Unconventional Wisdom

Who the hell cares what old people think about climate change?

If you won’t live to see the worst of it, kindly shut up.
Unconventional Wisdom

Who the hell cares what old people think about climate change?

If you won’t live to see the worst of it, kindly shut up.

Challenging those faux-profound bits of knowledge so often taken for granted

So the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has confirmed what we’ve all basically felt in that queasy region of our gut for years: the climate is changing at a cracking pace, and we’ve got basically a decade to make radical changes to our global economic system in order to avoid the worst of it. The proposed rapidity of these changes, as the IPCC acknowledges, would be so abrupt that it has “no documented historic precedents.” That’s obviously a grim prognosis for everybody currently existing on the planet, but we should spare a thought for the real victims: the baby boomers who were certain they could ride this one out until they were safely in their graves.

Here’s a simple maxim we can all probably live by: your contribution to an argument is probably worthless if you have zero stake in what is being argued. Right? Unless we’re playing parlour games, it seems like we should have a mild interest in the outcome of what we are arguing — if you don’t, you’re likely just being an asshole. Strangely, we don’t apply this common sense to climate change. The greatest victory of the old and monied among us is that they’ve dragged an inclement apocalypse into the arena of seemingly endless debate rather than immediate action.

But there’s a huge disparity in the terms of this debate. The kids want to win it. Boomers just want to die before we get to the closing arguments.

The loudest and most powerful voices when it comes to the future of the planet — the ones with their hands on the levers of power — have a strong tactical advantage: they will be dead before the shit really hits the fan. This fact curiously goes unspoken, for the most part. Popular arguments tend to be framed around a rosy vision preserving the planet for future generations, which gives our boomer aristocracy the most effective cover story imaginable. They don’t need to care about that, as nice as it sounds. Why would they? It’s all completely hypothetical to them. You may as well be talking about climate patterns in Narnia. Make no mistake: older generations living in the developed world are part of history’s most under-appreciated death cult.

The loudest and most powerful voices when it comes to the future of the planet have a strong tactical advantage: they will be dead before the shit really hits the fan.

This isn’t abstract psychoanalysis. There is a brutal calculus going on in the minds of everyone from your skeptic uncle to the bankrollers of squillion dollar think tanks whenever they think or talk about climate change. They know that they will never have to really answer for their opinions on this matter, because they’ll be six feet under (and loving it!) when the world’s arable land is rendered infertile and its coastal cities flooded by rising oceans. In some dark and venal corner of their minds, they’re thinking about that fact all the damn time. Despite the frightening predictions of the new IPCC report, they’ve still got plenty of wiggle room to keep denying until they’re dead – which will be sooner rather than later. With any luck they’ll even avoid being held accountable in any concrete way, which for the conservative commentariat is an even worse fate than the Mad Max hellworld towards which we are hurtling.

Of course, it’s wrong to suggest that our venerable oldies have absolutely no skin in this game. They very much do: the spoils of the increasingly fragile economic system they have constructed and upheld over the past century. As a cohort, they have profited immensely from this system of fortressed wealth, and they’re fully aware that any real effort to address the problem is going to involve busting open the piggy bank. Decarbonization? Sounds pricey! Cutting back on beef? Have fun with that! We should have the decency to wait until the entire generation is dead and the wake is over before we squabble over the will.

This isn’t to say that these people aren’t making efforts to deal with climate change at all. They are. They’re fortifying our borders just before the surge of climate refugees. The richer among them are strongly considering their Plan Bs. They know calamity is on the horizon — they’re just hoping that if they’re unlucky to see some of it, they’ve got mitigating factors in active play. While we’re talking about how we can keep global temperatures from hitting a terrifying two degrees of warming, they’re thinking about making sure their exit from this mortal plane is as comfortable as possible.

Generational warfare is, for the most part, a mug’s game. As cathartic as it is to place the blame for everything from economic inequality to profound cultural rot on the shoulders of the silver-haired among us, it’s usually far more useful to point at the broader capitalist system, and remind ourselves that class exists and perpetuates itself across the generational divide. But on this, we should be absolutely clear: unless you’re willing to be an active part of a tenable solution, your elderly opinions on climate change are completely irrelevant. They don’t figure into the equation.

Much noise has been made over the past few days about what the media should be doing right now — with the general consensus being that it (as a monolithic entity) should be treating climate change as essentially the only thing that matters right now. That’s true. But the tenor of the coverage needs to change as well and that means largely disregarding the opinions of old people. Question number one for any politician or public figure being quoted on climate change: Are you going to be alive for any of this? Then, if the answer is no: Why should we give a shit what you say next?

It’s obvious that our prospects for doing anything substantial over the next decade — as the IPCC is pleading for us to do — are a long shot at best, so we’ve got to make the most of the chance we have. We’ve already sent the planet on a path to oblivion. Much of that is because the corridors of power, from media to business to government, are full of those who have bet the house on their own timely deaths. The total irrelevancy of the old is the only feasible way the argument can be framed going forward. Younger activists already dominate the conversation on doing something about climate change — now they need to own it.

We’ve got enough problems when it comes to dealing with climate change already. The opinions of boomers shouldn’t be one of them.

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J.R. Hennessy is a writer in Sydney. He writes about culture, technology and politics.