By Frank Rotering | March 9, 2020
A recent environmental conference in Australia revealed an important truth: the global young desperately need a committed advocate to defend their ecological interests. Such quasi-legal representation would ensure that their rights to survival and well-being are fully recognized and faithfully served at all environmental gatherings. Because this representation was absent at the National Climate Emergency Summit, it instead served the interests of older generations and the global rich by clinging tenaciously to the prevailing social order.
Youth Ecological Advocate: A committed supporter of the young who defends their ecological interests by asserting the environmental, economic, and political truth, and by offering them strategic guidance on this basis.
In this post I show how this representation might work by offering my objections to key aspects of the Summit's proceedings. If these objections had been raised while the Summit was in progress, the young might have received the attention they need and deserve. My advice to them and their concerned parents, therefore, is to never again tolerate any environmental conference, meeting, or discussion where such an advocate does not play a prominent role.
My first objection would have been raised at the Summit's outset, when it became clear that the "climate emergency" was being discussed without anyone having a clear picture of the ecological crisis as a whole. I would therefore have presented the following diagram for the Summit's consideration:
Here we see that the root cause of the crisis is economic over-expansion, which resulted in ecological overshoot - the violation of multiple environmental limits - about 60 years ago. This led to a GHG-based emergency and various non-GHG harms. I would have forcefully pointed out that climate change is only one result of global warming, which is only one part of the ecological crisis.
I would therefore have asked the Summit organizers to explain why they were declaring a climate emergency when it is the far broader overshoot emergency that actually threatens the young.
In addition I would have insisted on terminology that is consistent with the above framing, particularly the use of a comprehensive term such as "GHG crisis" to refer to the various GHG-based impacts. As the diagram makes clear, using "climate change" or "climate crisis" for this purpose is scientifically untenable .
As the Summit progressed I would have loudly protested the flagrant distortions of current environmental, economic, and political realities. These could only have confused the young analytically and disarmed them strategically. Because the distortions were numerous, I will address only the most destructive instance in each category.
The Summit's most damaging environmental distortion was its treatment of solar radiation management (SRM). Of the three available GHG measures - emission reductions, greenhouse gas removal (GGR), and SRM - the first received copious attention, and the second had its own session to discuss biological methods. SRM, by contrast, was mentioned only once on the main stage. This was by Breakthrough's David Spratt, who immediately dismissed the measure by claiming that, "... such approaches have not yet been demonstrated to be of net environmental or social benefit."
Given my advocacy role I would have jumped up to challenge this outrageous assertion. SRM is the only approach that can prevent runaway global warming while unsafe GHGs are being removed. It is therefore an urgent necessity to protect the young from short-term disaster and to maintain the social stability required for rational action. The net benefits of SRM have not been demonstrated because it has for decades been a taboo subject, which has severely restricted research. As well, its positive impacts on the Global South have been widely ignored. I would therefore have emphasized that almost 90% of the young live in these poorer countries, where they are highly vulnerable to the storms, floods, and searing heat that the judicious implementation of SRM could temporarily abate.
In the economic category the most egregious distortion was the Summit's implicit assumption that the ecological crisis can be solved under capitalism. I say "implicit" because I heard no-one use the word itself. Instead there were oblique references to "an economic system such as we have", "a permanent-growth model", and "an unsustainable economic system". As the youth advocate I would have protested these evasions and insisted that participants candidly adopt the word and the reality it represents. This would have dramatically increased the transparency of the Summit's economic discussions.
To make the case that the crisis can't be solved under capitalism I would have argued that its historical mission is economic growth, which caused the over-expansion that triggered the crisis in the first place. I would also have pushed the Summit to discuss a new economic theory for a sustainable economy, and to consider which of capitalism's features should be retained and which should be discarded. In brief, I would have urged the Summit to seriously address humankind's economic future through extensive discussions about capitalism and the requirements for its sustainable replacement.
The occasion for the most damaging political distortion was the session This Is Not A Drill. Because this event featured a rare moment of political honesty, I will describe it in some detail.
Effectively moderated by broadcaster Ali Moore, the session was an inventive fictional set-up: as the crisis escalates, an Australian premier establishes a blue-ribbon commission to find solutions and compel the national government to act. The commissioners were the eight panel members, with Breakthrough's Ian Dunlop at its head. The others were a medical professional, a senior firefighter, an aboriginal activist, two clean-energy business consultants, a former premier, and a military representative. Moore several times pressured the panel to come up with solutions as she announced disruptive global events.
After some desultory discussion someone proposed the goal of net-zero emissions by 2030. This is very likely unachievable for practical reasons, but it increased the tension and forced the commissioners to consider extreme measures. This came to a head when Moore said, "Here's the big question: Do we just suspend democracy?"
