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Justified stridency: We must listen very carefully to young climate activists

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
REUTERS/Erin Scott
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is building her congressional career around the Green New Deal, and the Sunrise Movement is building grassroots support to bolster the case for climate action.
The meeting was in an old high school classroom. We were there because four young high school students are concerned about the climate crisis. They organized one climate strike in front of city hall and were using the winter months to build momentum for the Sunrise Movement.

They announced the meeting via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They prepared a PowerPoint and rehearsed their delivery. Scheduled at the start of the holiday season, the turnout for the meeting was not great. At first, that made the classroom seem larger than usual, but with fewer people, the conversation was more focused.

They spoke of their passion and commitment to the issues surrounding the climate crisis. They demonstrated their knowledge and enthusiasm as they introduced themselves and also in the shared banter as they went through their presentation. They smoothly shared the responsibility of moving from slide to slide, each adding comments in turn.

They must have been disappointed in the turnout, but it didn’t show. And the Sunrise Movement is focused on mobilizing youth, so our gray hair might have deepened their disappointment, but, again, it didn’t show. Their eagerness to talk about the issue of climate change filled the room and made it feel smaller. They were very well prepared.

The Green New Deal

Their explanation of the Green New Deal is built into the presentation. The proposed legislation is visionary precisely because it leaves so much open to the imagination. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) is building her congressional career around the proposal, and the Sunrise Movement is building grassroots support to bolster the case for climate action.

A seven-minute video, “A Message from the Future,” narrated by AOC, is garnering hundreds of thousands of viewers on YouTube. It tells the story of a retired AOC reflecting on the successes of the Green New Deal from her vantage point in the future – watching a young “true child” of the Green New Deal being sworn into the congressional seat AOC once held. This glimpse of the future is inspiring many young people to see alternatives to our current political impasse.

Keith Luebke
Keith Luebke
The video ends assertively: “We can be whatever we have the courage to see.” This no doubt sounds naive to those who attack AOC, her cohort, and the Green New Deal. But it conjures images of a past era when people could see a very different way of living their lives, a different path for government and public policies, and a better life for people who work for a living. The Green New Deal is a contemporary version of the New Deal that led America out of the Great Depression.

Images of the Great Depression no longer haunt most Americans. Even when buried in debt, many families have access to a level of material well-being that would have seemed impossible to most families during the 1930s. But from that economic turmoil came the New Deal. Social Security is the most widely known program associated with the New Deal, but it also included the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Civil Works Administration, the Farm Security Administration, and the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933.

The New Deal revitalized the economy in both urban and rural areas. Its programs and projects allowed Americans to see the legislation at work: major public infrastructure projects, new housing, public art, and increased public assistance and employment programs. But there were also financial reforms aimed at preventing another economic depression, and those reforms worked, for the most part, until 2008.

After the New Deal, we became a more equitable society. The movement was uneven, often left out minorities, and is open to criticism for not going far enough, but it undeniably improved the lives of millions of Americans. If not for the New Deal, many Americans would now live in deeper poverty. We need a clever seven-minute video proclaiming its accomplishments to pair with “A Message From the Future.”

Growing inequality, deep social divisions

The 1970s wore away at the accomplishments of the New Deal, and the last 40 years obscured its successes and questioned its premises. As a result, we see growing inequality, deep social divisions, and increased doubt in our government and its institutions. During this time, wealth has migrated into the bank accounts of an economic elite, while the hard work that makes our economy function is less rewarded. For many, their wages barely pay the bills.

The Federal Reserve tells us that 40% of Americans can’t come up with $400 for a financial emergency. Living from paycheck to paycheck, they are what Alissa Quart, author of “Squeeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America” and executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, calls the precariat.

She and others are documenting the lives of these Americans living precarious, unpredictable lives of never-ending financial insecurity. Underemployed and barely treading water, they can never get ahead. This group includes those with little education, those with university degrees, and people of all ages. And they are not limited to the United States; we find them in Britain, France, Italy, and other parts of Europe.


