On a Sunday in November, 170 students filed into the Vermont Statehouse, using the legislature’s chambers to talk about the climate crisis and solutions for their state. Participants in the Youth Climate Congress, who ranged from middle-school to college age, with law students joining the committees to answer legal questions that came up as proposals were drafted, spent the day proposing and debating policies on transportation, energy and heating, agriculture, and environmental justice. The state’s speaker of the House wrote a letter congratulating the students for their day of action. But the Youth Climate Congress participants want more than kudos from the adults in the room—they hope their representatives will use their drafts as a springboard for actual laws.
Standing at the podium at the front of the formal chamber full of red velvet chairs and drapes but bustling like a cafeteria, co-chair Lili Platt, a high-school senior, told the group that the work it did that day would “set an example for Governor Scott and the legislature of what comprehensive climate legislation can and should look like.” But while young people are increasingly taking the lead in climate activism, they still have a hard time getting their elders—the ones occupying the halls of power during business hours—to prioritize their concerns and ideas.
People of different generations may always have different interests. But it’s especially hard to navigate solutions to a crisis that could radically restrict possibilities for young people in a moment when antagonism between generations has become pervasive enough to appear as an internet meme. As Taylor Lorenz wrote in The New York Times in October, when exploring the popular “OK, Boomer” retort that young people are leveling at their elders, “Rising inequality, unaffordable college tuition, political polarization exacerbated by the internet, and the climate crisis all fuel anti-boomer sentiment.”
The starting bell in the generational climate fight came in February, when a group of kids and teenagers visited Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office to lobby her to support the Green New Deal. A video of the lawmaker crankily brushing them off went viral. “Any plan that doesn’t take full transformative action is not going to be what we need,” a teenage girl said in the video. “Well, you know better than I do, so I think you should run for the Senate,” Feinstein responded—the tone a little too icy to be taken at face value. “I know what I’m doing,” Feinstein repeated several times over the course of the conversation. The two figures embodied the two poles of the generational divide—one experienced and inappropriately calm; the other innocent and getting panicky.
A subtler and perhaps more frustrating pattern is when older people respond to youth activism by calling them inspiring, marveling at their combination of gravity and youth, but not doing what they say. When Greta Thunberg, now the poster child for serious youth climate action, visited the U.S. this fall, speaking at the United Nations and leading the Global Climate Strike, she was celebrated. Everywhere she went, someone older than her declared themselves “inspired.” (Myself included.) But as she herself emphasized, she wasn’t honored by this response—she was frustrated. In her now famous speech to the U.N. on that trip, delivered in the state of indignant incandescence singular to teenage girls, she stared down a room full of the most powerful leaders in the world: “You come to us young people for hope,” she said. “How dare you!” That afternoon, she joined 15 other children in petitioning the U.N.’s Commission on the Rights of the Child, demanding that member states take immediate action on climate change and saying that their continued failure to respond to the climate crisis is a violation of children’s human rights.
This is, of course, at the crux of the generational divide on climate change: The younger you are, the more the crisis will change the parameters of your whole life; the older you are, the more likely you are to have profited from the carbon-intensive economy that has brought us to the tipping point. And although “OK, Boomer” seems to have been born as a response to a sort of general elder out-of-touch-ness, it’s a particularly apt response to leaders who are well-meaning but inactive on the climate crisis.
The 25-year-old New Zealand member of parliament Chlöe Swarbrick, in a speech to Parliament in November, put it this way: “How many world leaders for how many decades have seen and known what is coming but have decided that it is more politically expedient to keep [climate change] behind closed doors? My generation and the generations after me do not have that luxury.” When she pointed out that the average age of her fellow MPs (49) might be making them overly complacent, someone in the crowd started to heckle. She deflated the interruption with a swift “OK, Boomer,” and returned to her talking points.
Lumping people into generations turns quickly to gross generalization. Boomers, according to stereotype, aged out of free love and utopianism and into giant houses, which they bought with the money they saved from never splurging on avocado. Millennials live in a social media hall of mirrors, texting each other about how we have no health insurance; raising succulents instead of babies because—did we mention?—we have no health insurance. These caricatures are useless in explaining any individual’s passions and priorities. But one fact that illuminates the generational divide on climate is this: If you’re younger than 34, you’ve never experienced a cooler- than-average month on Earth. “I have college applications I’d like to be working on instead of being here, I’m really behind schedule,” young activist Jamie Margolin, a high school senior, said to a joint hearing in the U.S. House.* “But I have to do this work instead, to make sure that there’s a future that’s safe enough for me to study in.”
This difference doesn’t have to translate to generational warfare. Matthew Miles Goodrich, an organizer with the youth-led climate group Sunrise, told me he has nothing against older generations—“My mom and dad are Boomers!”—and that Sunrise welcomes older people in its Young at Heart caucus. What’s frustrating, he says, is when leaders meet young people’s concerns with arrogance.
That moment in Senator Feinstein’s office stands out to him, he told me via email:
Dianne Feinstein said it best: “I know what I’m doing.” That interaction, in which schoolchildren who will live to witness a world of stupefying horror asked for the bare minimum from the oldest member of Congress, resonated with so many people because it laid bare the game. The political establishment, proven wrong time and time again, think they know what they’re doing.
The response to the climate crisis can’t come from that position, wrote Goodrich, who likens the posture to the “This is fine” meme, in which a cartoon dog in a jaunty hat sits calmly at a table, drinking coffee with wide eyes staring straight ahead, surrounded by flames.
Meditation teachers often urge their students to cultivate a state of openness and eagerness called “beginner’s mind.” The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki described the value of this mind-set by saying that “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” The lack of expertise that Feinstein latched onto in her young critics may not be a weakness but instead the very thing that makes their ideas so powerful. The ideas that solve the climate crisis will have to be new ones—the things we already know got us to where we are.
* A previous version of this article misstated Jamie Margolin’s schooling level.