When I first heard the phrase “generational genocide” used in the context of climate change, I was both shocked and skeptical. The term genocide is reserved for the most sickening and violent atrocities in human history—the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, the extermination of Indigenous peoples in North America—when groups in power engaged in deliberate and systematic campaigns to eliminate a marginalized other. Genocide is the ultimate crime against humanity and the accusation cannot be invoked lightly.
And yet, the more we learn about the long-term trajectory of climate change, the more I am convinced that genocide is the appropriate term. The warming of our planet and its associated environmental catastrophes will displace hundreds of millions of people in the coming decades, exacerbating refugee crises and ethnic conflicts around the world. The health impacts of hotter and more volatile weather alone will lead to an additional 250,000 deaths per year by the middle of the century, but deaths from all causes will be much higher. By the end of the century, total casualties from climate change could number in the tens or even hundreds of millions.
The victims will overwhelmingly be those least responsible for our warming world: the poor, who have the least capacity to adapt to increasingly challenging and unstable conditions—both individually and, in the case of developing countries, collectively—and the young, who are set to inherit an ill-fated planet through no fault of their own.
Indeed, the full brunt of our collective decision to continue burning fossil fuels will not be felt by anyone making that decision today. The people with the largest carbon footprint in human history and by far the greatest capacity and power to change our ruinous trajectory—wealthy Baby Boomers in the Western world—will be dead long before they are fully confronted with the consequences of their actions. On the other hand, people born in the 21st century—my daughters among them—will grow up on a planet marred by conflict, devastation and hardship that was entirely predictable and largely avoidable.
No plausible deniability
This last fact—that the long-term social, economic and environmental consequences of our fossil fuel-centred economy are so well-understood—is what elevates the scourge of climate change from intergenerational negligence to generational genocide. Plausible deniability is simply not an option in the face of overwhelming evidence linking our consumption of coal, oil and natural gas to rising temperatures, extreme weather and the accelerating destruction of the planet’s biodiversity. We have for decades understood the need to alter our trajectory to save the planet, but we have repeatedly and deliberately failed to do so.
The perpetrators of the climate change genocide include the fossil fuel industry and climate-denying politicians, of course, but also the silent majority of fossil fuel consumers who actively ignore the mounting scientific evidence or otherwise take no responsibility for the path we are on. It is this generation’s campaign of destruction that is being inflicted upon all other and future generations.
Fighting for the future
To fully prevent the genocide from occurring would require us to turn back time: the seeds were sown over decades and many of the consequences are locked in. But there is still space for hope and reason to fight. Genocides do not end simply because they have run their course. Only through resistance, often international and transformational in scope, can such atrocities be halted.
For the generations poised to inherit our warming world, the complacency and greed of their predecessors is no longer being tolerated. From Autumn Peltier’s presentation to the United Nations to the climate strikes organized by school children across Europe to the Quebec youth suing the government for failing to protect the environment, young people are refusing to sit by while this existential crisis deepens.
Identifying the atrocity and its perpetrators is a necessary start. The sooner our political and cultural apparatus recognizes climate change for what it is—an assault by the generation in power on the future of all humanity—the sooner we can meaningfully confront it.
But we also require alternative visions for the future presented without fear or compromise. The Green New Deal advanced recently by some U.S. political leaders is one such vision, as is the Leap Manifesto adopted by many activists in Canada. These plans are not without their flaws, gaps and contradictions, but they capture the scope and urgency of the problem in a way no government yet has.
Grassroots movements around the world, especially those led by the young and disenfranchised, are also vital. This week, hundreds of youth gather in Ottawa at PowerShift: Young and Rising to continue the work of building a youth climate justice movement. These young people did not ask for a fight against an unfolding generational genocide, but they are rising to the occasion.
Ultimately, it is the strength of these alternative movements that will determine our (and their) future.
What’s a Boomer to do?
No reasonable person should accept the ‘genocidal’ label. So what can older generations do to start absolving this shameful legacy?
First, recognize and acknowledge your role in the problem—individually, communally, nationally. Everyone contributes to climate change, regardless of their intentions, and everyone has a responsibility to address it. Denial and rationalization help no one.
Second, make climate change a central concern for everyone in your life. In 2019, no politician, journalist, corporate executive or community leader should be able to sidestep the gravity and urgency of this unfolding crisis due to a complacent public.
Third, support those fighting for a better future. Young and marginalized people need resources, of course, but also the time and space to be heard. Amplify their voices online and beyond.
Climate change is humanity’s greatest collective challenge, and every bystander is one more obstacle to be overcome. Don’t be an obstacle; be a part of the solution.