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2 generations' perspectives on the future of climate change


The widespread anxiety over climate change brings up a vital question. What are we actually doing about it? Not nearly enough, say climate scientists. A new study published in the journal Science predicted that a child born today would face five times as many natural disasters as someone born 150 years ago. We wondered how environmental activists of different generations think about this, so we called Jasmine Butler. Jasmine is 22. She is an organizer with Power Shift Network. That's a group mobilizing young people around climate and environmental justice issues. Jasmine, thank you for being with us.

JASMINE BUTLER: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: We also have Denis Hayes. He is 77 and one of the founders of Earth Day. He's now CEO of The Bullitt Foundation, which promotes sustainable communities in the Pacific Northwest. Denis Hayes, welcome to you. Thank you so much for being with us, also.

DENIS HAYES: It's a delight.

MARTIN: I just wanted to get each of your reactions to the study that I just mentioned. It found that children born today will, on average, live through three times as many disasters as their grandparents, with the impacts, as you might imagine, most pronounced in some of the world's poorest regions. Denis, when you read this kind of information, what comes to mind?

HAYES: I suppose a profound sense of failure. I mean, my generation has known about this stuff for a long time. And we've tried everything that we could and had remarkably little success, in part because of the formidable opposition from the fossil fuels industry, but I'm sure in part because we weren't sufficiently strategic, sufficiently creative, sufficiently something to avoid the mess that we've left for Jasmine and her friends.

MARTIN: So you said a sense of failure. Well, you know, when you were younger, Denis, the actual air quality and water quality were much worse than today. That doesn't bring you any sense of accomplishment?

HAYES: You know, every generation has its own challenges. And with mine, there was the overall threat of thermonuclear war. We had air pollution so bad that a 2-year-old baby breathing air in Los Angeles was having the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Water pollution was rife. We were losing a great many species. And we did a wonderful job of passing a Clean Air Act, a Clean Water Act, a Safe Drinking Water Act, an Endangered Species Act, Superfund, Toxic Substances Control Act - bam, bam, bam, bam. But that was the 1970s. And in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president, and a great many of things just changed dramatically with that election.

MARTIN: Hmm. I see. Jasmine, what about you? This study that I just mentioned, what does that bring up for you?

BUTLER: Truly, for me, it immediately kind of brings up a tell us something we don't know, you know? I think as someone who's studied the climate science and, you know, have a degree in geography, I know for so long, scientists were kind of saying, we're expecting, you know, more and worse and more frequency natural disasters. But it wasn't quite something they could say definitively, you know? It's kind of like, well, you know, to our politicians and to folks who are still having so much pushback against this idea that, oh, we don't know the future and, oh, we can't, you know, make any big changes now because we don't know, you know, what's really in store for us, it's like, what else do the folks in power need to hear to really want to do something?

MARTIN: And, Jasmine, you know, one thing that I think we've started talking about that we didn't talk about earlier was climate anxiety. I mean, is that something you talk about - your friends, your peer group?

BUTLER: Absolutely. There are even orgs that I'm, you know, in community with who are starting to have whole events to try to help folks my age learn to deal with it. Climate anxiety is super-real. And kind of the way I describe it is this overwhelming sense of, on the one hand, we know there's a problem. And also, we're seeing the folks who are in power and the folks who are supposed to be protecting us not doing anything about it. A lot of folks my age are really, really falling into this place of, like, what's the point of anything? What's the point of working or trying or having kids or planning for a future that is so uncertain and so likely to look so different than we could have previously thought? So, yeah, it's its own kind of form of anxiety in some ways.

MARTIN: You know, I wanted to ask about that because there was a study published in The Lancet last month that polled young people and found that 39% of them were hesitant to have children because of the climate crisis. So, Denis, I wanted to ask you, do you remember feeling that way?

HAYES: Well, population was a really big issue when I was young, so I made a decision early on that I would have only one child, and I would be encouraging my friends and family to only have one - not with enormous success, I should add, with regard to that. But no, I didn't - the thermonuclear thing, which was the equivalent threat - it's not neighborhoods having air pollution; it's a threat to all life on the planet - that was something that was so far beyond our control that there was almost no way that we could wrestle with it. So let's find some issues like ending the war, ending racism, cleaning up the environment that we could do things on.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, though, you did a lot. I mean, you helped get the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts passed. You helped create Earth Day, which was the same year that Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. And I think people would see that as lasting change. How did you get that done? What would you say was the key to that?

