Being a bearer of bad news is never easy. I’ve been writing and talking about climate change for decades now. Constant exposure hardens one to even the most horrific reality, and I’ve coped by acting like a jolly hangman – or at least not giving in publicly to the helplessness I sometimes feel as I relate the latest findings.
But as the news darkens, I’m having difficulty talking to young people about it. I can tell an optimistic story about developing technologies and the role they can play in helping avert the worst of the crisis. But we have now left action so late that some very severe climate impacts seem unavoidable. When I try to imagine how I, as a young person, would react to such news, I find it hard to continue my work.
I was recently asked to speak to a group of around 40 emerging leaders, all in their 30s and 40s. The meeting was conducted early in the morning, via Zoom. I began with an overview of the impacts of climate change as it’s emerging, as outlined in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report. The report, which is still being drafted, is filled with terrifying news of melting ice caps, burning forests and climate tipping points being closer than we previously thought. Because I deal with such matters every day, I’m somewhat numbed to them. But I could see that they were having a profound effect on my audience.
The group of emerging leaders I spoke to included a young executive from the fossil fuel industry. During the discussion that followed, he commented that most of the younger people in his industry, himself included, felt as I did about the emerging climate crisis. But while some have left to establish renewable energy companies, many more have stayed on, regardless of their personal feelings. Changing one’s career, especially if you’ve been successful, is not easy. Perhaps those who remain fear that they will plunge their families into poverty if they try to re-skill and seek work elsewhere.
The young executive then told us what it’s like to drive with his family in his branded work vehicle. Abuse is frequently hurled at him by those who despise what his company is doing, and that experience is shared by his children. I watched the faces of the Zoom participants as the distress of the executive grew. As parents we could all picture the scenario: the children locked into place for a journey they can’t escape from, as tension between adults explodes.
I know exactly how he felt. When I was climate commissioner, my older two children were teenagers. On several occasions when I was enjoying a weekend in the city with them, people shouted at me, “F– off Mr Carbon Tax”, and other abusive things. I could say nothing to the abusers, who were itching for a fight. And the embarrassment and hurt on the faces of my kids still haunts me. As they grew older, they came to understand that those who screamed at me were ignorant and scared. But I didn’t do a very good job, at the time, of talking with them about the reasons for the abuse.
The reaction of very young children to the climate crisis is of even greater concern. What I didn’t realise, on the morning of that Zoom call, was that my youngest child, aged seven, had not been asleep as I thought, but had been listening to the entire presentation. That realisation brought me up sharp. My son is a bright boy, interested in science and space, so I’m pretty sure he understood what I said. And I’m sure that the emotionally fraught discussion he witnessed had an impact on him. But how, now, am I to talk to him about our future?
Our children carry the lessons learned in childhood far into the future. Uli Edel’s 2009 film The Baader Meinhoff Complex documents the bombings, bank robberies and killings that were carried out by radical gangs in Germany in the 1970s and 80s. Based on detailed evidence, it makes the case that radicalised youth was a response to the unacknowledged Nazi past of their parents’ generation. The Baader Meinhoff gang grew up in a world where prominent Nazis remained in positions of high authority. They acted as they did because they felt there had been no justice – no reckoning for the horrific acts their parents had been part of.
I strongly believe we need to speak with our children about the growing climate threat: about responsibility, impacts and forgiveness. Yet as I look at my young son playing with his Lego or reading his children’s books, my courage fails me. I keep putting the discussion off, as I suspect many workers in the fossil fuels industry do when it comes to speaking to their children.
Yet if we fail to explain the state of the world we have created, and our role in helping create it, I greatly fear that some in the next generation will grow into very angry young people indeed.