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Boomers: You can still be heroes in the story of climate change

You have the political power to solve the climate crisis. Use it.

A firefighter conducts back-burning measures to secure residential areas from encroaching bushfires on Australia’s Central Coast, about 60 miles north of Sydney, on December 10, 2019.
Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images

Boomers: It’s not too late. You can be heroes in the story of climate change.

You might not like to hear it, as many of you have long told pollsters you consider yourselves environmentalists, but collectively you have exacerbated the climate crisis more than any other generation.

Fossil fuels were cheap as you came of age and you burned too much of them. Your lifetime carbon footprint is so high you’re forcing kids born today to emit eight times less than you just to hit a modest goal. And you’ve never taken climate change as seriously as the generations behind you.

Your generation put yourselves before the rest of us. As economics reporter Jim Tankersley has written time and again, “At nearly every point in their lives, these Americans chose to slough the costs of those tax cuts and spending hikes onto future generations.” So instead of investing in cleaner energy sources or preparing for a less-stable environmental future during good economic times, you passed on problems.

The future generations are coming of age themselves. Your grandchildren are leading a movement calling for big change. Time’s Person of the Year in 2019 was Greta Thunberg, a teenage climate activist who has become a voice of moral clarity for Gen Z and millennials. Her rallying cry has been heard around the world, inspiring millions (of all ages) to protest and demand that leaders prioritize the planet.

But for all the successes millennials and Gen Zers have had in making their cause a cultural phenomenon, they do not have enough of what they really need and what you do: political power.

An exhausted CFA crew member lies on the ground after a day of maintaining controlled back burns in St. Albans, Australia, on November 21, 2019.
Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

As Australia burns and the Trump administration stymies international collaboration and bails out the coal industry, you have a chance to redefine your generation and save the day. You’ve already proven you are a generation that can evolve. You changed your views on social values and are far more similar to millennials than your parents. It’s not too late to do the same on climate.

It’s never easy for governments to prioritize the future over the present, which has been the trouble with climate change. It requires a political nonstarter: to prioritize future generations over the energy needs of the present. The best chance we have to break this political rule is your enormous sway. Other generations are leading the way, proposing solutions and working together. They need your generation to use your power to change our politics and to help save us.

Boomers get what boomers want

It’s no secret that over the past 60 years, your generation has become the politically dominant force in the West and the United States, in particular. You’re a large cohort. You vote.

Many of you also had a lot of good luck out of the gate. You entered the strongest labor market on record that provided livable wages even for those who did not attend college (which was a fraction of the price as it is now). You then did well in the housing market, turning cheap houses into lucrative sources of equity.

You also played politics well. The economic opportunities you experienced were clearly not extending to future generations but you didn’t advocate for policies to help. Again and again, you racked up debt to your shorter-term benefit. You didn’t use budget surpluses in the 1990s to invest in the future. You borrowed heavily to keep the housing market inflated during the sluggish 2000s. And when the bubble popped, we got the Great Recession. (This has become a source of intergenerational resentment that’s led to the cutting phrase, “OK, boomer.”)

Certainly, the boomer generation has made contributions to our society. You paved the way for the rights of women and people of color in the workplace. You built the technology industry that changed the world. And you haven’t always gotten everything you’ve wanted politically.

But you’ve got a strong track record of success in politics. There’s an opportunity right now to show your sway. The upcoming presidential and congressional elections in 2020 will be crucial to the future of climate change.

President Donald Trump’s environmental policies aren’t just not helping, they are setting us back. His administration has been even more aggressive in rolling back rules and increasing oil and gas production than even his Republican predecessors. His decision to pull the US out of the Paris agreement is hurting international progress toward meeting its goals. To underscore his feelings on the issue, recall that he mocked Thunberg on Twitter.

We need you now

The climate emergency is getting worse and it’s happening faster than scientists feared. Land and oceans are getting hotter. Seas are rising faster. And we’re seeing a trend in more ferocious storms and wildfires, and devastating droughts and floods.

As the New York Times puts it:

But how fast temperatures will continue to increase, and how much worse things may get, depends in large part on whether the world reins in greenhouse gas emissions, and by how much. After flattening between 2014 and 2016, annual emissions from burning fossil fuels for energy have risen again.

The problem isn’t that we don’t know what to do. The solutions are clear: We need to burn fewer fossil fuels, restore forests instead of destroying them, eat less meat, and consume less overall.

The problem isn’t that we don’t have people who are calling for change. The problem is political will, which requires political power. Your generation has it.

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