The first week of winter quarter, I was sitting with Erica Ferrer, a doctoral student in Marine Biology at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, in Muir Woods Coffee House. We had met to talk about the dire situation facing life on planet Earth and what we, as graduate students at UC San Diego, could possibly do about it.
Predictably, I heard myself going off on one of my well-rehearsed climate rants. 25 percent of ocean species directly rely on tropical reefs. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2018 Special Report indicates up to 90 percent of reefs will die at 1.5 degrees Celsius warming. We’re headed for 4 degrees by 2100. And so on.
I finished, a bit bluntly, “The oceans are gonna die. In our lifetime. How do people at Scripps feel about that?”
I regretted my aggressive tone as I heard Erica’s voice twist in her reply.
There were tears in her eyes but she didn’t look away.
“…to watch what you study die.”
“But,” the young scientist was quick to clarify, “not everything in the ocean is going to die. Not everything on land is going to die. Species will move poleward. And some ecosystems will do better than we expect. We call them bright spots.”
“Besides,” Erica continued, “as a professor at Scripps told me, when a doctor is talking to a dying patient’s family, they don’t deliver an obituary. They make a plan for care.”
It’s 2019, and the climate conversation has changed.
Young people coming into our political own today recognize that the political elites of previous generations wasted their opportunity to prevent catastrophic global warming, leaving us forever picking up the pieces of a breaking world. But we also know it’s never too late to impact the future.
Young people, especially young women, are leading the climate movement on every front.
The plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States, all under 21 years old at the time of the filing, continue to press their case against the federal government for failing to protect them from catastrophic climate change.
And Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY 14th District), the working-class millennial, socialist of color, and youngest woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress, has introduced legislation advancing the Green New Deal, a plan to fully phase out fossil fuels from the United States economy by 2030. The plan pulls public support as high as 80 percent and has become an overnight litmus test for 2020 Democratic presidential contenders. Crucial to Ocasio-Cortez’s breakthrough in Congress has been outside pressure from the grassroots, millennial-led Sunrise Movement.
Coming of age under neoliberal capitalism, an ideology that boasts the dubious accomplishments of driving historic inequality and utterly degrading the living world, Millennials and Generation Z have listened to a young lifetime of empty talk about “our children’s future.” But now our voices are leading the conversation. The future has arrived. We are the children.
In Muir Woods that morning, Erica and I mostly talked about our feelings. It hasn’t been easy lately. I told her I was angry. She told me she was bitter. I told her I was depressed. She told me she was too.
We took time to make space for our grief, our fear, even our despair. But we also talked about hope, and how it’s different from optimism.
“Hope,” writes Rebecca Solnit, “is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. … Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.”
These days, that spaciousness of uncertainty is so wide, it can feel overwhelming. Events of the coming decade will determine the climate future for countless generations to come. When every minute matters that much, the question of what to do each day feels very heavy.
The only thing that lifts that weight for me is remembering that I’m not alone. On climate, none of us have to do everything, but we all can do more than nothing.
That’s why, as Graduate Student Association (GSA) representatives, Erica and I have founded a GSA Climate Action and Policy Committee, or GSA-CAP (as in, “cap emissions”), which any UCSD graduate student can join. Our mission is to strategically pressure the administration to achieve ambitious goals like the full decarbonization of campus operations as quickly as possible.
Undergraduates who want to act on climate can plug into the California Public Interest Research Group’s legislative campaign to decarbonize transportation statewide.
Off campus, San Diego 350 has initiated a nonviolent direct action campaign to “Raise the Alarm” and pressure elected officials to champion the Green New Deal. You can learn more and help plan the actions by attending the kickoff event this Saturday, February 23, in La Jolla.
Every day, more people find their place in the climate movement. Every day, more people find that we can do more than nothing. Every day, more people ask themselves, what can we do next, that we haven’t tried before?
Erica and I finished our coffees and headed over to Scripps. I apologized to my friend as we walked towards the shore.
“I’m sorry, Erica, for the way I was talking to you earlier. You don’t need some guy outside your field ranting at you about how bad things are. I think I just act that way because—”
She finished my sentence for me: “Because you’re hurt.”
I paused and let her words resonate. “I am hurt. And I don’t see that pain acknowledged by a single one of our institutions. It’s 2019 and global greenhouse gas emissions are still rising! It feels like our entire culture is one big act of denial of the things I care about most. It makes me want to scream.”
Erica nodded patiently. “To feel gaslit is a dangerous thing,” she said.
Millennials and Generation Z care too much to stay politically silenced on climate any longer. We are waging the fight of our lives—a fight for the future of life on planet Earth—in our schools and workplaces, in the courts, in the media, in the institutions, in the streets, and in the halls of power. There are tears in our eyes, but we aren’t looking away. We are turning our grief into hope. Our strength, solidarity, and moral authority in this fight are grounded in our shared sense of loss. And that is why I believe that we will win.
Peter Sloan is a PhD student in music and a staff writer for The Triton. This piece is the third part of a series titled Fire Season, which publishes once or twice per quarter. Peter can be contacted at email@example.com.
Graduate students interested in joining the GSA Climate Action and Policy (CAP) committee can email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
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