Opinion: Today’s youth carry an unusually heavy burden — reversing climate change

I am a 15-year-old freshman at Berkeley High. No one handed me the responsibility to speak for the planet, but I feel like it’s mine all the same because those in power aren’t doing enough to end environmental injustice.

The United Nations recently released a report that said we are driving 1 million species to the brink of extinction. I know that’s hard to think about. Often I find myself instinctively focusing in on my own life, because dwelling on all the harm we do to the planet is just too painful. I know the big picture is scary. But the big picture is important.

I am a 15-year-old freshman at Berkeley High School and many of my fellow students feel just as strongly as I do about the harm our society inflicts on the planet. In fact, this March, many BHS students went on strike from their classrooms to join a nationwide, youth-led protest about climate change. The demonstrators made their way to Nancy Pelosi’s office in San Francisco with the message that even our education must be put on hold to stop the greenhouse gas emissions that so jeopardize our safety and our future.

I spoke with one of my peers at Berkeley High, Ayla Reading, about her experience at the Climate Strike.

“Our generation is constantly told that the responsibility of reversing climate change will have to be ours. At an age where I can’t even vote, I feel helpless,” she said. “[The protest] seems like the only way I can try to make a difference. But the Climate Strike did feel different because there were so many of us. In the crowd it did feel like all of us, together, could save our futures. But when I left and went back home, I didn’t know how.”

Although all of us must be part of the solution for climate change, it feels like today’s children carry an unusually heavy burden. We’re still teenagers! We should have the right to worry about our exams and our friendships and whether or not we’ll get a summer job. Not terrifying questions like, “How many years do we have left until climate change is irreversible?” Not, “How hot does the world need to burn before people start paying attention?”   

No one handed me the responsibility to speak for the Earth, but I feel like it is mine all the same because those in power aren’t doing enough to end environmental injustice. The government isn’t recognizing that our health and the health of the planet are inseparable and has deprioritized both. By pushing aside the issue of climate change over and over again, we feed ourselves into the gaping jaws of ruin.  

I want every future child to be able to revel in the bliss of redwood and bayleaf and oak. I want them to be able to stand beneath cathedrals of green, to bathe in leaf-filtered light and to breathe untainted air.

Think about it: all of that beauty is entirely free and yet we tear it to the ground in the blind pursuit of profit.

We buy plastic only to throw it away, we burn fossil fuels because it’s just simpler. I think it’s time to start questioning why those actions are so simple. It is because we are being led by corporations to buy their shiny, over-packaged products. It is because the rich become wealthier every time we do. This is even evident in the way our cities are built, with housing far from the grocery stores and schools, and streets without sidewalks. This poisonous urban sprawl is built to keep us driving, to make sure everyone is buying and burning more gas.  

It’s as if our species is shut away in a casino somewhere, playing for the short term rewards of money and convenient electrical power while the fundamental necessities of our survival are steadily draining away. But it doesn’t have to be like this.  The reason humans have survived and prospered for so long is because we have the ability to think critically and delay gratification. We save our resources because we know we’ll need them next year, next generation. When something goes wrong we stop and try something different.

But now the Earth is suffering. We saturate the air with carbon dioxide and methane, which whip up storms and upset the brilliant, delicate balance of ecosystems.

Humanity is getting ahead of itself. It blindly sacrifices so much in the name of progress. But progress towards what? This is an unsustainable system. Everybody knows that the more you ignore a problem, the more it grows. We construct these gleaming cities and yet they are balanced atop pebbles and pins and playing cards.

Whenever I read dystopian fiction, I notice a sick feeling in my stomach — because the broken, doomsday worlds those authors create on the page look all too realistic. We don’t need invading alien armies: humanity is primed to destroy itself.

The most hopeful and anxiety-inducing part of climate change is that we can still turn it around. There is still time, but, even as I write this, that time is slipping away.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is pushing for just the kind of immediate, far-reaching mobilization that we so desperately need. She is calling for a nationwide switch to 100% renewable energy by 2030. At first this may sound idealistic, but Berkeley residents and businesses already have the option to switch to 100% renewable energy through East Bay Community Energy. This is one of many renewable energy programs offered across California.

We need drastic action. The state of the world cannot be set aside for a different meeting, a different day. The question of our children’s lives cannot be lost to bureaucracy. The survival of our species — of all species — depends on the United States and the whole world finding a solution to climate change.

We’re better than this. Just as humanity is capable of atrocities, it is also capable of greatness. Help me believe that we have what it takes to save ourselves.

Sonja Wooley is a freshman at Berkeley High School.