Is climate change the greatest threat to humanity? A lot of people would say so. Young people in particular feel desperate. A recent survey asked 10,000 young people aged 16 to 25 in 10 countries about their attitudes towards climate change. The results were overwhelming. More than half said “humanity is doomed”; three-quarters said the future was scary; 55 percent said they would have fewer opportunities than their parents; 52 percent said family safety would be at risk; and 39 percent were reluctant to have children as a result. These attitudes were consistent across rich and poor countries, large and small: from the United States and the United Kingdom to Brazil, the Philippines, India and Nigeria.
It is quite legitimate that young people feel this. I was here. Much of my work today focuses on researching, writing, and thinking about climate change. But this is an area I almost strayed from. Fresh out of college with a degree in Environmental Science and Climate Change, it was hard to see that I could contribute anything. I switched between anger and despair. Any effort seemed in vain and I almost gave up. Fortunately, my perspective has changed. I’m glad he did. Not only did I continue to work on the climate, but I am also sure that my work had several times the positive impact it would have if I had been stuck in my previous state of mind. And that is why I am convinced that if we want to make progress on the climate, we must lift this coat of pessimism.
Let’s be clear: climate change is one of the biggest issues we face. There are many risks involved – some certain, others uncertain – and we are not moving fast enough to reduce emissions. But there seems to have been a breakdown in the communication of what our future entails. None of the climatologists I know and trust – who surely know the risks better than anyone – is resigned to a future of oblivion. Most of them have children. In fact, they often have several. Young people too. Now, having children is not an automatic qualification for rational decision making. But it does indicate that those who spend day after day studying climate change are optimistic that their children will have lives worth living.
This is why I find it alarming that most young people today feel they or they have no future. Many might also give up having children as a result. This mindset doesn’t just show up in the survey data, it also matches my personal experience. I’m in my twenties and hear that from my friends all the time. The dilemma of whether to bring children into a world on the way to annihilation is a real one.
One of the most recent and alarming examples of this apocalyptic state of mind came from a group of young activists before the German election. The group, which calls itself the last generation, has been on a hunger strike for almost a month. Several ended up in the hospital. One of them told his relatives and friends that they might never see him again. Another told a reporter that hunger was “nothing compared to what we can expect when the climate crisis triggers a famine here in Europe in 20 years”. I couldn’t understand where this statement was coming from. Not scientists. No credible person has made this claim. Climate change will affect agriculture. In some regions, especially in some of the poorest countries in the world, this is a matter of major concern. That’s why I spend so much time working on it. But famine across temperate Europe? 20 years from now?