The large numbers of those turning toward populism, conspiracy theories, and simple anger are usually older workers who feel disenfranchised. Young climate activists seem, at first, to be on the other end of the political spectrum. However, the science-based concerns of the activists offer the best path to public policies addressing the concerns and needs of older disenfranchised workers. Better lives for the majority of workers in the developed world cannot be separated from greening our economy.

The Green New Deal is a vision for how to fundamentally change our economy while reducing carbon emissions to address the climate crisis. It is as grand a concept as the original New Deal and has many of the same enemies. But in this case, the stakes are even higher. In our pursuit of never-ending growth, we’ve undermined the very basis of life on our planet. We are flirting with ecological disasters that can never be fixed or repaired. The fact that this crisis unfolds slowly does not lessen the ultimate impact on the human experiment. As we drive other species into extinction, we hasten our own demise. This is what scientists are telling us, and we’d better start listening.

At the moment, those most willing to listen and act are mainly young people. They read, study, meet and organize as the news reports accumulate: more extreme fires in Australia, more severe weather incidents, more flooding, and more melting of the glaciers and icecaps.

Peak learners

I understand the passion of the high school students as they build their case against complacency in the face of a worsening climate crisis. Science was an abstraction for me until a high school biology teacher connected it with my lived experience. These students are the best we have to offer – they are the peak learners of their era. The activism of these emerging learners will shape our response to the growing challenges of a changing environment. The environmental prophet of my era was Rachel Carson. The voice of their generation is Greta Thunberg.

The world would be a very different place if we’d listened more carefully to Rachel Carson, particularly her concern with our oceans. The world will be a very different place if we don’t listen very carefully to the voices of climate movement activists like Thunberg and other high schoolers with their PowerPoints and protest signs. Their voices are growing, and their stridency is justified.

Americans need to understand how sound public policies responding to the Great Depression made our nation more equal and viable. They also need to understand how policies since the 1980s have made us less equal and more splintered. We need a public policy response to the splintering as much as we need a response to the climate crisis. The Green New Deal is a long shot – as the New Deal was a long shot. But we have no other alternative. As climate activists say: There is no planet B.

Those students who invited us into their lives that afternoon in a community center, located in an old school building, made an old classroom glow with their enthusiasm. They are testing what is possible: Can we “be whatever we have the courage to see”? In their hands, the Green New Deal will evolve in ways we can’t foresee. Like all sound public policy, it will need feedback loops to improve its programs, initiatives, and projects as they are implemented.

It is not hard to envision a society more just and equitable than our current mess. Making it sustainable is the hard part. These young activists seem to know that envisioning a society melding justice and equity within the bounds of a fragile planet is the greatest challenge we’ve ever faced.

Keith Luebke recently retired from teaching nonprofit leadership courses and has several decades of experience directing nonprofit organizations.

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Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 01/09/2020 - 09:40 am.

    In 25 years, as these High School students are hitting midlife, there will be a whole new batch of High School students claiming eminent demise of the world due to man made climate change. The climate will always be changing and the alarmists will continue to blame man. Taking care of the planet is a noble cause, ruining the economy (ridiculous green new deal) to do it, is foolish.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/09/2020 - 12:32 pm.

      Ruin the economy? Just the opposite is true. Investing in a green new deal will absolutely invigorate the economy. Even now, there is far more job growth in green energy than in dying industries like coal. Sadly, we have a president who was an epic failure at every line of business he tried who can’t recognize this.

      • Submitted by BK Anderson on 01/11/2020 - 12:35 pm.

        Irrefutably correct. But let’s remember that the unqualified ignoramus Trump is just following standard conservative doctrine here, doctrine that has been gospel since the very moment the climate issue came to the fore.

        The American conservative movement is the true force behind irrational anti-science climate denialism. Irrational denialism existed long before Trump and will long outlive him.

    • Submitted by Keith Luebke on 01/09/2020 - 05:45 pm.

