The World Needs Many New Climate Activists Right Now

Moral philosopher Henry Shue argues that we should think of our generation’s climate responsibility like the World War II generation’s duty to stop fascism. We were born into a critical historical moment and have an obligation to act.

More than 112 million Americans currently face heat warnings and the world recently reached its highest temperatures in recorded history. Our newspapers are failing to cover the climate emergency adequately, Democratic politicians are sitting on their hands, and Republican politicians are trying to slash all climate change mitigation measures from the budget and take us full speed ahead toward the worst conceivable calamity. As Ryan Cooper notes, as global warming worsens, the risk of a “megadeath” heat event that kills millions is growing.

In a time of terrible peril, with the fate of humanity on the line, what are our moral obligations? Can we justify not becoming activists? Some, especially younger people who will be the most affected by the disaster, take radical action.1 Should we all be disrupting speeches and taking to the streets? The climate crisis raises deep questions about what an individual’s duties are, as well as what justice in the aggregate requires. The crisis does not affect everyone equally, and some are more responsible for it than others.

Nobody has thought more about questions of climate justice and responsibility than Oxford University moral philosopher Henry Shue, author of Climate Justice and The Pivotal Generation: Why We Have a Moral Responsibility to Slow Climate Change Right Now. Prof. Shue’s latest book is about the moral obligations conferred on people by the historical circumstances they find themselves in. If the actions of living people have huge consequences for those born to subsequent generations, what do we owe them? Are changes of lifestyle to reduce our personal carbon emissions enough? Prof. Shue joined Current Affairs editor in chief Nathan J. Robinson to discuss his belief that our moral obligations are so strong that we should think of our situation as being analogous to the World War II generation.

Nathan J Robinson 

One of the reasons that I really liked this book, The Pivotal Generation, is that it is an example of practical philosophy. It’s both rigorous intellectual argumentation and a strong call to political action. Academics, particularly philosophers—no offense—do sometimes fear being seen as too activist, lest their intellectual integrity be compromised. Your books show us that serious moral philosophy can actually lead us to quite activist conclusions and offer guidance as to how we really ought to act in the world we live in and what our responsibilities are, in terms of the political landscape that we actually inhabit.

The Pivotal Generation contains plain language discussions of serious questions like: What do we owe people living far away or in the future? Who, if anyone, is to blame for climate change? What moral responsibilities do different parties have? As a moral philosopher, you have written on many topics over the course of your career, but you have recently given an overriding importance to climate change, which you call the crucial political fight of the 21st century. I took a couple of courses on justice and moral philosophy as an undergraduate, and climate change was never mentioned as one of our most serious issues. It’s still often a secondary issue in United States politics and doesn’t get discussed nearly enough. You say that it should be the center of every election.

How has thinking about those core questions of justice and responsibility in the abstract as a philosopher lead you to grant such importance to climate change, as something that people need to fixate on, think about, and put at the center of their analysis of what they ought to do in the world?

Shue 

Your account of what I’m trying to do is absolutely accurate. I didn’t know anything at all about climate change until I was 50 years old, which was in 1990 when I was at Cornell. I had a colleague who was a developmental economist who said, “You work on questions of justice, and there are some serious questions of justice involved in climate change. You really should be writing about it,” and I said, ”I’d love to, but I don’t know anything about climate change.” He said, “You should talk to some of my grad students.” And so, in effect, his grad students served as my tutors to begin to teach me about climate change. From a sort of intellectual point of view, it’s ideal because the questions of justice it raises are extremely important, but the practical policy questions it raises are also extremely important. So, I am trying to do exactly what you said, that is to engage in philosophy but do it in a way that might actually provide some guidance to ordinary people, or even, ideally, policymakers.

Robinson 

Yes, it comes across in the book that to answer these core questions of what we ought to do in the world given our limited capacities—assuming we are not sociopaths who are purely self-interested and are interested in the questions of what we owe to other people—we have to learn about the facts of the world to figure out the answer to that question. Your book follows a simple logical sequence: we know we have a sense of the risks of the sorts of disasters that we’re dealing with and the potential human suffering, and of where we are in time as people living now. So we have to ask seriously: what responsibility does that confer on us?

Shue 

That’s right. It is tempting to just formulate general, abstract principles, and then say, “I’ve given you the principles, you figure out what to do.” But the part about figuring out what to do is at least as difficult as figuring out the fundamental principles. As you’ve quite rightly described, I’ve tried not to just say, “I have a theory of justice here, let’s see if it applies anywhere.” But instead, look at where we are: Where are we in history? Where are we, factually, in changes in the climate? And then ask, what are the problems here? Does the philosophical work on justice apply here, and will the theory help us? There’s no guarantee it will, but I think in this case, it does.

