It’s Time to Stop Shifting the Climate Change Burden Onto Gen Z

Gen Z is tired of being labeled as the generation to 'end' climate change. Instead, accountability should be intergenerational.

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Source: Lorie Shaull

Last month, Montana youth litigants aged 5-22 became the first in U.S. history to bring a constitutional climate case to trial, leaving an indelible impact on the nation and reinforcing the widely held belief that “Gen Z will be the generation to ‘end’ climate change.” The weight of that sentiment, however, is beyond burdensome. 

On June 12, 2023, 16 youth plaintiffs took their case to the Montana judicial court, suing the state over a provision in the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) that violates their constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment” by disregarding greenhouse gas emissions in environmental permitting decisions. The plaintiffs presented a compelling case, displaying evidence that the state of Montana is promoting the burning of fossil fuels, worsening the climate crisis, and therefore impeding on the quality of life that Montana youth are entitled to. The case has garnered tremendous attention, not only due to the historic nature of a youth-led constitutional climate case, but because the plaintiff’s case is outstandingly strong. 

There is no doubt that engaging bright young activists in democracy is an optimistic and hopeful sign for our future. But there is no excitement derived from watching kids set aside their childhood, sit in a courtroom for days, and argue for their right to a clean future. The burden of climate anxiety should be a shared responsibility, not entirely shifted onto the shoulders of a younger generation.

Empty praise and blanket statements such as “Gen Z sets the pace for climate action” actually cause more harm than good – inducing severe climate anxiety for youths. A survey conducted in 2021 revealed that 45% of respondents aged 16 to 25 reported being impacted by climate anxiety in their daily lives. Further, organizations such as the United Nations and the American Psychological Association warn of the growing risk of climate change-induced mental health threats.

Compared to older generations, Gen Z disproportionately believe that climate change is a serious threat, and are overall more likely to change their lifestyles to accommodate for a warming planet. Repeated research consistently highlights the unequal amounts of eco-anxiety experienced by younger generations. This psychological distress is often attributed to government inaction and a sense of powerlessness, compounded by attitudes that label their concerns as exaggerated or dismiss their ability to enact meaningful change due to their young age.

With this heightened eco-anxiety, we see an influx of youth activists sacrificing their present for a secured future. Greta Thunberg, a prominent teen activist known for her weekly climate strikes outside of her Swedish school said, “Young people feel as though they must sacrifice their education in order to protest against the destruction of their future.” Begging policymakers to lose their apathy and feel a fraction of the eco-anxiety that they have been tasked with handling, the Montanan youth plaintiffs repeatedly presented the ways that pollution has clouded their livelihoods and stripped away the outdoor activities that they once enjoyed freely.

Rather than enjoying camping and hiking with his family, 5-year-old plaintiff Nate sat in a courtroom this June while jurors learned of the impact that wildfire smoke has had on his health. Excitement about youth civic participation should not be confused with the overwhelming anxiety that has forced children to get involved in the first place.

To address this issue, it’s crucial to consider solutions that prompt older environmental involvement and emphasize intergenerational participation. Providing knowledge through science-based educational sessions targeted at older audiences can help alleviate the gap and ensure that all generations understand the extent of the issues. Leadership training, additionally, could help older adults understand the types of volunteer opportunities within environmentalism. It’s also crucial to address ageism within the environmental movement, and to ensure that environmental organizations accommodate a diverse range of participants. Activities could be adapted by providing transportation, including alternatives to internet-based strategies, heightening face-to-face engagement, and ensuring accessibility.

Government and national initiatives like the Senior Environmental Employment Program and Elders Climate Action are already great sources to encourage older generations to take action on climate change. The responsibility should extend to policymakers, corporations, and communities of all ages to implement sustainable practices and policies that address the root causes of climate change.

Putting children at the forefront of global climate change, like Greta Thunberg or the Sunrise Movement, is intended to be a symbolic reminder of the youthful faces that will bear the brunt of the consequences of a warming planet. The UN Human Rights Office’ senior director said, “This requires that we empower children as agents of change, that we ensure them an adequate education to cope with the climate challenges of the future, and that we hear and integrate their voices to inform and inspire more effective decision-making.” There is much value in children exercising their civic duty and participating in democracy at a young age. They are able to participate in the greater society, practice their communication skills, understand and develop strong opinions, and gain values like tolerance and empathy. 

​​While engaging youth activists in climate action is undoubtedly an encouraging sign for the future of sustainable policymaking, it is crucial to acknowledge the harm induced by placing the burden of climate anxiety solely on Gen Z. A generation of children should not be tasked with the burden to be the generation to ‘end’ climate change. 

There is hope in striving for a collective and inclusive approach to combat global warming, involving people of all ages in the fight for a sustainable future. The weight is not so heavy when carried by all. By redistributing the responsibility and collectively participating, we create a world in which children can be children. Regardless of age, we can all contribute toward a more sustainable future.

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