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Why aren’t politicians doing more on climate change? Maybe because they’re so old.

I’m a teenager. Unlike the average member of Congress, I’ll have to live with the devastation of climate change.

Donald Trump (71) announces that he’s pulling the United States out of the Paris climate agreement.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Our country’s leaders have a problem, and it’s called apathy.

There is no such thing as a “climate change denier” — only a person who doesn’t understand the problem enough to care. Climate change is happening, and it’s our cars, our cows, and our factories that are warming the earth and slowly bringing disaster. Which is why it makes me so upset that such a large number of our politicians consistently deny climate change and promote irresponsible corporate actions.

I’m a 16-year-old from Cincinnati. “Climate change” was always a term I heard people toss around, but I didn’t think much of it until freshman year when my debate team was assigned the topic of carbon taxes. I was practically forced into doing hours of research on climate change, and as I became aware of the devastating consequences that are just on the horizon, I became passionate about protecting future generations from the mess we created. And I got really angry at our politicians for their consistent inaction.

Far too many politicians are apathetic about climate change

I realize that not everyone can be a hero. It’s not reasonable to expect every John and Jane Smith to be passionate about environmental advocacy or dedicate their lives to finding clean energy solutions. But when it comes to the government, the expectations are higher. Politicians are elected to make decisions for the good of the people, and I’d like to hope that having a nontoxic planet falls under that category. I should be able to trust that President Trump had the environment in mind when he pulled out of the Paris climate accord or cut back on funding for the Environmental Protection Agency. But do I? Absolutely not.

An example of this irresponsibility came in March, when President Trump signed an executive order to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline after years of pushback from environmentalists. Not only will Keystone XL’s unique location generate more carbon emissions than the average oil pipeline, but it also cuts directly through one of the world’s largest and most important underground water reservoirs, the Ogallala Aquifer. Even slight leakage in the pipeline would contaminate the water source, which accounts for about one-third of the nation’s irrigation and 1.8 million people’s drinking water. Trump also rolled back EPA funding, proposed cuts to national park territory, and left an international treaty for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s so bad that National Geographic is keeping a running list of the Trump administration’s environmental policy reversals.

This irresponsibility extends far beyond the presidency. Scott Pruitt, the current head of the EPA, is a climate change denier whose election campaign for Oklahoma attorney general was chaired and funded by the CEO of a prominent oil and gas extraction company. Even before he came into office, he was a lawyer who fought everything from the Clean Air Act to President Obama’s renewable energy regulations.

State governments have also done their fair share of damage. The most famous example is Rick Snyder, the Michigan governor who knew of the Flint River contamination but ignored it to cut costs, a decision that damaged both the population and the ecosystems of Flint.

Why don’t our politicians care? Maybe because they won’t be here to experience the real consequences of climate change.

Even with all of this going on under my nose, just one year ago I wouldn’t have considered myself politically or historically aware. Adults don’t always realize this, but today’s students have only a foggy idea of what happened between the years 1960 and 2010 — American history curriculum ends with World War II, and we weren’t exercising much civic responsibility at age 9. To my younger self, the word “president” was synonymous with the word “Obama,” and “checks and balances” were the extent of my political knowledge.

But after taking AP US history, a class that finally taught me about our nation’s more recent past — the Cuban Missile Crisis, Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and other things I’d never heard of — I started to pay attention to what was going on in the world of politics. I found myself getting more and more frustrated as our leaders denounced climate change and took actions in favor of corporate sloppiness. As all of these things kept happening, I wondered: Why don’t our politicians care?

My answer to this question came last fall, when I realized that the average senator is 62 years old, and the average House member is 57.

And there it was — the answer to my question, hiding in plain sight.

The people who lead our country won’t be alive 60 years from now to reap the consequences of their actions. It’s much easier to improve areas that they can measure and use for reelection, like unemployment and health care. Environmental issues, on the other hand, pose a measure of success that they won’t be able to experience or quantify. And because of this, when forced to choose between funding an oil pipeline and cutting back on fossil fuels, the majority of our current leaders would choose the environmentally detrimental option for the sake of jobs and industry.

The effects of these decisions will be costly for my generation and those who come after. NASA predicts that by 2090, when my grandkids are in high school, the entire southwestern region of the United States could be stuck in a 35-year megadrought that causes a massive famine. If greenhouse gas emissions stop increasing by the middle of the century, the likelihood of this devastation is 60 percent. If we continue down our current path of nonrenewable energy, the likelihood rises to 80 percent.

Other areas of the world will have the opposite problem. In my lifetime, sea levels are expected to rise anywhere from 3 feet to 20 feet due to melting icecaps spurred on by the greenhouse effect. Best-case scenario, this wipes out most of the East Coast of the United States. Worst-case scenario, London — and everything below it — is entirely submerged.

Teenagers get stereotyped as lazy and politically inactive — but we’re speaking out on climate change

These aren’t distant issues; if I live into my 90s like most of my family members, I will witness all of these events. Yet somehow my generation has been stereotyped as lazy, self-absorbed, and inactive in the political discussion. But just because no one is listening doesn’t mean we’re not talking. Teens across the nation and all over the world are demanding action against climate change.

In Miami, now-17-year-old Delaney Reynolds wrote, illustrated, and published three children’s books about coastal ecology while she was still in elementary school. As a college student, she now has her own environmental advocacy nonprofit. “This is an issue that is going to define our generation,” Reynolds says, addressing teens in a TEDx talk. “And it will be up to you and me to solve the problem.”

Then there’s 17-year-old Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, an Aztec from Colorado. His organization Earth Guardians, which has thousands of young members all over the world, is currently suing President Trump for taking environmentally irresponsible actions that endanger our generation’s right to life. At age 15, he spoke at the United Nations General Assembly on Climate Change, and he just finished writing his first book.

"The main stakeholders in this issue are the younger generation,” Martinez said in a speech to the Supreme Court, right before he led a march on Washington. “Not only are the youth going to be inheriting every problem that we see in the world today — after our politicians have been long gone — but our voices have been neglected from the conversation.”

Teens are even working hard to develop eco-friendly technology. Elif Bilgin, a 16-year-old from Istanbul, realized the problems associated with today’s petroleum-based plastic and spent two years developing a biodegradable substitute made from banana peels. On the other side of the world, 17-year-old Benjamin Stern of Melbourne, Florida, created a new type of shampoo that holds its shape and doesn’t need a plastic bottle.

As for me, I’m a normal teen. I haven’t started a nonprofit, sued the government, or invented a biodegradable plastic (yet). But my mediocrity might be the most important part of this whole message — while these prodigies are inspiring and impressive, the everyday teen wants change too. After all, as an incredible woman once told me, “We are all in the same boat, and it’s sinking.”

So, leaders, if you are reading this, please remember that we are the ones who will inherit the earth. We are the ones who will face the consequences of climate change. And because of this, we demand action — not apathy.

Sydney Sauer is a junior at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy. She plans on majoring in environmental engineering and using her love of math and science to make a positive change in the world (or maybe on Mars!).

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