      I first learned of the greenhouse effect in the mid-1970s. We knew climate change was coming due to human activity and economic growth for decades. Few expected things to worsen this quickly, and that is not alarmism – it is scientific reality imposing itself on naive economic theories that have no place in the 21st century. We’ve been teaching about extractive economies and how they work since Adam Smith. Extractive economies are dependent upon infinite resources. Our world is finite.

      We have no choice; we must transition to a generative economy. But that does not need to be a downgrade. We can combine a generative economy with greater equity, strengthened democratic processes, and improved health and welfare. The marketplace is already shifting to this new perspective. Solar and wind are displacing coal in advanced economies as generative energy sources provide more clean energy to more and more people. Again, few of us expected that to happen so quickly (nor did we expect the cost of clean energy to drop as fast as it is).

      We should look for common ground. I can sympathize with your concern for ruining the economy – making things worse than they are. That is always a possibility in a time of rapid change. To make matters worse, we are overdue for a recession. I’m averse to the unemployment levels associated with recession and the other human costs.

      Admittedly, I do worry about the transition to a green economy because we need to move very quickly – it will not be easy. I’m merely asking you to consider our current path. I’m not asking for agreement. But I am curious about why you think we can continue in our present circumstance. To me, that seems a sure path to ruining the global economy.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/10/2020 - 08:17 pm.

      To some commentators suppose we should just leave all that air, water and land pollution as well? The only foolishness is those willing to ignore reality when it slaps them in the face and are more than happy to pass their pollution onto our children and grand children, pretty low life from this perspective.And for what so folks can get an extra $1 or $2 for the casino? We are talking about gambling with peoples lives.

  2. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 01/09/2020 - 11:38 am.

    The two greatest crises that threaten our society (and from which most of the multitude of lesser crises flow) are climate change, and the flow of economic rents into the hands of very few. The Green New Deal – as a set of principles, not a set of laws – expresses the recognition that addressing the one addresses the other.

    In the propaganda strategy to obstruct our movement away from fossil fuels and a growth economy, the bedrock element is to place ecology and economy in opposition: the common folk always will protect the pocketbook over pie-in-the-sky. In fact, movement toward an ecologically sustainable economy is movement toward an economy that is productive and democratic in its entrepreneurial and labor opportunities, its distribution of social wealth and its management. The economic impact of the Green New Deal that concerns those who control the wealth is distributional: the shift of economic and political power from the very few to the many. But the net economic benefit to society from such a shift, quantified and unquantified, would be incalculable (even if we omit the estimated dollar value of civilizational survival).

  3. Submitted by richard owens on 01/09/2020 - 01:33 pm.

    An obscure poet once said,

    “Woe to those who spit upon the younger generation, for the Winds of Time will surely blow it back.”

  4. Submitted by Phyllis Kahn on 01/09/2020 - 03:16 pm.

    the activism of youth is the best reason to lower the voting age to 16. tell your legislator to do it.

    • Submitted by richard owens on 01/09/2020 - 04:10 pm.

      Right on Ms. Kahn!

    • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 01/09/2020 - 04:14 pm.

      I favor the further step of weighting votes in proportion to the number of years the voter (in his/her cohort) is likely to have left on the earth: younger voter, more of a stake. And I say this as someone whose vote would be substantially discounted under such a system.

  5. Submitted by John Webster on 01/09/2020 - 05:28 pm.

    Over the last five years I’ve known many 16-17 year old people: my kids” friends. Not even the smartest, most well-informed of them had the knowledge and the life experience to cast an informed vote. True, many older people aren’t well-informed, either. But the 16 year old voting idea is just a scheme for school-indoctrinated kids to vote the way the very left-wing Phyllis Kahn wants them to. Her best idea is to convert our state and federal legislatures into a parliamentary system.

  6. Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 01/09/2020 - 06:33 pm.

    “lower the voting age to 16”

    They’re not mature enough to buy tobacco or alcohol until they’re 21, but hey, they’ve got this government thing nailed.

