A generation-defining zeitgeist?

Climate change can no longer be brushed aside - from the youth marches and the ‘Green Wave’ across politics, to the blistering heatwaves. Lorna Hutchinson looks at how this issue travelled from fringe to mainstream.
Photo credit: Press Association

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

10 Jul 2019

Last week temperatures in Brussels hit the mid-30s. What used to be seen as an exciting opportunity to bask in the tropical heat - a much welcome respite from the grey-skied doldrums - has increasingly become Exhibit A in the argument that climate change can no longer be dismissed as a ‘side issue.’

Climate change is now firmly on the political agenda and the younger generation, which has now found its collective voice on the issue, wants to make sure it stays there.

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish school student and mastermind behind the #FridaysForFuture marches has become the poster girl for youth climate activism.


The protest marches, composed largely of teenagers who have abandoned their school desks in favour of climate rallies, can no longer be overlooked as hundreds of thousands of youngsters gather in European cities wielding placards screaming the urgency of climate action: “There is no planet B”, “Change politics not the climate” and “Planet over profit” are just a few of the messages carried on banners.

Speaking recently at the European Parliament, Greta told MEPs that the world was at stake and urged the EU to “take action now” on climate change.

“I want you to panic and act as if this House was on fire. Some say panic never leads to anything and that to panic is a terrible idea but when your house is on fire it requires some level of panic.”

She added, “Our civilisation is so fragile and the foundations are far from solid. We have been cutting so many corners and I hope our foundations are strong but I fear they are not.”

Though Greta clearly has nothing but laudable intentions, it could be argued that in Europe she was already preaching to the converted.

“Though Greta clearly has nothing but laudable intentions, it could be argued that in Europe she was already preaching to the converted”

The 28-member bloc has ambitions to become a world leader in the fight against climate change, putting adaptation on an equal footing with mitigation, and bringing the climate crisis to the top of its political agenda.

While US President Donald Trump takes up permanent residence in the climate change-denying land of make-believe, recently crowing to the UK’s Prince Charles that the United States is “clean” and that other countries are to blame for any climate crisis, the EU has a more reality-based approach.

In late March, Parliament adopted measures to tackle marine litter coming from the 10 single-use plastic products most often found on European beaches, placing the EU “at the forefront of the global fight against marine litter,” according to the European Commission.

Nevertheless, not all EU Member States are singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to the fight against climate change.

The recent Council summit of European leaders demonstrated the gulf between western and eastern Member States, when four countries - Poland, Hungary, Estonia and the Czech Republic - blocked a planned EU pledge to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.

The failure to agree does not prevent individual EU countries from setting their own targets and the UK – soon to be exiting the EU – recently unilaterally set its own net-zero 2050 goal nationally, joining several other EU countries, such as Finland, which aims to be carbon-neutral by 2035.

Had all Member States agreed with the carbon neutrality goal, it would have signalled the EU’s intent to meet the Paris climate agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

It also leaves the bloc frustratingly emptyhanded at the UN climate summit in New York in September.

“While US President Donald Trump takes up permanent residence in the climate change denying land of make-believe … the EU has a more reality-based approach”

Scientists have been warning for some time now that if global warming exceeds a 2°C rise above pre-industrial levels, there is a greatly increased risk of irreversible and catastrophic climate change.

It seems that, nudged in the right direction by Greta Thunberg and her fellow protestors, the message of climate action urgency is finally starting to penetrate among the general population.

In last month’s European elections, the voice of the people came across loud and clear by elevating the Greens to the fourth-largest group in Parliament in what was dubbed the ‘Green Wave.’

Campaigning on a platform of climate action and social justice, the Greens have now become a political force to be reckoned with - moving up from 52 to 75 seats in the new Parliament - giving them both credibility and power to wield.

This growing influence is only the beginning: given that the Greens have struck a chord with the younger generation - including swathes of potential future voters in the form of the #FridaysForFuture protestors - the Green Wave may well turn into a tsunami.

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