A Letter to the Generation in Power

When the virus first struck this time last year, we young people failed you.

We did not take it seriously. We flouted social distancing practices. We caught the virus and spread it to you and your parents. What we lacked was not compassion or intelligence, but perspective, which brings humility. Like most who have never experienced catastrophe, we thought we never would.

But you failed yourselves in this pandemic as well, because you shared our hubris. Infectious disease experts warned for years that our country was woefully unprepared for an epidemic. Bill Gates rang the alarm in 2015, arguing that the next global catastrophe was likely to come not from nuclear warfare but from an infectious virus. Yet when such a virus emerged, our now former president denied the problem, then called it an “unforeseen” one that “came out of nowhere.” The leaders you empowered failed to provide tests, critical medical equipment and trustworthy information.

Then many of you started dying. Our economy broke. Even the most fortunate among us were consigned to long months of isolation and fear.

Both generations failed to take this threat seriously. Let’s hope both learn the same lesson: that humans—all humans—are vulnerable to catastrophe. That we may not feel catastrophe until it is upon us, tearing from us the people and freedoms we hold most dear. That we can protect ourselves only through foresight and preparation.

Slowly, painfully, incompletely, our generation has mended our ways. We have now put lives and futures on hold for a full year now to combat a disease that primarily afflicts your generation. We hope that you will finally correct course to save ours. Because as unthinkable as the fallout from COVID-19 may be, it does not compare in magnitude to that other abstract threat we face: climate change. Yet perhaps no other current issue has been so shamefully neglected.

It is now likely that millions will die from intensifying storms, floods, crop failures, heat waves, vector-borne diseases, conflict over scarce resources, and economic ruin; that tens of millions more will be forced from their homes to the doorsteps of others; and that vast swaths of the natural world will burn, bleach or wither. This has already begun to happen, but too gradually to provoke the alarm it warrants. By the time everyone feels climate change, we will have sustained staggering losses. And there will be no vaccine for this affliction. This is the legacy you risk leaving not only to us, but to your grandchildren, their children, and all those who follow.

No country is more responsible for climate change than the U.S. No country is better equipped to address it. And yet no wealthy country is doing less on this front. (No, not even China.) In fact, in no other wealthy country does a large portion of the population (roughly a quarter, in our case) contest the basic science of climate change. This is due not to unique insight, but to arrogance and toxic partisanship.

Of course, you will face tradeoffs and painful choices. Of course, you will have good-faith disagreements on how best to respond. Of course, the predictions are imperfect (although far more reliable than the COVID-19 models on which we have been forced to act). But if you try to imagine the future consequences of your current actions, if you truly grasp the stakes, you will recognize that inaction would amount to negligence of the highest order.

Let COVID-19 teach us—all of us—humility and vigilance. Let’s put the science of climate change, along with the science of infectious disease, outside the realm of bitter partisan politics. Let’s recognize this threat for what it is.

We young people have sacrificed to save you. Will you, the generation in power, change to save us?

This is an opinion and analysis article.

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