What my daughter’s first birthday taught me about inter-generational climate justice
As someone who’s working on the climate crisis full time, and mostly as a parent to a girl who earlier this year celebrated her first birthday in the midst of the pandemic, I couldn’t help contemplating the scorched earth we could be leaving to our children and their offsprings, even though they contributed the least, if at all, to this crisis, and what’s our role as parents.
Not that I knew what to expect from a kid’s first birthday, but somehow my daughter’s birthday back in June felt unusual in more than one way. We anyway just planned a small get-together at grandma’s garden allotment. But the very fact we were mulling over how many people can join, if at all and that, at least officially, those who do join are supposed to keep social distancing, in itself felt quite telling of the world in which she will be growing up.
In many ways it seemed like we’re going back to some kind of normal. The buses were going on the same routes, the trees were covered with leaves the same way they had been the previous summer, and every year before that, and our elderly neighbour and her dog were still sitting on the bench by the building entrance. Even the rain that eventually ruined our outdoors birthday plans was, I have to admit, rather typical for the season.
On the other hand, we still take masks with us whenever we leave home, certainly when using public transport; already a few times more people are without a job; and nearly a year since the coronavirus was first detected in Europe we don’t even know when is the next time her Israeli grandparents will be able to see their granddaughter.
That’s not exactly the world we had in mind for her.
Temporary? Yes, some of these things will be gone sooner or later. But scientists keep warning that with another wave of corona or without it, the climate crisis, which only worsens by the day, means my daughter, and all kids, will be living in a world that is much more hostile, unpredictable and impoverished than, not only the world they were born into, but also the one her mother and father knew.
Warsaw, where my daughter was born, now sees, on average, around double the number of days with temperatures of 32 degrees than the year I was born. Models show it could triple that number by the time my daughter celebrates her 41st birthday, possibly with children of her own. And that’s assuming governments actually uphold their commitments under the Paris climate accord.
I probably still haven’t fully processed the daunting fact that my daughter’s well-being will be more and more out of our — and her — control and is likely to be increasingly dominated by the various impacts of a collapsing climate system.
A large study published in November 2019 warns that the climate crisis faces today’s children with a range of lifelong health risks. What does it mean? According to Nick Watts, one of the authors, “children are particularly vulnerable to the health risks of a changing climate. Their bodies and immune systems are still developing, leaving them more susceptible to disease and environmental pollutants.” Just in case I thought a global pandemic is a grim beginning for a life of a year old baby.
According to this study, a changing climate helps expand the distribution of infectious diseases like malaria and dengue fever to which young children are particularly vulnerable.
In addition, undernourishment hits girls and boys under five years old particularly hard, the researchers explain, and rising temperatures, as evidenced by trends since 1960, diminish the global potential yield of important crops like maize, wheat, rice and soy in a way that threatens food production and food security.
And all of this before even mentioning air pollution that already today kills millions of people every year.
Under a business as usual scenarios — that is, when our decision makers don’t get what the climate crisis is about — “the life of every child born today will be profoundly affected by climate change,” the study cautions.
The bottom line here is pretty straightforward. Every year we continue producing electricity from oil, coal or gas is a year of prosperity, or even life, we’re robbing from our children. This is no allegory — we are already living at the expense of future generations in the most material way possible.
The rate and extent of exploitation of natural resources — from the Dead Sea minerals industries in Israel and Jordan to coal mining in Poland — is utterly unreasonable. In fact, according to the latest data, had the entire humanity consumed resources at the same rate we do in Europe, we would need 2.8 Earths.
The same goes for today’s levels of greenhouse gas emissions. An analysis of the website Carbon Brief shows that to halt the global temperature surge at 1.5 degrees by the end of the century, my daughter and her generation have an “emissions budget” that is six times smaller than the quota me and my generation have, and eight times smaller than that of her grandfather’s generation.
So, yeah, emitting greenhouse gases is not exactly a human right, and I certainly believe that life could be just as good with less emissions. But this calculation, I think, is not a bad illustration of how profoundly different my daughter’s world is going to be. And I don’t mean just the far reaching changes required to cut emissions, but also the effects of a climate breakdown over the next few decades. Extreme heatwaves, or devastating floods, or damage to agriculture and food shortages, and very possibly some of these combined, could gradually become an integral part of reality for today’s children, tomorrow’s adults.
Some might call it the ancestral sin. The understanding that the climate crisis is an issue of inter-generational justice is crucial. Our sons and daughters — those least responsible, if at all, to this crisis — are those who stand to be hardest hit by it.
Moreover, not all children suffer from the climate crisis in the same way and to the same extent. When temperatures break records — as had happened in northern Europe during the summer of 2018, for example — Danish kids in well off Copenhagen are probably faring better than the 100 or so boys and girls locked in the Sjælsmark deportation center just 30 kilometers away. Recognizing the multiple layers of injustice at the heart of the climate crisis is crucial.
As parents we have the moral responsibility for the future of our children, for the future of everyone’s children. And if we genuinely want to ensure they inherit a livable world, we have no choice but to fight for it.
The climate crisis touches on everything, so there are a myriad ways to tackle it. But some directly concern the world we leave for our kids.
