As the world marches deeper into the 2020s, we approach the dreaded “climate deadline” – 2030, by which point global carbon emissions need to be at least halved. If we don’t meet this deadline, we will face certain and total environmental collapse. Human life, as we know it, will hurtle toward a chaotic end.
Doomism like this has been a part of the climate narrative for years. It is propagated loudest by those who would face the brunt of such a collapse: Generation Z, the youngest members of which will be 18 upon arrival at the “climate deadline.” Today’s youth are often celebrated for their gravitation toward activism, hailed as a generation of doers who can fix the environmental issues their elders created. But this activism is commonly underscored by the dread and anxiety that arises when an entire generation is led to believe that they will spend the vast majority of their lives facing an apocalypse. Young people deserve better than a doomist climate movement.
Climate doomism has profoundly impacted the way Generation Z thinks about its future. Young people increasingly report ruling out certain career paths or areas to live in because of climate change. More alarmingly, many Gen Zers now also report not wanting to have kids, fearing both overpopulation and the idea of bringing children onto a dying planet. Ironically, doomism itself has the potential to steal life from future generations.
Considering young people’s evident climate desperation, it is unsurprising that a 2021 Pew Research study found that 69% of Gen Zers felt anxious about the future while viewing media about climate change. But only about half of the same group reported having personally taken action to help address climate change within the previous year. While popularizing a doom-and-gloom climate narrative has spurred climate activism, it has failed to inspire climate action.
Advocating that climate change is a problem is of secondary importance to actually taking steps to mitigate its effects. Ultimately, only substantive action will save our planet – not manipulative fearmongering. Doomism is not an environmental solution. In fact, it undermines the environmentalist movement by disempowering those most eager to fight climate change.
If a small group of polluting corporations is squarely responsible for virtually all emissions, as doomists purport, there is little that young people can substantively do to help the planet. If radical, sweeping, top-down government mandates are the only way to curb emissions and protect the environment, as doomists purport, there is little that young people can substantively do to help the planet. A generation hankering to address climate change is sidelined by the belief that individual environmental effort is useless.
Simply put, panic is not actionable. The climate anxiety that doomism instills overarchingly fails to drive people toward actually helping the environment. Instead, young Americans are left fearful, but deferential to the idea that addressing climate change is entirely out of their hands.
A doomer climate movement is a resigned and apathetic one – and, thus, one that will not deliver solutions.
Better options exist. The climate movement should emphasize the idea that environmental stewardship and economic prosperity go hand-in-hand, the value of manpower in addressing climate change, and the importance of individual and local solutions. By empowering individuals to substantive action, rather than scaring them into ineffectual activism, we could finally make some progress toward addressing climate change.
Climate solutions are not one-size-fits-all. But a movement that recognizes the distinct value of every individual’s environmental contribution is desperately needed at a time when 44% of young Americans report believing that the earth will become uninhabitable because of climate change, regardless of human action.
The world will not end in eight years because of climate change – but our best chances at addressing this issue will slip through our fingers the longer young people are told that they have no power to avoid environmental collapse. Climate doomism has monumentally failed Generation Z and will only continue to do so the longer it stands in the way of climate action. A better climate movement is necessary. The time to start building one is now.
Nadia Suben is the leader of the American Conservation Coalition’s New York City branch, as well as the founder of the organization’s Conservatives for Clean Cities initiative. She is a junior in high school. This piece is the winner of the Market Environmentalism Op-ed Contest, hosted by Project Canary and the American Conservation Coalition.