Robinson 

Let’s dive into the specifics. The book is called The Pivotal Generation, and much of it is about the obligations we, the people who are alive presently on the earth—and specifically, for a United States audience because you talk a lot about U.S. politics—have and where those come from. I want to quote you where you discuss some of the crucial context here:

“First, previous generations of humans have, for around two centuries, been changing our climate unintentionally, have left us with a global energy regime that now profoundly, progressively and systematically forces the climate to change. Second, we’re the first humans to understand the essential dynamics of our planet’s climate, that we become aware of humanity’s unintended subversion of its own environment through its uninformed past choices of energy sources. And third, specifically, what the science shows, the default outcome, is that the situation will become progressively worse and economic business as usual will make the future more threatening for most living species, and that makes us the pivotal generation, the only ones who can set the revolution strongly in motion while there’s still time.”

Could you elaborate on how the facts of the context in which we find ourselves create this unique obligation?

Shue 

I think one needs to be careful about claiming uniqueness, or even specialness. But we are, in fact, in an absolutely unique position because we can see that if we simply continue to live the way we’ve been living, we are going to progressively undermine the climate, which will undermine our economy and cause all sorts of problems. This is a situation that no other generation has ever found itself in.

We know from the science that part of the problem is there are what are often called tipping points. It isn’t just that if we keep emitting more and more greenhouse gases, the climate will gradually get worse, although that’s also true. But it’s also true that somewhere—and we don’t know where, that’s the scary part—we’re going to come to some of these tipping points. For example, the temperature of the ocean will become warm enough that it will melt the edges of ice sheets in Greenland and make the glaciers move more rapidly into the sea. If we could possibly stop the temperature of the ocean from rising to the point where that would happen, that would mean the ice sheets in Greenland wouldn’t melt, and that many cities, including New Orleans, that may otherwise find themselves underwater, wouldn’t find themselves underwater.

And so, there are things that if they’re ever going to be done, they have to be done right now. If we are going to keep the ocean from getting warm enough to speed up the melting of the glaciers in Greenland, we have to do that right away. Either we do it now, or it won’t get done because the ocean will have become that warm and those glaciers will have started sliding more quickly into the ocean and the sea level will shoot up.

Robinson 

You point out that, as unfair as it may seem, our moral obligations are somewhat historically contingent. It would be nice, I think you write at one point, if the obligation to fight Hitler did not fall uniquely on those who happened to live between 1939 and 1945. But it did. The situation that you find yourself in can create unique responsibilities that aren’t distributed according to a fair principle of cosmic justice, but are nevertheless real, and that we do have to act upon because we care about other people.

Shue 

Yes, that’s right. Many people’s initial reaction is: “Why is it I who has to deal with climate change? I’m not interested in climate change. There are other things I’d like to be doing. Why me?” But, the answer is, pretty straightforwardly, if we don’t do some of these things, this situation is going to get a lot worse. That’s the tipping point part. The other part, which we also know from the science, is that there are a lot of so-called positive feedbacks: there are factors which, if they get worse, will then make other things worse. The simplest example is that the Arctic ice is, of course, white, and white things reflect sunlight. The heat of the sunlight tends to bounce back up off the Arctic ice. But the Arctic ice is melting very fast, which exposes dark blue water, and dark blue water absorbs sunlight and doesn’t reflect it. And so, the fact the ice is melting makes the water warmer, but the warmer water makes the ice melt faster, so that’s a perfect positive feedback. It’s why it has warmed faster in the Arctic than anywhere else on the planet.

Robinson 

I just want to quote from your book:

“In the climate case, it’s not that we face the facts, but then deny our responsibility, but it’s also that the realities are obscured from view by the partitioning of time. And so questions of responsibility towards the past and future do not arise naturally. Other times seem distant, and the people who then lived or will live in them appear to be irrelevant strangers. Acknowledgement of responsibility rests on a recognition of connection, and the climate connections are often not obvious.”

You talk a lot in this book about time and the way that, because we are people who live only in the present, a serious discussion of what our responsibilities are is made more difficult by the fact that many of the people who are going to suffer the consequences of whatever we decide are not currently alive. It’s hard to visualize things 100 or 1000 years into the future, but morally speaking, that doesn’t change the fact that if you have choices that could kill people, it doesn’t matter whether it’s tomorrow or the next day.

