On a Sunday in November, a hundred and seventy students filed into the Vermont Statehouse, using the legislature’s chambers to talk about the climate crisis and solutions for their state. Participants in the Youth Climate Congress, who ranged from middle school to college, with law students joining the committees to answer legal questions that came up as proposals were drafted, spent the day proposing and debating transportation, energy and heating, agriculture, and environmental justice policies. The state’s Speaker of the House wrote a letter congratulating the students for their day of action. But the Youth Climate Congress participants want more than kudos from the adults in the room—they hope their representatives will use their drafts as a springboard for actual laws.
Standing at the podium at the front of the formal chamber full of red-velvet chairs and drapes, but bustling like a cafeteria, co-chairs Lili Platt, a high-school senior, told the group that the work they would do that day would “set an example for Governor Scott and the legislature of what comprehensive climate legislation can and should look like.” But while young people are increasingly taking the lead in climate activism, they still have a hard time getting their elders—the ones occupying the halls of power during business hours—to prioritize their concerns and ideas.
People of different generations may always have different interests. But it’s especially hard to navigate solutions to a crisis that could radically restrict possibilities for young people in a moment when antagonism between generations has become pervasive enough to appear as an Internet meme. As Taylor Lorenz wrote in The New York Times in October when exploring the popular “OK Boomer” retort that young people are leveling against their elders, “Rising inequality, unaffordable college tuition, political polarization exacerbated by the internet, and the climate crisis all fuel anti-boomer sentiment.”
The starting bell in the generational climate fight came in February of this year, when a group of kids and teenagers visited Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office to lobby her to support the Green New Deal. A video of the lawmaker crankily brushing them off went viral. “Any plan that doesn’t take full transformative action is not going to be what we need,” a teenage girl said in the video. “Well, you know better than I do, so I think you should run for the Senate,” Feinstein responded—the tone a little too icy to be taken at face value. “I know what I’m doing,” Feinstein repeated several times over the course of the conversation. The two figures embodied the two poles of the generational divide—one experienced and inappropriately calm; the other innocent and getting panicky.