As the youth advocate I would have been galvanized because governments in fact cannot solve the crisis. Why? Because the political authority they exercise is overwhelmed by the political power of those who own and control the economy. History makes this abundantly clear. Numerous regimes that have tried to introduce major social changes, such as company nationalizations and land reforms, have been undermined or overthrown. Even the government of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt almost succumbed to a coup in the 1930s for introducing his New Deal. Given these precedents, it is preposterous to claim that governments could successfully implement the most extreme and power-shifting reform of all: capitalism's historical replacement.
Dunlop was the first to respond to Moore's unexpected challenge: "I think we are at a point now [when] that becomes a real question, because the way the country has been proceeding in looking at climate change now for thirty years has effectively suspended democracy. We're not actually taking decisions in the public interest any longer. We've allowed this to develop in such a way that the country is now totally unprepared for what has been happening, and there is no sign politically, at the moment, that this is actually going to change." (emphasis added)
Moore then turned to military representative Cheryl Durrant and asked, "... what position would [the military] take? ... if you've got a very upset public but you can't get the people who are ruling the place to listen ..."
Although highly uncomfortable, Durrant responded with the politically honest moment: "I'm not going to go there ... although a global coup with the biggest five militaries in the world would probably solve the problem ... and probably create a lot of problems as well." (emphasis added) She then veered away from the topic, ex-premier Carmen Lawrence stoutly defended democracy, and the discussion returned to everyone's comfort zone: government action.
For the global young this refusal to pursue a mode of action that could save their future was an obscene betrayal. Imagine if you had a grievously sick child and had visited numerous doctors to find a solution. One day you hear a doctor mention a treatment that, "... would probably solve the problem". Would you smile and let this pass, or would you eagerly demand the details? Now multiply this situation by several billion - the number of young people who could perish if the government delusion is maintained. Needless to say, I would have expressed my fury at this point and held the panel to account for its self-serving behavior.
My last objection would have been raised after the Summit was over and the virtual invisibility of the young could be quantified. I would have informed the organizers that, of the 48 people who appeared on the main stage as speakers or panelists, only two seemed to be under 30 - about 4%. Worse, they spoke for a total of about five minutes out of the eleven hours occupied by the sessions - less than 1%. The organizers did include a “Students Declare” workshop at a different location, but a representative then spent a paltry two minutes on the main stage to present the results. In brief, the people who will be the primary victims of the unfolding crisis were almost entirely excluded from a conference that addressed its possible solutions.
To summarize, the National Climate Emergency Summit exposed the fact that, without a committed advocate to defend their ecological interests, the young are at the mercy of conservative forces that seek to maintain today's ecocidal social order. Firmly controlled by these forces, the Summit kept the young almost entirely out of sight, declared a climate rather than an overshoot emergency, falsely assumed that a solution is possible under capitalism, irrationally dismissed SRM, and refused to acknowledge that, because governments lack the political power to replace capitalism, military intervention will be necessary for youth survival.
Let me now drop my advocate role and examine the Summit's deeper significance.
What is striking about the failures outlined above is that many participants were highly accomplished people. Dunlop, for example, has made the extraordinary transition from fossil-fuel executive to environmental thought leader, and he spoke with mature insight about the suspension of democracy. Many others displayed high intelligence, detailed knowledge, and profound concern. So what happened?
Part of the answer, I believe, lies in the depth and scope of this unprecedented crisis, which overwhelm the imaginations of even these outstanding people. Humankind and its predecessor species, driven by their biological impulses, have for millions of years been on an expansionary path. But now, having overshot the Earth's environmental limits, we have reached the end of this path and must quickly shift from expansion to contraction. The challenge before us is therefore the ecological redirection of our species. This will entail the revolutionary restructuring of our minds, economies, and societies to align our collective impact with the planet's natural constraints.
Very few educated people can meet this challenge because their hard-won knowledge is oriented towards the expansionary past rather than the contractionary future, and because their mental constructs are deeply rooted in the capitalist worldview. Very few of the older can do so because their social status and material comforts could decline sharply if the prevailing order is left behind. Because most Summit participants were both educated and older, they lacked the capacity and incentive to objectively determine what is now necessary to heal the planet and permit the young to survive.
What this means for the young is that they must decisively reject the analytical and strategic guidance of their elders. Older generations can contribute research and perform tasks that require lengthy experience, but - with rare exceptions - they cannot understand the crisis from the youth perspective or show them the way forward. This conclusion will be especially relevant when the above distortions, and many others, flood the media during the upcoming coverage of CoP26 and the IPCC's sixth assessment report.
I conclude with a brief message to the young themselves:
This is indeed not a drill. I suggest you swallow deep, grow up fast, think independently, take responsibility for the world you will inherit, and seek military help to implement the rational crisis response before it's too late. And, when you need an ecological advocate, give me a shout.