Shue 

Right. Social scientists have done research in which they had two groups—a control group and another group—and one group was given a lot of statistics about how many children are starving in the world, and then the other was just shown a picture of a starving child. Each group was then asked how much they think it would be reasonable for them to give to deal with malnutrition. The people in the group shown the picture are always willing to donate more than the people who had all the statistics.

The general idea seems to be that if you can put a face on a problem, then you’re more likely to empathize and so respond. But with future generations, of course, they don’t have faces. They’re not here. It makes it harder to empathize. So one of the main things I’m trying to do in the book is underline the fact that, although we can’t see them and they don’t have names, what we are doing is profoundly affecting their lives. Sea level rise occurs very slowly, but once the ice sheets have melted, the sea may rise at something like a couple of centimeters a decade, and after a while, that adds up. And so, decades and even centuries from now, people will find the water getting higher and higher because of what we did. These will be people we don’t know, and couldn’t know because they aren’t here.

Robinson 

One of the things I like about your book—and however I say this is going to sound almost insulting, but I don’t mean it to be—is it makes it a very simple and obvious point, which is that the facts of climate change confer a responsibility upon us to act. So, it’s a really elementary argument, which is, (1) Here are the facts and the science. (2) We ask basic questions like: What does justice require? Are we sociopaths, or do we care about other people? If we care about other people, how much do we care about other people? Do we care enough about other people to do small things that will cause them to not suffer horribly? And then (3), if we care about people enough to do small things to cause them not suffer horribly, here are the things we have to do. Very straightforward. But bizarrely, I think I haven’t seen a book before that has made this clear, simple case: these are the facts, and thus this is what morality requires of us.

You must have thought about this over your career as a philosopher: why it is these simple connections like this are so hard for us to draw and go somewhat undiscussed?

Shue 

That’s a probing question, and I agree with your characterization. I think this stuff is actually relatively straightforward. We’re not doing Immanuel Kant or Aristotle here, we’re taking everyday principles. In fact, that’s part of the method here, as I’ve tried not to invoke a principle that you would only believe if you were a Marxist or a libertarian or something. I tried to just get some common-sense principles that I think practically everybody agrees with. It is so simple.

Why aren’t there more books like this? Part of the answer that you’ve hinted at yourself is that, from a professional point of view, it’s better to do something esoteric and complicated. If you do something that many people can understand, no one is impressed. Luckily, I’m 80 years old, and I’m past worrying about whether anybody is impressed.

Why don’t people figure it out for themselves if these are really common-sense principles? One factor, of course, is that the conclusion that you reach is that we do need to change the way we’re living quite a bit, and none of us particularly like to change. In my life, I’ve had the good fortune to fly all around the world, speak to conferences in exotic places, and it was all wonderful. But we now realize that all of this flying around is responsible for a huge amount of greenhouse gases. So, it’s now clear that it’s much better to do a podcast with somebody or Zoom or whatever, and not fly all over the place. But, I’d rather come see you in New Orleans than sit here in my study and talk to you on the computer. 

Robinson 

This suggests a self-interested bias against confronting some hard facts that could cause us to have to make sacrifices. I suppose, in defense of humanity, there is also what we discussed previously, where with climate change, it’s difficult to see the victims. And it’s also difficult because, as you discuss in the book, people were systematically lied to by fossil fuel companies for many years, and many politicians are bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry and don’t bring up climate change. When I was in college, I was never really taught about climate change. So, there are plenty of ways in which, if people were given the facts, perhaps the connection might be made.

You’ve touched on those issues of individual sacrifice, but one of the interesting things in the book is that you do emphasize that when you talk about “we”, you’re primarily directing it at a U.S. audience. I want to talk about what the implications are for individuals. We can talk about how the “we” of the United States has an obligation to pass a policy X and Y, but nobody lives as the aggregate of the United States—we are individuals who then have to make choices in our lives. For people who have read your book, what are the implications for them as far as their personal obligation is conferred by knowing these facts? And as I understand it, it’s not to just stop doing air travel, but it’s also to participate in a political movement that uses the tools of democracy to change your country’s policy.

