generation on the planet. This is a group of people that are better educated than any before them in history as well as the healthiest (judged by life expectancy). Yet, there is almost no representation politically for millennials, no one speaking to their issues and values. This is startling considering those issues will shape the future of humanity. This is a generation that will either be remembered as the greatest in history for saving humankind from itself, or as the generation that couldn’t. Dramatic as that sounds, the next 50 years are pivotal, decisions made now will have consequences for centuries, if nothing else, because atmospheric inertia has made at least a century of warming a certainty.
Change can already be seen. Millennials have been branded as narcissistic and entitled by some, but this entitlement may just be the driving force that puts aside short term profits for long term benefits, that seeks value in the work that they do, that will step out from underneath the rampant individualism imposed by a neoliberal order and find benefit from community and togetherness. In the coming decades, as the younger generations progress upwards through the hierarchy of the world, we are likely to see global leaders, in all areas, that could put aside short term benefits and focus on long term survival. If we are to succeed in overcoming climate change, Generation Y may be exactly what is needed at exactly the right time. But presentism is a dangerous thing, after all you can only connect the dots looking backwards into the past.