For example, many parents’ pension savings are still invested, among others, in fossil fuels companies. These are the main culprits behind the climate crisis, and they go on, and continue profiting off it, even when it is clear beyond any doubt that further burning oil, coal and gas deepens the already deep hole we’re in.
When me and my generation retire, the pensions we will live off — the money we’ve been saving to preserve the way of life we know — is also the one that will have wracked our children’s future. And this is unacceptable.
According to 350.org, at least 170 pension funds in 13 countries have already committed to divesting about USD 1.84 trillion worth of fossil fuels assets. Many of them might not be too bothered by IPCC reports, or concerned about their public image, but they do understand that oil, gas and coal companies are fast becoming a liability. And if anyone needed a reminder, bear in mind the historical crush of US oil prices in April, courtesy of the pandemic.
To be sure, there’s still lots of pension fund money bankrolling the fossil fuels industry. But these companies are already feeling the burn, and getting this many pension funds to withdraw investments from the toxic fossil fuels sector would not have been possible had it not been for the sustained pressure from activists and ordinary citizens.
What’s more, the decisions we make today, the steps we take now to tackle the climate crisis — or procrastinate action — will have repercussions well beyond our own lifetimes. That’s why the idea of an official representation of the interests of our offsprings in today’s policy-making is something that merits some serious consideration.
It’s already a cliché to say that too many of our politicians do not look beyond the next elections. But that’s exactly the reason societies need a state body tasked with defending the interests of the citizens of the future — those that are too young to vote, and those who haven’t even been born yet.
In fact, this idea has already been budding in some places. From 2001–2006, Israel had a Future Generations Commissioner as a special advisor to the parliament. A world first, this was an official body meant to ensure that virtually everything legislated is in line with the interests of Israelis of the future.
In 2008 Hungary established a similar ombudsperson position to monitor the enforcement of environmental laws and investigate citizens’ complaints on environmental issues; Over the past eight years Malta has had a four-person committee named Guardian of Future Generations that’s concerned with promoting sustainable development; and since 2016 Wales has its own Future Generations Commissioner who’s responsible for helping the government and public institutions take into account the long term impacts of their decisions so that they do not compromise the well-being of future Welsh citizens.
But these are still few and far between. A Future Generations Commissioner should be a body as mainstream as a health ministry. And it might be time, as was proposed by Martin Nesbit and Andrea Illés, to also consider the creation of an independent EU Guardian for Future Generations.
Such body could play an important role in keeping EU decision-making on issues like energy and climate change consistent.
For example, the European Ombudsman recently ruled that the European Commission had failed to assess the climate footprint of 32 major gas infrastructure projects before including them in the latest list of ‘Projects of Common Interest.’ Thirty two new gas projects. It really doesn’t sound like we’re in the middle of an emergency.
There are, unfortunately, plenty of examples of how the EU is undermining its own policies, ultimately at the expense of Europe’s youngest and their descendants. If given the powers, an EU Guardian for Future Generations could help address the common tendency among EU institutions, and possibly also European governments, to continue sustaining the fossil fuels industry at the same time as, for instance, agreeing on Europe becoming carbon neutral by 2050 or upgrading the EU’s 2030 emissions targets.
And perhaps more than ever, as governments are injecting billions in public money into economies in a bid to contain the pandemic’s economic shock, Future Generations Commissioners could help ensure these funds are invested in transitioning our societies, not in perpetuating the fossil fuels industry.
The thing is, none of this will happen if we just wait. There are already over 200 groups of parents devoted to stemming the climate crisis around the world. I’m a member of two of them — Parents for climate Israel and the international group of Parents for Future. These are fathers and mothers — actually, mostly mothers — who are concerned about the world our daughters and sons are to inherit, and lead a range of actions that are ultimately meant to get society to change course.
We owe it to our children. Over the year prior to the pandemic, countless youth around the world have mobilized to protest governments’ complacency in addressing the 21st century’s biggest crisis. And we parents need, at the very least, to be sanding with them. They deserve a world much better than what is currently destined for them, and indeed better than the reality we, their parents, have lived in.
My daughter and I joined some of these demonstrations and I sure hope she will be proud to have been part of this historical moment. But even more, I hope there will be no need for her to continue this protest as she grows up.
In the meantime, I’m reading a thread in a local parents Facebook group discussing how to celebrate children’s first birthdays at a time of a global pandemic. Some of the commenters offer comfort that the toddlers won’t remember a thing from this party anyway.
Similarly, it will be the post-corona world that will serve as my daughter’s reference. She will not remember the world before, and that’s a good thing. It has been a terrible place for way too many people.
So, I’m telling myself that by the time we’ll be celebrating our little one’s second birthday, her parents’ pension fund will be invested in renewables instead of fossil fuels (update: it will apparently happen at least nine years later), perhaps also thanks to a newly appointed Future Generations Commissioner.
And when she blows the candles on her cake, the term ‘climate justice’ will have been at least as mainstream as ‘social distancing.’ Naive? Perhaps. On the other hand, as a father to a baby, especially in 2020, I know a lot can happen within one year.
Did this text get you upset, excited, or maybe you thought it was boring — I’d love to know what you think. Find me on Twitter at @IdoLiven or shoot me an email to ido [at] idoliven [dot] com.
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