Editorials, Opinion

Can Gen Z save the Earth? Or will we destroy it first?

The first Earth Day was April 22, 1970. In the 52 years since that first celebration, we — all of humanity — have actively done more to harm the environment than we have to protect it.

If that weren’t the case, climate scientists wouldn’t be ringing the alarm every other month that our planet is on a crash course with catastrophe, with some of the worst impacts of climate change becoming apparent by 2050.

Concern about the impending global doom tends to be generational. In the U.S., Baby Boomers (born 1946-64) and the Silent Generation (1928-45) are the least concerned with climate change, at only 57%, according to a Pew Research survey in 2021. They are also the least likely to talk about the need for change and the least likely to take any action related to climate change. Gen X (1965-80) is next least concerned and next least likely to take any kind of action.

Millennials (1981-96) talk a big game — 71% say climate should be a top priority, more than any other demographic — but when it comes to taking action, they aren’t much better than Gen X, Boomers and the Silent Generation.

Of course, people in those older generations will probably be dead by the time the Doomsday clock strikes midnight. (Except maybe the youngest of Gen X, but Florida, the nation’s retirement home, might be underwater by then.) They seem to shrug and say, “Not my problem.” Unfortunately, they’re the same people in charge of everything: from the companies that cause the most environmental damage to the government offices that are meant to keep corporations in check but don’t.

Maybe that’s why Millennials aren’t big on action. They’ve burnt out on trying to make change when the people in charge are dead set on keeping the course of short-term gain despite the long-term cost. Millennials have just … given up.

Thankfully, the planet has Gen Z.  Gen Z is the generation that puts its money where its mouth is. About two-thirds actively talk about addressing global warming and 32% — higher than any other demographic — have taken personal action to combat climate change.

However, we can’t sit on our hands and wait for Gen Z to save the world. If the rest of us don’t start acting now, there won’t be a world left for Gen Z to save.

On the macro scale, it starts with pressuring governments and businesses to cut back on emissions and excess waste, as well as encouraging — and rewarding — more sustainable practices, like reusing and recycling (not dumping recyclables in landfills). The 2017 Carbon Majors Report found 71% of greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 were linked to 100 fossil fuel companies. Corporations continue to be the leading single producers of pollution.

But, according to Richard Heede, the co-founder and co-director of the Climate Accountability Institute, “the emissions directly produced by oil, gas and coal companies amount to about 10% of fossil fuel emissions. Ninety percent are from their products.”

Which brings us to the micro scale. It means all of us need to be more conscientious of our consumption. Turning off lights when no one is in the room. Buying fewer products, while upcycling or repurposing the ones we have. Using more efficient appliances and vehicles. Supporting sustainable businesses. Voting for climate-friendly politicians and policies.

We must start work now, enduring the short-term inconvenience, so future generations have a chance to continue.