The young inheritors of the planet: how they grapple with climate change

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Illustration courtesy of Kallyn Song-Nichols

Climate change, according to professor Mijin Cha in the Urban & Environmental Policy department, is one of the most urgent challenges the world currently faces. NASA attributes the emission of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to human activity, which results in climate change. Consequences of climate change include rising sea levels, changing precipitation patterns and more droughts, among other natural disasters, NASA describes. In its most recent report, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that by 2040, there will be a drastic increase in food shortages, wildfires and a massive loss of coral reefs as a result of climate change.

The White House is currently working on creating a panel, the Presidential Committee on Climate Security, to assess how climate change will be a national security threat, according to the Washington Post. The proposed panel would advise the president on the science and future of climate change, and how that may affect U.S. national security. The committee would be initiated through an executive order and led by William Happer, senior director of the National Security Council and professor of physics at Princeton University. Happer has no formal background in climate science and has even stated that carbon emissions may be good for the climate, according to the Washington Post. He previously worked under the George H. W. Bush administration, co-founded the CO2 Coalition — a nonprofit committed to advocating for the importance of carbon dioxide — and is a former member of the George C. Marshall Institute, a conservative think tank funded by oil corporations that actively denied climate change science until it evolved into the CO2 Coalition in 2015.

Democratic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey sponsored and recently proposed a plan, the Green New Deal, to Congress. Congress is currently debating the proposal. The 14-page-long plan will provide a transition to 100 percent renewable, zero-emission energy and will include new high-wage jobs. Although there is yet to be a budget for this deal, the conservative group American Action Forum estimated the cost to be around $5 trillion. A fact sheet sent to Congress members along with the resolution itself stated the cost of inaction will outweigh the cost of this proposed bill.

The IPCC’s 2018 report announced that human activities have led to a global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and it will likely go up to 2 degrees Celsius between 2030 and 2052 if current production of greenhouse gases continues unabated. The report explained that the effects of these changes will cause extreme temperatures, heavy precipitation or drought, as well as effects on biodiversity and animal populations.

“On land, impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems, including species loss and extinction, are projected to be lower at 1.5°C of global warming compared to 2°C,” the report says. “Limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C is projected to lower the impacts on terrestrial, freshwater and coastal ecosystems and to retain more of their services to humans.”

The report additionally confirms climate change will affect the lives of humans. Disadvantaged, vulnerable and indigenous populations specifically are at a much higher risk of facing the adverse consequences of global warming.

Cha said the general lack of response to climate change is a result of how overwhelming it is.

“It is daunting to think the climate will change. That is a crazy idea. It’s a little bit like the frog in the boiling water,” Cha said. “Things are changing, so slowly we are kind of adapting to them, but, for instance, there are hurricanes in places that are not hurricane-prone. California has record drought, which leads to wildfires. It can really seem overwhelming, and people are trying to adjust to changes in weather patterns.”

Emma Rogers (sophomore) described her personal opinions on climate change and how it has impacted her own life. Like Cha, she expressed how the intimidating nature of this phenomenon makes it difficult to respond.

“The challenges and complexities of maintaining the world’s population will only increase with the effects of climate change and require drastic adaptations necessary to confront and address the problem,” Rogers said via email. “This is incredibly daunting, and something I think about every day as I make choices in my daily life.”

Aria Devlin (sophomore), the compost manager for the Food, Energy and Sustainability Team (FEAST), described how there is a narrative of hopelessness in the conversation around climate change. Devlin said she uses this feeling of hopelessness as inspiration to encourage sustainability.

“What I have taken out from my studies and experiences is to use those dark predictions as a source of inspiration to do what I can and help others do what they can about climate change,” Devlin said.

Devlin said she tries to influence her friends and those around her to do better when it comes to the environment. For example, she encourages them to bring their compost to the FEAST garden, use eco-clamshells in the Marketplace, turn off lights, use reusable water bottles and avoid products with palm oil or other ingredients with active environmental campaigns against them.

McClaran Shirley (first year) is co-president of Oxy 350, Occidental’s chapter of 350.org, a global movement toward a fossil-free world. Shirley stated that because of how slow and seemingly invisible the process of climate change is, it is hard for people to be involved in climate justice.