Shue 

That’s right. This is not a problem that can be solved by individuals simply changing their own behavior. It’s a good thing if you remove your incandescent light bulbs and put in LEDs, and if you don’t fly so much. But this is not a problem that can be changed by simply changes in what individuals do in their daily lives. We need policy and political change. For example, you can’t buy an electric car unless somebody’s making electric cars, and you can’t stop heating your house with coal or gas generated electricity unless somebody somewhere is generating electricity from wind or solar, or even nuclear—anything other than fossil fuel.

We have to have political arrangements that see to it that utilities rapidly change the source of their electricity from coal or gas to solar or wind, and actual penalties for ones who don’t do it. If you can give them carrots and they’ll respond, that’s fine, but if they don’t respond to the carrots, then I think you need sticks. We’re not playing around here. A huge percentage of the greenhouse gases come from the generation of electricity. So, you can make a huge difference if you can make the utilities change their sources, but this has to be done at the policy level, at the level of things like subsidies, regulations, and incentives. It can’t be done by just nice people doing nice things in their own daily lives.

Robinson 

And of course, ordinary people’s lives are often very busy. We know that Americans are overworked and that people struggle to pay their rent. People have limited time for political action in their lives. But I would assume that when you talk about what the responsibility that the facts of climate change confer upon us, it is the responsibility that you have to do what you can, given the consequences you might have as a person. So, however limited your ability to participate in democracy might be, you have to figure out what exactly it is that you can do and then do that. If you have time to work for a candidate who can possibly replace another candidate who is unwilling to act upon climate change, you ought to do that. There’s no one single responsibility that fits each person’s life because the conditions of our lives vary the level of our capacity to act.

How would you suggest people think about what their personal responsibility is?

Shue 

You’re right that it varies. And you’re right, also, that if you’re having to work two jobs just to get food on the table, then you don’t have a lot of time to do research about policy questions. There are many people whose lives are so full of drudgery that we can’t really expect them to worry too much about social questions. But there are also a lot of us, the middle class and up, who certainly have enough energy and free time that we could find out a bit more about what’s going on. I think in some cases, you can only do what you are able to do, but what you are able to do is partly up to you. You can make yourself more able by informing yourself, joining groups, reading books, or listening to podcasts. If you care, you can find out about matters that you don’t now understand. And luckily, because climate change is getting so bad now with all the forest fires and the worsening of hurricanes and everything, there is a lot of information and readily available places, like good newspapers and radio programs, so people can inform themselves.

One of our problems in the United States is that a relatively small percentage of the population compared to many countries even bothers to vote, not to mention to really try to find out some information that would help them figure out how to vote. With that attitude, no one should be surprised that things are not going very well.

Robinson 

I do want to discuss one of the other important themes in your work, which is also discussed heavily in your previous book, Climate Justice. We’ve talked about how in The Pivotal Generation you are writing about us as a generation, people who live now and what we have to do, what the facts are, and our moral responsibilities to other people. But one of the other things you discuss is the differing burdens of responsibility that different countries and different actors have based on who has contributed the most to climate change. This is a question of climate justice.

The harms of climate change are unevenly distributed. It’s true that we now know, perhaps sooner than we expected, that even in highly developed countries like the United States, we’re going to suffer serious effects of climate change—nobody can escape it. Wealth isn’t a free pass to escape the effects of climate change. But it is unevenly distributed, and it’s certainly unevenly distributed compared to those countries that caused it or benefit from fossil fuel energy production. And so, how do you begin to think about these questions of differing responsibility for the creation of climate change and differing burdens of responsibility for mitigating it?

Shue 

The common-sense principle is, if you made the mess, you should clean it up. And in this case, that means if you’ve emitted a large proportion of the greenhouse gas that’s been emitted, then you are the cause of a substantial portion of the problem and it’s up to you to do something about it. There’s a danger of great unfairness here. For example, right now, India is beginning to have much more greenhouse gas emissions than they used to because they’re developing very rapidly. So one might say, maybe everybody should cut back 3% a year—so the US and India should both cut back 3% a year. But that wouldn’t be fair. We became a wealthy industrial country because we carried out the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. In some respects, India’s just now getting around to the Industrial Revolution in the last half of the 20th century, and this century.

And so, number one, they haven’t emitted nearly as much greenhouse gas as we have, even though they have a much larger population. So, if you do it per capita, the differences are greater, and anyway, they’re still fairly poor. There’s roughly 300 million Indians who have no electricity. People in Louisiana have been very unhappy, quite rightly, because they had to do without electricity after Hurricane Ida for several weeks. But in India, there are people who do without electricity their whole life.