    Not quite sure where to go with that line of reasoning.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/09/2020 - 09:24 pm.

      You can drive at 16. You can join the military and die for your country at 18. Age of consent is 16. Adult criminal record at 18.

      I’m not saying 16 year olds should vote, but the age requirements for various things are all over the place.

    • Submitted by Keith Luebke on 01/10/2020 - 08:48 am.

      I won’t weigh in on the voting age issue, but I will suggest that voting is an addiction we should encourage. Now, back to the climate crisis ……

  7. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 01/11/2020 - 10:34 am.

    I am reminded of the cartoon, not several years old, in which a speaker is displaying a list of the results of acting on climate change (clean air, clean water, improved health, new green industries, etc.) and an audience member asks, “What if climate change is a hoax and we do all that for no reason?”

  8. Submitted by BK Anderson on 01/11/2020 - 11:19 am.

    It’s remarkable how the first comment out of the gate is from a proud climate denialist, parroting the fact-free nonsense he’s ingested from various rightwing garbage dumps that are purporting to inform people of the “facts”.

    While the stated objection is to the (supposed) “harm” to the economy that would arise from saving the 11,000 thousand year old stable climate and all the ecosystems upon which the nation and earth depend, the real source of the objection is that progressives cannot be permitted any political victory, whatever the damage to the earth (and humanity) that may result. This is generally called “cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face”.

    It’s also remarkable to me that so many of America’s youth have as much optimism on this score as they do, and apparently continue to believe that this is an issue whereby reason will (someday) prevail over ignorance, despite the nauseating course of the past 20 years or so. The trouble is that the ignorance of (so-called) conservatives on this score is now completely wilful, and utterly immune to reason. In fact, psychologists have determined that for those who have dug themselves into some mental foxhole (such as those who are still proudly spouting climate denialism, circa 2020), presenting them with ever more evidence makes them even more determined to reject it. They are beyond the boundary of reason and cannot be coaxed back, no matter what.

    An appalling state of affairs, but that is where the American conservative movement led us.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/12/2020 - 09:10 am.

    It actually goes without saying at this point that “man” made climate change deniers are practicing ignorance and even stupidity. The fact that they choose to ignore the massive massive massive economic devastation that climate change will inflict in order to cling to the illusion/delusion of economic stability is simply mind boggling. The economic devastation of inaction and ignorance will dwarf the cost and recovery of transition. But again, this is all obvious.

    What’s really really really weird about climate change denial is the psychological pathology of ego-centrism. If you look at Joe’s comment above, and pay attention to Republican/Conservative denial, you see that the driving force behind their choice of ignorance is a pathological need to deny responsibility on behalf of the human race. Their problem isn’t so much the facts as it is the suggestion that someone is “blaming” them for the crises. They deny the facts because they can’t abide the responsibility. This is just another example of the personal responsibility champions… avoiding responsibility… again.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 01/14/2020 - 06:35 pm.

      I think that’s part of it, but another part is love of and identification with all the consumer goodies, especially cars and large houses. If they can’t own a car (preferably an SUV) for everyone in the family over the age of 16 and have a house twice as big as the one they grew up in for half as many people as they had in their family of origin, who are they?

  10. Submitted by richard owens on 01/13/2020 - 03:16 pm.

    One of our political parties owes its existence to voter suppression.

  11. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 01/14/2020 - 09:13 am.

    I know it’s often a hallmark in “dystopian” fiction, but maybe killing off the olds to benefit the youngs isn’t such a bad idea… Complacent with the status quo? Maybe it’s about time for your kid to shuffle you off to a tiny iceberg and shove you off into the sea. Don’t worry, you won’t starve or freeze to death. It’s warmer now. You’ll drown.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 01/14/2020 - 01:59 pm.

      I’m guessing the holiday dinner conversation was quite robust at Ms. Kahler’s house this year. Since we don’t have the ability to “like” a comment on this forum, I’ll just tell you that yours made my day.

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