The temperature outside was a pleasant 76 degrees, sweet relief from the 90-plus days of late, and I was taking a walk.
I passed a large house with three air conditioners roaring outside as if there were no tomorrow and wondered if maybe there isn’t.
Ironically, it was the same day that Greta Thunberg posted on social media that in the distance she could see the lights of New York City after a two-week-long trip across the Atlantic aboard a zero-carbon yacht.
The 16-year-old climate activist was traveling from her home in Sweden to speak to the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Sept. 23. She refuses to travel by air because of the high carbon emissions from modern aircraft.
When she was 11, devastated by what she was learning about the climate crisis and global inaction to address it, Thunberg became so depressed she quit eating and talking. Her weight dropped 10 kilos. Her parents sought medical help.
She decided to take action.
Last year, she launched a global protest movement of students who are striking school on Fridays and vowing to continue until world leaders take meaningful action. The Fridays for Future strikes spread all over the world via social media in dozens of languages.
A new generation had found its voice.
One of the young people inspired by Thunberg is Emi Cooper, a junior at Steamboat Springs High School, who stood before a couple hundred people at a recent rally outside of the Routt County Courthouse and rocked the crowd.
“The Stand for Public Lands rally was my first time speaking before a group bigger than my class of about 20 people,” said the 16-year-old. “I thought I would be more nervous than I was,” which from all appearances was not at all.
In addition to speaking publicly, Cooper is doing all those swell things that patronizing adults suggest kids do when they set out to change the world.
She’s mobilizing students at her school to expand recycling programs, reduce plastic waste and turn off lights in empty classrooms. She’s meeting with city council members and county commissioners to advocate for building codes that mandate sustainable housing and businesses. She’s trying to raise public awareness.
It’s nowhere near enough, though, and nobody knows that better than Cooper.
“One big part of climate change gets glazed over all the time,” she said. “A lot of people focus on individual actions, like using plastic or whether you eat meat or dairy.”
It makes people feel good, and those efforts are fine as far as they go, she said, but it’s not nearly far enough.
“It’s systemic change that’s needed, not just individual change. We need big, bold actions and our current political system is not working for what we really need.”
In fact, it’s working against it.
We’re running out of time, and that worries Cooper.
“Climate change and our political system overall are on my mind all the time,” she said. “I wonder what kind of future this generation is leaving for me. I don’t even think about having kids because I think the future I would leave them would be kind of a mess.”
Even the leaders who call for actions that some think are unrealistic are failing miserably, she said.
“All these policies to get off coal and gas by 2050 … they’re too little and too late for my generation. We can’t wait.”
Cooper has not been school-striking, as it is called. Instead, each Friday from 5 to 6:30 p.m. she joins a group of fellow activists outside the county courthouse to rally support for aggressive climate action.
“Adults may not think we’re as educated as they are and many may not yet take us seriously, but for young people, this is really scary,” she said.
It’s overwhelming to think about what the planet will be like in 50 years, and, as Thunberg says, without action there is no hope for young people.
So, underestimate this generation at your own peril. The old guard thinks it has all the power and doesn’t even see them coming. But momentum is building behind Thunberg and Cooper and all the rest.
An international climate school strike is scheduled for Sept. 20, three days before the U.N. Climate Action Summit, and Cooper will be working hard to build participation across Colorado and get the urgency of her climate action message to reverberate from Steamboat Springs to Sao Paulo, Singapore, Sarajevo, Sydney and on and on.
Cooper and millions of other young people follow Greta Thunberg on social media and have bookmarked her remarkable Ted Talk. Thunberg is a role model of poise, intelligence and courage for them at a time when world leaders appear so utterly weak and feckless.
“We’re not taught in school about how to bring about systemic change through our government,” Cooper said. “That means it’s up to us to figure it out.”
Godspeed, Emi. We’re counting on you.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.