So, some nations have contributed more to the problem, and some nations are richer than other nations. In many cases, those two are connected. Why are we richer? There are various reasons, but one of them is we had the Industrial Revolution and emitted a lot of greenhouse gases. We didn’t intend anybody any harm—I’m not saying that people in 19th century America were somehow evil because they were emitting a lot of greenhouse gases. They didn’t know this was a problem, and so they weren’t doing anything wrong. Nevertheless, we did contribute greatly to the problem. 

Robinson 

People in the 19th century may not have known, but we know that United States fossil fuel companies in the 20th century often did and deliberately misled the public. So, there is a lot of basically illegitimately created wealth, or wealth created at the expense of others. You talk about this concept of sovereign externalization, which is basically passing the costs of a country’s actions on to other people. The United States enriches itself through the production and use of fossil fuels. You can be a libertarian, and still see this as an act of theft or a tort against other countries. If I enrich myself, but do it through a destructive action that violates another’s rights; they bear the costs, I end up with an enormous pile of wealth. People in the contemporary United States live in a wealthy country, and have not essentially paid for the damages that are caused by the amassing of that wealth.

Shue 

That’s right. Externalization, basically, is the principle of not cleaning up your own mess, and letting somebody else clean it up. It’s cheaper if you don’t have to include the costs of either preventing or cleaning up pollution in the price of your product, but then you leave somebody else to fix it up. So yes, the so-called sovereign externalization is producing a problem of pollution or climate undermining emissions and then expecting other people to deal with it.

It is true we all need to continue to cooperate to deal with climate change, but the tough issue is who pays. And so, for example, it’s important that India not just keep burning coal. India has a lot of what is probably the dirtiest coal in the world, but we can’t expect them to, given the level of their economy, to do something more expensive than burn the coal, which is very cheap. So, we need to find ways to provide loans or some kind of incentives, either governmental or private, or make investments on our part to enable them not to burn coal. We need them to cooperate by being willing to change, which is complicated and inconvenient.

But, I think it’s reasonable we should bear some of the financial burden of that because, in a way, they’re trying to fix our problem. The principle is not “America is to blame for everything, and so America should fix everything.” The principle is just one contribution to solving the problem ought to be roughly proportional to one’s contribution to causing it.

Robinson 

Right. And if you look at those charts of cumulative emissions of the last couple of hundred years, it is still the United States and Europe who are responsible for the bulk of the problem:

I want to quote just one last passage from your book on this subject because I just think this is beautifully stated:

“The fundamental intention here is that what has happened between 1784 and today is very nearly the most unfair process imaginable and cries out for robust correction. One portion of humanity, the developed states, has reaped the vast majority of the benefits from the invention of the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution. Generally, while allowing the costs, including rights, violating harms, and increasing inequalities to be spread globally. Most individuals will suffer from climate change, although not uniformly and not in any proportion to their contribution to causing it. It’s perhaps unfair that these benefits have been narrowly held while the costs have been widely dispersed. It is certainly deeply unfair that the benefits have been narrowly held by those who have inflicted the damage on everyone while the costs, including severe harms, descend randomly upon all those who are the source of the dangers from the disruptive climate suffered least from those dangers, keep more of the benefits by failing to shoulder the cost. The federal government of the United States, like many national governments, claims for its presence from future citizens most of the fruits of the activities of its past citizens. It claims national ownership of, for instance, the benefits of the industrialization of the United States, including the vast infrastructure and capital left behind. The enormous damage done to the stability of the global climate system by carbon pollution has been socialized universally, that people of all nations and all generations are increasingly suffering the effects of the first greenhouse gas emissions produced similar evasions of accountability by other governments, like the Chinese, Russian, and Brazilian. Excuse no one, them or us.”

Shue 

Well said.

Robinson 

Whoever that guy is, I think he’s really got it.

Shue 

This does have implications. The Paris Agreement doesn’t actually require anybody to do anything. President Trump used to say we had to get out of the Paris Agreement because they were forcing us to do all these things that were bad for us. The Paris Agreement isn’t forcing anybody to do anything because each nation chooses its own commitments. That’s why they’re called “nationally determined contributions.” So, some nations say they’ll do a lot, and some say they’ll do a little.

It’s important then to ask: Are these commitments fair? For the ones who are only doing a little, is that okay? Are they really poor? Did they really not contribute to the problem? For the ones who say they’re doing more, are they doing enough? Most people would say, given America’s contribution to the problem, we’re not doing enough. But anyway, the point in the passage that you were reading is not just that some unfortunately unjust things have happened, but that it has implications for what we should do now. We need to try to be fair in the share of the burden that we carry as everybody tries to get together and deal with the climate.