“It [climate change] is really big and slow moving, in terms of the way we see things,” Shirley said. “Compared to things like social movements that are right in your face, it’s hard to express the — not really subtle, but we see them as subtle — changes like a couple of degrees rise in temperature.”

According to Cha, the formidability of climate change prevents people from being able to take individual action against it. Cha emphasized that this should not deter people from being more sustainable in their daily lives.

“Climate change is a global issue, so sometimes people think, ‘What can I do as an individual?’” Cha said. “But I think if you look at the past, in history, every change is started by an individual and then becomes more than just one person.”

Bergen Phelps (first year), the other co-president of Oxy 350, described how people often feel it is the responsibility of bigger companies and industries to make a change in their production processes to reduce environmental impacts. According to Phelps, if individuals do not make a personal choice to end their support for these businesses, then the companies will continue practices that poorly affect the environment. According to the IPCC report, drastically altering the current rates of production and greenhouse emissions can minimize the impacts of climate change.

“Collective efforts at all levels, in ways that reflect different circumstances and capabilities, in the pursuit of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, taking into account equity as well as effectiveness, can facilitate strengthening the global response to climate change, achieving sustainable development and eradicating poverty,” the report states.

Students at Occidental can take advantage of composting, especially with Green Bean cups, Phelps pointed out. Shirley added that Campus Dining’s eco-clamshell program allows students to utilize reusable take-out containers, which reduce the use and disposal of plastic. Phelps also described how a plant-based diet has a smaller environmental impact and how students can easily follow that diet at Occidental. According to Shirley, even small changes to people’s everyday diets can help.

“It doesn’t have to be all the way. Just doing things like meatless Mondays, really anything. Eating less meat will lower the demand and reduce carbon emissions,” Shirley said.

2014 study conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota reported that recent trends in modern diets have introduced more meat in meals, and this demand for meat has been a burden on the environment because of greenhouse gases emitted during production.

“Alternative diets that offer substantial health benefits could, if widely adopted, reduce global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, reduce land clearing and resultant species extinctions, and help prevent such diet-related chronic non-communicable diseases,” the study says. “The implementation of dietary solutions to the tightly linked diet–environment–health trilemma is a global challenge, and opportunity, of great environmental and public health importance.”

Phelps, Shirley and articles by the New York Times offer simple tasks one can do to be more environmentally friendly.

“There are little things, too, like unplugging your chargers in the morning,” Phelps said. “That’s a small one that people don’t think about, but there’s still energy flowing through them.”

Cha emphasized that while human-caused climate change has resulted in detrimental damages to the planet, efforts to be environmentally conscious are not futile.

“All of these crises that we’re facing, like inequality, injustice, climate change — they’re all created, so they can be uncreated. They’re all constructed, so they can be deconstructed,” Cha said. “We have to care about climate change because, unlike most things we try to think are not going to impact us, there is literally no part of our economy or society that will not be impacted by climate change. It is our moral duty and responsibility as people to do what we can about climate change and stop the worst impacts.”

Young people especially need to be involved in climate justice since they are in a unique position, Cha mentioned. Cha elaborated that young people, unlike older generations, grew up — for the most part — around the proposition that climate change is a true, scientific phenomenon, and many of them have already experienced the impacts of it.

“There have been a lot of previous generations that have been fighting about whether climate change is occurring, and I think younger folks have accepted that it is occurring, which is a huge step. They are much more bold in the policy solutions they are asking for, which I think is really great,” Cha said.

To read more on climate change and how it affects and will affect our planet, Cha recommends reading “The Great Deranged” by Amitav Ghosh, as well as articles by Elizabeth Kolbert. The book “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change” by George Marshall addresses the complexities of handling and comprehending climate change. The New York Times publishes a weekly newsletter, “The Climate Fwd:, which offers updates and insight about climate change, in addition to tips. Phelps recommends coming to Oxy 350 meetings, which are every other Monday at 6:30 p.m. Other groups on campus aimed to actively combat climate change in practice include the Renewable Energy and Sustainability Fund (RESF) and the Urban & Environmental Policy department.