Author Emily Raboteau asks the big question about America's post-Millennial kids: Why isn't climate change, the effects of which Generation Z will be dealing with for their entire lives, not the most important subject in school, in culture, in their entire existence, with their parents and grandparents and the man in the Oval Office all lining up telling them that it doesn't matter?
Our son’s love of trains was once so absolute I never foresaw it could be replaced. New York City is a marvelous place to live for train-obsessed boys. When he was three and four, we spent many a rainy day with no particular destination, riding the rails for the aimless pleasure of it, studying the branching multicolored lines of the subway map, which he’d memorized like a second alphabet. I’d hoist him up to watch the dimly lit tunnel unfurl through the grimy front window of the A train’s first car as it plunged us jerkily along the seemingly endless and intersecting tracks. Some rainy mornings, our destination was 81st Street, where we exited the B or C with dripping umbrellas and his little sister in tow to enter the American Museum of Natural History.
There, at a special exhibition called “Nature’s Fury,” our son’s attention turned like a whiplash from trains to violent weather. Even before this show, the museum demanded a certain reckoning with the violence of the Anthropocene. What grownup wouldn’t feel a sense of profound regret confronting the diorama of the northern white rhinoceros in the Hall of African Mammals, or the Hall of Ocean Life’s psychedelic display of the Andros Coral Reef as it looked in the Bahamas a century ago? Meandering the marble halls of the Natural History Museum is like reading an essay on losing the Earth through human folly. Yet none of its taxonomies of threatened biodiversity, not even the big blue whale, moved my kindergartner like “Nature’s Fury.”
The focus of the immersive exhibition was on the science of the worst natural disasters of the last fifty years—their awesome destructive power and their increasing frequency and force. Accompanied by a dramatic score of diminished chords and fast chromatic descents, the exhibit meant to show how people adapt and cope in the aftermath of these events, and how scientists are helping to plan responses and reduce hazards in preparation for disasters to come.
“Are they too young for this?” my husband questioned, too late. Our impulsive boy had darted ahead and cut the line to erupt a virtual volcano. I supposed it made him feel less doomed than like a small god that, in addition to making lava spout at the push of a button, the kid could manipulate the fault lines of a model earthquake, set off a tsunami, and stand in the eye of a raging tornado.
In the section on hurricanes at a table map of New York, the boy was also able to survey the sucker punch that Hurricane Sandy delivered to the five boroughs. This interactive cartography was a darker version of the subway map he’d memorized, detailing the floodplains along our city’s 520 miles of coast. I can still see my boy there, his chin just clearing the table’s touchscreen so that his face was eerily underlit by the glow of information while my girl crawled beneath. Seventeen percent of the city’s land mass flooded, leaving two million people without power, seventeen thousand homes damaged, and forty-three people dead. On the map, the water was rising to overtake the shorelines at Red Hook, Battery Park, Coney Island… All across the Big Apple, the lights were going out.
“Come away from there,” one or the other of us called uneasily, because we weren’t prepared to confront what climate change would mean for our children, to say nothing of our children’s children. The boy was five at the time. The girl was three. In their lifetimes, according to a conservative estimate in a recent report by the NYC Panel on Climate Change, they could see the water surrounding Manhattan rise six feet. We pulled them away from that terrifying map of our habitat to go look at dinosaur bones—an easier mass extinction to consider because it lay in the distant past.
What strikes me now as irrational about our response isn’t our ordinary parental instinct to protect our kids from scary stuff. It was our denial. Their father and I treated that display as a vision we could put off until later when it clearly conveyed what had already transpired. “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now,” preached Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967 in one of his lesser-known sermons, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” He may as well have been speaking on climate change. Sandy made landfall in 2012, the year after the boy was born, while I was pregnant with the girl. It gave a preview of what the city faces in the next century and beyond, as sea levels continue to rise with melting ice sheets. The storm exposed our weaknesses, and not just to flooding. I remember that when the bodegas in our hood ran out of food, some folks shared with their neighbors. But when the gas station started running out of fuel, some folks pulled out their guns.
As much as we may worry about our kids’ future, it’s already here.
Avoiding the map didn’t annul its impact on our son. The subject of storms had gripped his consciousness as surely as his author-father’s had been gripped by horror films. That part of the boy’s brain that previously needed to know the relative speed of a Big Boy steam engine to a Shinkansen bullet train now needed to know what wind speed differentiated a category-four hurricane from a category-five. Soon enough, and for months afterward, Mr. Wayne, the friendly librarian at the Fort Washington branch of the New York Public Library, would greet our boy with an apology. There were no more books in the children’s section on the subject of violent weather than those he’d already consumed.
At bedtime, while his sister sucked her thumb to sleep, I offered my son reassurance that we weren’t in a flood zone; that up in Washington Heights—as the name suggests—we live on higher ground. “You’re safe,” I told him.
“But the A was flooded during Sandy,” he reminded me, matter-of-factly. “The trains stopped running and the mayor cancelled Halloween.” Then he’d go on rapturously about the disastrous confluence of the high tide and the full moon that created the surge, while I tried to sing him a lullaby.
Eventually, a different fixation overtook extreme weather, and another after that. Such is the pattern of categorical learners. It may have been sharks before the Titanic, or the other way around—I’ve forgotten. Two years have passed since we saw “Nature’s Fury”; a year and a half since our president led the US to withdraw from the Paris climate accords. The boy is seven now, what Jesuits call “the age of reason.” The girl is five and learning to read. If current trends continue, the world is projected to be 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels by the time they reach their late twenties. The scientific community has long held two degrees Celsius to be an irreversible tipping-point. Two degrees of global warming, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), marks climate catastrophe.
At two degrees, which is our best-case climate scenario if we make seismic global efforts to end carbon emissions, which we are not on course to do, melting ice sheets will still pass a point of no return, flooding NYC and dozens of other major world cities; annual heat waves and wildfires will scrub the planet; drought, flood, and fluctuations in temperature will shrink our food supply; water scarcity will hurt four hundred million more people than it already does. Statistical analysis indicates only a 5 percent chance of limiting warming to less than two degrees. Two degrees has been described as “genocide.”
In fact, we’re on track for over four degrees of warming and an unfathomable scale of suffering by century’s end. By that time, if they’re lucky, our children will be old. It’s pointless to question whether or not it was ethical to have them in the first place since, in any case, they are here. Their father writes about imaginary horrors. For my part, I’m only beginning to see that the question of how to prepare our kids for the real horrors to come is collateral to the problem of how to deal as adults with the damage we’ve stewarded them into.
I honestly believe these kids will look at the adults in their lives and their message to us in the future will be "You failed us utterly, and we will never forgive you. We will do everything we can to never make your mistakes again."
Maybe Generation Z can fix this in the future. Maybe they won't, and human civilization will be sharply curtailed on Earth.
I figure I have another 40 years if I'm lucky. But there are kids alive today who will live to see 2100 on Earth, and they will remember what life was like today, and they will grow to hate those who came before them for what they failed to do.
The rest of this century is triage for humanity, and that's the rosy scenario.