Robinson 

The last thing I’d like to note here is that your book doesn’t just lay out the facts of climate change and the moral burden that it places on people, but it is a call to action. It is so easy to lapse into climate pessimism, where we confront the enormity of the facts and then our insignificance as human beings, and ask: What can I do? And I like that while your book is not necessarily optimistic, it is a book that that has, at its core, a belief in human agency and that human beings can look at the facts of the world and then determine they can act in ways that improve the lives of others. I like that because I think that it’s very easy to lapse into cynicism and a belief that one is incapable of doing things. I think if you read this book, you come away with a sense that not only ought I to do things, but it is my job as a person in the world to think about what I can do.

Shue 

Yes, and it is still possible. We’ve essentially wasted the last 30 years—the climate change convention was adopted in Rio in 1992, and we’ve done very little since then. Three decades down the drain. It’s important to see, however, that it’s not too late. It is still possible to keep the climate from getting horribly worse. Obviously, it’s too late to prevent some things. These mega wildfires that we’re now having in the West didn’t have to happen and might not have happened if we’d gotten on this sooner. However, there are many other bad things that haven’t happened and are not necessarily going to happen. It all depends on what we do.

It’s clear what we need to do. As you said earlier, this is not terribly complicated. The reasons are fairly simple, and what we need to do is fairly simple: We need to stop burning coal, gas, and oil and get our energy some other way. There are serious questions about what the other way is, and if it should include nuclear—it doesn’t have to all be wind, solar, and so on. But there is a path and we could get there. And maybe the fact that things have actually gotten worse—the fact that hurricanes tend to get much more severe very quickly, which is something they didn’t use to do—and we’re noticing this will give us the jolt that we need because if we do what we need to do, things can still turn out reasonably well, though not as well as they would have if we hadn’t wasted the last 30 years.

Robinson 

As a final word, I want to include an excerpt from your conclusion, which I found quite inspiring, and I think captures the nature of the political fight that we face and our responsibility for waging it:

“The fossil fuel firms are profoundly recalcitrant institutions whose core businesses marketing products that produce carbon emissions and whose very existence is threatened by action to limit climate change soon, and they continue to persist in refusing to make radical changes to their business plan. That overcoming opponents of this well entrenched, determined, and ruthless who have systematically lied to the public for decades will take some time, is one more reason why the present is the date of last opportunity to launch vigorous and determined exposure in opposition. Time is in short supply, so the fight needs to be intensified. Now, the most important action that readers of this book, who are likely to live in one of the countries with some degree of democracy, can take is to join with others to remove from political power as many as possible of the friends of fossil fuels. Every election now needs to be about climate change. Every candidate who refuses to commit to ambitious mitigation of carbon emissions and to plans for rapid progress toward net-zero emission must be soundly defeated, replaced with someone who is strongly committed to eliminating damage to the climate. This means running for office, encouraging other good people to run for office, contributing to the financing of campaigning, fully exposing in all available media the rampant favoritism and corruption. In the United States, once political dominance at the federal level has been wrested away from the friends of fossil fuel, outrageous subsidies can be ended, pollution controls arbitrarily and capriciously gutted by the Trump administration can be restored, strengthened, and enforced. It’s very important that it never becomes likely that the Earth’s climate will run wildly out of control. We do not know exactly how urgent action is because of the very uncertainties that some opponents have action irrationally invoke in support of business as usual, the time to establish a limit on climate change is now, while we still can. Our passivity and inattention have allowed fossil fuel interests to dominate energy policy and energy politics for centuries, but it could also become true that we have met the allies, and they are us. We have agency. Our response to our time is our choice. The direction the future takes is up to us if our pivotal generation takes back the initiative from the entrenched interests, who will undermine the climate rather than willingly surrender any of their wealth and power. We are the pivotal generation. The responsibility falls on us. We can recapture control of our destiny and our legacy by restoring democratic control of our politics and accelerating the revolutionary energy transition that will brighten the human future. This is the crucial political fight of the 21st century. It’s too important to lose from lack of thought, effort and endurance. We can do this, but we have to start doing it now.”


Transcript edited by Patrick Farnsworth. The text has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.


  1. See, for example, the UK Green New Deal activists who recently disrupted a speech by Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer, who has reportedly said “I hate tree-huggers” and is trying to back down on the party’s climate commitments. 

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