Millennials Should Emphasize the Moral Dimension of Climate Change

By Eric Wolfert |

Despite the incredible progress made in recent years toward mitigating global climate change, the politics of this issue in the United States are still sobering. As of January 2015, only half the members of the United States Senate even acknowledge the existence of anthropogenic climate change. For some, it even goes beyond rhetorical denial: Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has contacted foreign governments to attempt to dissuade them from adhering to any potential international agreement regarding climate change. But rather than become discouraged, these unfortunate events should motivate millenials to push even harder for climate action, particularly in advance of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. After all, the planet will soon be our responsibility. As Pope Francis has said, “climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.”

While the science and economics of climate change remain undeniable, it has become clear that relying on such concepts to make a case for climate action is insufficient. To raise awareness of the climate crisis, we must also frame it as the civil and human rights issue that it is. Impoverished communities in equatorial regions of the globe will feel many of the worst effects of climate change. The impoverished nature of these communities means that their carbon footprint is consequently quite low—so the communities and persons most harmed by climate change will be the ones that contributed the least to the problem.

This is a profound moral and social justice problem that should serve as a call to action for millenials of all political stripes, and presenting the issue of climate change in this way could prove effective in efforts to promote action. History has shown that appealing to emotion in advocating for a cause can lead to support from those who might otherwise have remained unconvinced—look no further than the civil rights movement or the fight for LGBTQ rights for evidence. No parent would want to leave his or her children an inhospitable and dangerous environment in which to live. No one is (or should be) comfortable with the concept of climate change exacerbating poverty, food insecurity, international conflict, and extreme weather throughout the globe. The moral case for climate action is clearer, more accessible, and more immediately powerful to the general population than presenting it through a purely scientific or scholarly lens.

While we can and should illustrate why climate change and its ramifications are a human rights issue, so too should we describe how potential solutions would serve to enhance human rights, particularly with regard to economic equality. Renewable energy, particularly solar, does not create the severe negative health impacts that result from coal and oil emissions—impacts that fall hardest on the poorest, who are least able to have the means to seek treatment. In many poor, rural communities across the globe, increased output of solar energy has led to lower energy bills, as communities are no longer reliant on importing dirty sources of energy from distant locations. Some communities have even seen residents be able to sell excess energy back to the grid, boosting their incomes. Transitioning away from climate-wrecking fossil fuels is a win for human rights itself, but the solutions to climate change can do more than simply prevent catastrophe.

Waiting to act to mitigate climate change is simply no longer an option. Seventy-five to 80 percent of the world’s known fossil fuel reserves will need to remain unburned in order to avert catastrophic climate change, and these reserves will not remain in the ground without a significant change in public policy. While the climate justice movement will never be able to match fossil fuel companies’ financial resources, strength in numbers and the right emotional appeals can overcome that obstacle. Put simply, climate change is the civil and human rights issue of our time, and it is up to millenials to work for an equitable, just, and safe solution. Our future, our children’s future, and the future of the planet we all share depend on it.

Eric Wolfert is a senior at George Washington University and Roosevelt's Emerging Fellow for Energy & Environment.