Is climate change The greatest threat to humanity? A lot of people would say that. Young people in particular feel hopeless. A recent survey asked 10,000 16-25 year olds in 10 countries about their attitudes towards climate change. The results were devastating. More than half said “mankind is doomed”; three quarters said the future was scary; 55 percent said they had fewer choices than their parents; 52 percent said family safety was threatened; and 39 percent were reluctant to have children as a result. These attitudes were the same in all rich and poor, large and small countries: from the United States and the United Kingdom to Brazil, the Philippines, India and Nigeria.
It is perfectly legitimate for young people to think this way. I was there. Today, much of my work focuses on researching, writing and thinking about climate change. But it’s a field I almost ran away from. Fresh out of university with a degree in environmental science and climate change, it was hard to see that I could contribute at all. I oscillated between anger and hopelessness. Every effort seemed futile and I almost gave up. Luckily my perspective changed. I’m glad it was. Not only have I continued to work on the climate, I am confident that my work has had many times the positive impact it would have if I had stuck with my previous way of thinking. And that’s why I’m convinced that we have to vent this pessimism if we want to make progress on climate protection.
To be clear, climate change is one of the biggest problems we face. It comes with many risks – some certain, some uncertain – and we’re not moving nearly fast enough to reduce emissions. But there seems to have been a breakdown in communication about what our future holds. None of the climate scientists I know and trust—who certainly know the risks better than almost anyone else—have resigned themselves to a future of oblivion. Most of them have children. In fact, they often have several. boy too. Well, having children is not an automatic requirement for making rational decisions. But it signals that those who study climate change every day are optimistic their children will have lives worth living.
That’s why I find it frightening how most young people feel today you have no future. Many could therefore do without children. This mentality shows not only in survey data, but also in my personal experience. I’m in my twenties and I hear it from friends all the time. The dilemma of bringing children into a world on the verge of annihilation is real.
One of the most recent and alarming examples of this doomsday mentality came from a group of young activists ahead of the German elections. The group, which calls itself Last Generation, went on a hunger strike for almost a month. Several ended up in the hospital. One told his parents and friends that they might never see him again. Another told a journalist the hunger was “nothing compared to what we can expect if the climate crisis triggers famine here in Europe 20 years from now”. I couldn’t figure out where this claim came from. Not by scientists. No credible one has made this claim. Climate change will affect agriculture. In some regions – particularly in some of the world’s poorest countries – this is a cause for concern. That’s why I spend so much time working on it. But hunger in temperate Europe? Within 20 years?
There are a couple of ways I think this doomsday scenario has become commonplace. First, you don’t have to look far to find people with big platforms promoting these messages. Take Roger Hallam, founder of Extinction Rebellion. In one of his latest videos, entitled “Advice to Young People as They Face Annihilation,” he claims that we must reach zero emissions within months or humanity will be wiped out. He claims that this annihilation is now complete. The worst thing about this message is that instead of inspiring us to act, it reconciles us with the lie that we are already too late. There’s nothing we can do now. It’s easy to dismiss Hallam as an extreme outlier, but he’s also the founder of one of the largest environmental movements in the world. A movement whose name hinges on this premise that we are headed for total annihilation. This is not consistent with science, and scientists should make this clearer.