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Bridging the Climate Change Generation Gap

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On December 8th, at the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa, an impassioned 21-year-old Middlebury College student named Abigail Borah interrupted a speech by the lead U.S. negotiator, with a 30-second plea. In her bold but trembling voice she proclaimed she was "scared for my future" and pointed out that with regard to climate change legislation an "obstructionist Congress has shackled justice." She pleaded with delegates to "take responsibility to act now" for the sake of "fair[ness]" and for the sake of "the lives of the youth and the world's most vulnerable." She was quickly ushered from the talks (though through a standing ovation) and her credentials were revoked.

For the past year I've been on the road with my co-conspirator and friend Kathleen Dean Moore, giving presentations at universities, in church basements, community centers, any public space that would have us. We've been trying to provoke a (disastrously absent) national conversation about our moral obligations to address climate change.

The age demographic of our audiences has been rather more "seasoned" than we would have thought. We were certainly grateful for those elders, often salivating over the idea of a grandparent's climate revolution. But we also wondered where the youth was in this movement. Sure, rooms on college campuses were always half filled with scribbling students, though just as often they streamed out en masse when they had the notes necessary to write up their extra credit. But where were the angry voices of those whose future is being stolen from them, traded for the short-term benefit of a very small minority of people who otherwise despise them? How could they not be absolutely outraged by what is being done to them? We scratched our noggins. Maybe they thought those who were older and more experienced and more powerful were looking out for them, were going to protect their future. Well, they're not, and now we know it. The delays, the denials, the lack of investment, the absolute failure of moral integrity that we've seen from our leaders are all the proof we need.

And then, in just the past few months, this generation gap suddenly, stunningly shrank. The current OWS movement is filled with young people. When given the opportunity, our own students express both a profound concern and a profound desire to do something: putting an end to the irresponsible campus coal plant, demanding sustainability education reforms and a matching campus infrastructure, creating a student-run organic farm.

Abigail Borah later explained why she spoke up: "I've stopped settling for what is deemed 'politically feasible' by obstructionists and started asking for what is morally required and scientifically necessary." Abigail's rich use of moral language raises a critical point, one seldom addressed in contemporary discussions about climate change. Though we surely already know what is scientifically, technologically and economically necessary; it's not clear we know what is morally required of us, or even what is the necessity of making such an appeal.

Abigail has identified the two key elements of an argument that might move us to act in response to climate change. To arrive at a conclusion about what we ought to do, we need two kinds of premises, premises about facts and premises about values. Factual premises describe the conditions of the world, now and into the future: this is what's happening to our climate, this is how it will affect us. These are the premises delivered by science. But facts alone cannot tell us what we ought to do.

We have to be careful. Merely suggesting we replace petty politics with science (facts) as the justification for how we ought to make our decisions is a mistake. It's only through the co-mingling of both factual and value premises together, but through neither alone, that we can decide what to do. If we value our own lives, the well-being of our children, the lives of the species we share the planet with; if we value justice, and compassion, and gratitude, and integrity; and if these are now being threatened by inaction against climate change; then we have a moral obligation to act now, to act boldly, to protect what we value.

In the West we're good at facts, but we're not so good at values. And we're not so good at seeing them working together to allow us to arrive at a wise course of action. And time is running out, we need to get better at this, and we need to do it fast.

The youth of this country are waking to this realization. They were missing, now they're out in force, now they're considering climate change a moral issue, and this is a huge step forward.

And now, we, the elders, need to join them. More than we need another round of golf, or another winter in Florida, we need to help deliver the future.

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