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Millennial Parents Are Failing Their Children

Parents of young kids need to get serious about climate change. And that starts by showing up to vote.

Students participate in a May 24 "die-in," demanding action on climate change. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

Parents, myself included, regularly say they’d do anything for their children. They’d step in front of a bus for them, take a bullet for them, go full mama- or papa-bear to demolish—nay, obliterate!—whomever dares threaten them.

Well, the bus is barreling forward, the gun has been fired.

So why the heck haven’t millennial parents stepped up on climate change?

Millennials did not get us into this climate mess: While delegates in Kyoto, Japan in 1997 were failing to reach global consensus on a strategy to curb carbon dioxide emissions, most millennials were in elementary or middle school. Nevertheless, like many problems inherited from the Baby Boomers, it’s up to millennials to fix it. This generation’s children—the vast majority of whom are currently under ten years old—will be the ones suffering through decades upon decades of climate chaos. Millennial parents are therefore uniquely positioned to act as a political vanguard.

So far, we’re failing pretty miserably.

It is not hypothetical that today’s children will suffer from climate change. The question is how bad the injury will be. Even in 2019, humanity’s sins are starting to bear their rotten fruit, in the form of scorching heat waves, relentless flooding, and brutal storms, all made harsher by climate change. On August 1, Greenland lost 12.5 billion tons of ice in a single day, huge swaths of its ice sheet plummeting into the sea. Things are getting bad now, and without bold and urgent action, they will get exponentially worse.

My four-year-old will reach the age that I am now in 2050. My two-year-old won’t hit retirement age until 2082. If our brains smoke a bit to think ahead even a few years, they start full-on frying when asked to project that far into the future. Surely, though, we owe it to the children we chose to bring into this warming world to force our minds to focus on these realities.

Despite knowing we and our children will be contending with climate-driven upheaval, millennials have been largely asleep at the wheel, even as the early impacts of climate change become more undeniable, explicit, and dramatic. A 2017 study from Johns Hopkins University researcher Shruti Kuppa found that “overall, millennials demonstrate similar or less engagement on global warming than older generations.” And, while the level of alarm about climate change has been escalating in recent years, millennials show no greater change in their attitudes since 2010 than older generations.

Nor are millennials voting like their (and their children’s) literal future depends on it. Millennials as a whole vote at a significantly lower rate than older generations: A mere 51 percent of eligible millennials voted in 2016, versus 69 percent of eligible Boomers. A 2019 Harvard Institute of Politics poll found that only 44 percent of voters ages 25-29 (younger millennials) agreed that climate change “[is] a crisis and demands urgent action.”

Parents in general—regardless of generation—also often don’t behave with the extra sense of civic responsibility one might expect. Studies generally find that parents don’t vote at any higher a rate than nonparents, nor are they more alarmed about climate change than nonparents.

There are some signs, however, that parents and millennials could be persuaded to act. For one, there are significant generational differences, even crossing party lines, around specific climate questions such as fossil fuel use. There is also some evidence that parents think and behave differently regarding climate change when reminded that they are, in fact, parents. Performing doctoral research at Duke University, Emily Pechar Diamond found, in an experiment, that prompts emphasizing people’s parental identity rather than their partisan identity made participants significantly more open to changing their minds or taking climate-related actions. Other research has shown that while parents are no better than nonparents at quantifying the risks of climate change (hence their lack of alarm), they are more emotionally responsive when primed to consider the risk; since politics follows emotions, this is promising.

University of Washington philosophy Professor Stephen Gardiner has theorized that there is a “perfect moral storm” fueling a lack of action on climate change: Because those with the most power to change things lack incentives to do so, “the current generation, and especially the most affluent, are in a position to pass on most of the costs of their behavior (and especially the most serious harms) to the global poor, future generations and nonhuman nature.” It’s a dilemma today’s generation of parents, with an intense interest in their children’s welfare, are better poised to elude than most groups.

And millennial parents’ potential power is tremendous. In the U.S. alone, there are well more than 20 million millennial parents. Our ranks are growing daily. By 2020, millennials be the largest adult generation in the nation. Add in our parenting compatriots from around the globe, and that’s an international force to be reckoned with.

So: Let’s stop trying to sell people only on the altruistic side of fighting climate change—the opportunities to shrink economic inequalities, improve everyone’s quality of life, and generally better society. A good climate plan is likely to do all that. But this is not about altruism. For millennial parents, this is personal, as personal as it gets:

Our kids will suffer.

It will be our fault.

And we will be around to watch it happen.

Our children’s hardship will be our fault not because we used plastic straws or slacked on recycling, but because we stood by as profit-driven corporations continued pell-mell down the path of destruction, and as our political leaders failed to act. It will be our fault because we didn’t flex our political or consumer muscle to collectively lift the oil tanker poised to crush our children. Ten or twenty or one hundred million parents worldwide holding hands and jumping at the same time can create an earthquake powerful enough to reshape the economic and political topography.

Millennial parents need to be the first in line, our hands raised high, providing political cover and electoral backup so our elected leaders can make the difficult decisions that need to be made. Those could include, per the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others, an emissions trading system, huge investments in renewable energy and electrification, quickly ending subsidies for coal and other fossil fuels, building out infrastructure for items like clean transportation and pro-forestation food systems, and aiding the developing world in growing sustainably. Some of this will require tax increases and other forms of temporary pain, the needle-prick of a medicinal injection. But what is parenthood if not absorbing temporary pain in pursuit of long-term flourishing?

Millennial parents also need to consider the effect of climate change on their children when voting in 2020: Whoever sits in the Oval Office afterward will have an enormous amount of influence over some critically consequential international climate summits. Whether Democrat or Republican, we all love our children and want a better future for them. So regardless of whether a parent sees value in smaller government or falls into the anti-abortion camp, we need to be clear that, going by his disastrous climate denialism and actions thus far, a vote for Donald Trump in 2020 is a vote for a future in which our children will struggle. Democratic parents griping about the eventual nominee and who don’t help get out the vote—or who fail to vote at all—are making the same choice.

Parents need to start prioritizing their children’s welfare at the ballot box, even if the candidate wouldn’t have otherwise been their top pick. The Millennial Parent Pledge should start with a single promise: For the sake of our children, every one of us will vote in every election from here on out, asking every time whether candidates’ climate plans are good enough for our kids. We must strive as if our children’s future depends on it, because it does. Everything else is noise.