HAYES: This was definitely from the ground up. You sometimes bring change from the top down, but the environmental movement came from the 20 million people who turned out on Earth Day. And it came from presidential candidates like Ed Muskie running as the environment being a core part of his ticket because he saw this constituency. All of those things came together, but it wouldn't have happened without the 20 million people demanding a healthier world for themselves and their children.

MARTIN: Hmm. Jasmine, what about you? What do you see - well, first of all, I'm just interested in what you see as the role of electoral politics in climate activism and what else. What's your focus?

BUTLER: Honestly, a lot of folks my age and myself included have really come to a place of kind of disillusion with electoral politics. You know, folks in previous generations have obviously made such huge strides, but we're playing in an entirely different arena and different actors. You know, big and dirty money wasn't as big and wasn't as dirty. You know, corporate interests weren't quite as powerful. Fossil fuels weren't, you know, ruling the world as strongly as they are now. So a lot of folks my age are truly turning to a point of, well, electoral politics isn't quite getting it done yet. And so a lot of folks my age are looking to see, you know, what else can we do?

So an example of that coming up in October - 11 through 15 - there's this coalition of folks call People vs. Fossil Fuels who are actually heading to Washington, D.C., with some very specific demands for Biden and the executive branch, specifically for the things that are completely in his power. So, for example, some of the demands are that he put and end to Line 3, one of the pipelines that folks have been fighting for years now that is about to get started, as well as declaring a climate emergency - again, fully within his power. And that opens up an entire, you know, arena of funding and an opportunity to take action. And these are, you know, things, again, that are in his power and, you know, around the things that he's made promises on but simply has not moved on.

HAYES: Let me jump in with kind of a serious thought. And it's mostly for Jasmine, Michel. It's that when we were doing things in the past, if you pass a Clean Air Act and you start putting catalytic converters on automobiles, the air cleaned up pretty quickly. The difficulty with regard to climate is that everything that we're doing is slowing the rate of deterioration. I mean, you don't start seeing concrete improvement until you've gotten the entire planet to carbon neutral, and then you start pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere. It's hard to claim a victory when things are still getting worse the next year.

MARTIN: Hmm. And, Jasmine, how does that sit with you?

BUTLER: For me, it really - it's something I - it makes me think of all the things that nowadays, again, are deemed as radical or a little too far or our politicians will never go for that. It's like, no, in 20 years, you'll thank us, you know, weird radicals just like the hippies of your day. Like, you'll thank us for demanding so much better of us because we know that we can do better.

MARTIN: You know, you look at these statistics and you look at these polls, and you show how discouraged a lot of people are. What keeps you at it?

BUTLER: Absolutely. I definitely feel the doom and the despair some days. But for me and - a lot of folks subscribe to this concept of revolutionary optimism, which basically means, like, if you're doing something about it yourself, you feel entirely different about the state of things. So for me, you know, individualism obviously isn't everything, but a lot of quelling that, you know, really large anxiety and doom for a lot of us looks like being active and being involved and organizing.

MARTIN: You know, you heard Denis say earlier that he feels a sense of failure. Do you feel that way about us, like, our generation, that we failed you?

BUTLER: I will say that your generation is large. We're so grateful to folks like Denis and other folks who took on that fight so early and were some of the earliest, you know, whistleblowers around climate change and remind us that those things are important. And also, you very much have so many, you know, oil CEOs and conglomerates and, you know, politicians who really don't care about their constituents who are also in your generation. So I definitely can't say it's a one-size-fits-all, but I definitely - it's frustrating sometimes when we're fighting against the same, you know, monsters in the closet that you all were.

MARTIN: Hmm. So, Denis, I think Jasmine forgives you.


HAYES: Thank you, Jasmine.

MARTIN: What's keeping you going, Denis?

HAYES: I've seen the odds stacked overwhelmingly against us. The opposition to the Clean Air Act included the oil industry, the gas industry, the coal industry, the electric utility industry, the automobile industry, the steel industry. And we passed unanimously in both chambers of commerce because we had Congress scared to death that they would lose their seats if they didn't come out for clean air. And as Jasmine has just sufficiently determined and energetic and uncompromising and willing to push and push and push and push, you won't get everything that you're pushing for, but you'll get a lot more than you would if you hadn't done that.

MARTIN: That is Denis Hayes, CEO of The Bullitt Foundation and one of the founders of Earth Day. We also heard from Jasmine Butler, an organizer for Power Shift Network. Thank you both so much for talking with us, for talking together. I just really appreciate it. Thank you both.

BUTLER: Thank you for having us.

HAYES: It was a pleasure, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.