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Bringing Young and Old to the Climate Fight

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Bill McKibben (Photo credit: Toby Talbot, AP)

It always seems to me that different groups can bring different things to the climate fight — not completely different, but subtly so, in ways that reflect the diversity of our society.

So, for instance, young people have been crucial leaders of this battle from the beginning, which makes a lot of sense. I’ll be dead before global warming gets to its absolute worst (though it’s already pretty bad — my home state of Vermont nearly washed away in Hurricane Irene). But if you’re 20 right now, with 60 or 70 years left on this earth, those chart lines of rising temperatures and rising sea levels will run over your life. It’s no wonder, then, that we’ve managed in a matter of weeks to get the fossil fuel divestment campaign up and running on more than 300 college campuses: there’s the same kind of deep moral and practical understanding that we last saw when young people faced the Vietnam-era draft — the stakes are that high.

But there are things that can be hard for young people — if you’re 22 right now, in our economy, an arrest record may not be the best thing for your resume. Past a certain age, however, what the hell are they going to do to you? So when we announced plans for mass civil disobedience to protest the Keystone pipeline in 2011, we asked older people in particular to step up. We didn’t ask the 1,253 arrestees (the most in any protest for 30 years) how old they were — that would be rude. But we did ask ‘who was president when you were born?’ And we were delighted when it turned out the biggest cohorts came from the Truman and FDR administrations. Elders were beginning to act like elders, and taking real pride in it.

The most profound leadership in the climate fight, of course, has come from the people most affected, here and around the world. “Frontline communities” feeling the brunt of climate change are doing the brunt of the work. And as global warming pushes those frontlines into ever more places, the fight will grow ever larger.

Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books about the environment, beginning with The End of Nature in 1989, regarded as the first book for a general audience on climate change. He is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign

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