Climate strike: can a global movement of young people reverse climate change?

On 15 March, young people across the world will march in protest at global leaders’ failure to tackle climate change. In a letter to his 16-year-old self, Howie Frumkin reflects on how much has changed in his lifetime – and his hope that young people’s actions may shape all our futures.

Credit: iStock / DisobeyArt

Dear Howie,

It’s Spring 1971, you’re 16 years old, and your head is spinning. The world seems turbulent and precarious. War rages in Vietnam, Nixon has ordered an invasion of Cambodia, the Doomsday scenario of nuclear war seems possible. Four students at Kent State University were shot and killed while protesting. That hit you hard; you felt it could have been you.

But much as you worry about these things, your life is stable, you feel safe, and you’re optimistic. 

If you could look 50 years into the future, you’d be stunned.

Remember visiting your father’s workplace, IBM, when you were small? That imposing contraption of metal and blinking lights as big as a truck that delighted you by playing tic-tac-toe? That was just the start. This year something called a microprocessor will be invented; it will revolutionise computers. Technology will transform modern life in extraordinary ways during your lifetime.

But there’s a downside. You’ve read about the industrial revolution in school, and you know that coal and oil powered it. What you don’t know is that the level of carbon dioxide in the air – a product of burning these fuels—is rising. When your grandparents were born that level was about 280 parts per million. Now it’s 325. In 50 years, it will be over 410.

All that carbon dioxide, and other gases that act similarly, will warm the planet over the course of your life, disrupting earth systems that were stable for over 10,000 years. Weather patterns will change. Species will go extinct. Deserts will expand. Islands will start to disappear.

This will come to be known as climate change. By the time you’re in your 60s, the world will be facing a true emergency.

Rising sea levels, heatwaves and severe storms will endanger millions of people worldwide. Air pollution will reach dangerous levels in cities, poisoning hearts and lungs. Infectious diseases will spread. Food systems will be under threat. Millions of people will be displaced by droughts, floods, and other disasters. All of this will unfold in a world where the global population is 7.2 billion – more than double what it was when you were born.

In the face of this climate change emergency, global leaders will abjectly fail to take the actions needed.

But, Howie, in 50 years, young men and women who are just the age you are now will be rising to that challenge – a bit like you and your generation is doing now in opposing the Vietnam War.

A 16-year-old student in Sweden will bravely decide to picket her nation’s parliament, to raise awareness of climate change and demand action. She’ll inspire countless other young people. They’ll demand that governments, and private firms, and entire societies, change their ways, to help rescue the planet and assure them a future. It will be a global movement.

As a doctor, and scientist, and global citizen, you’ll applaud their actions and enthusiastically support their goals with whatever power and influence you can muster. You’ll smile with hope that their youthful energy and dedication will accomplish what your generation didn’t: transitioning the world to one that is sustainable, healthy, and just. You’ll dream that after another 50 years –100 years from now – another 16-year-old (perhaps your own great-grandchild!) will be able to count on a stable, healthy, and beautiful planet, one that can nurture the same kinds of dreams and plans that animate you today.

With love and hope,
Howie, 2019

Howie Frumkin is Head of Wellcome's Our Planet, Our Health programme. You can comment on this article or follow Howie on LinkedIn.

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