I have recently been working as an exam invigilator, supervising GCSE and A-Level students in one of the top boys Grammar schools in London. In between collecting in their mobile phones and handing out extra paper, there has been quite a lot of time to think.
I think about the boys and wonder whether they are interested in what they are studying or if it is just a means to an end for them. I am sure there are future doctors, lawyers, bankers, scientists, programmers, artists and even politicians among these clever lads. It would be nice to think that the brightest among them also have motivations to make a difference in the world and not just to make the most money.
Then, I wonder, what will the world be like when they finally take their place, after graduating from university in three or five years’ time. Things are changing fast, with Brexit and new technologies, changes in our economy and predictions of AI taking over more of our jobs.
And then there’s the climate.
It has already gone crazy. Our seasons no longer follow the predictable patterns that shape our literature – from the Brontes to Kenneth Graham to J K Rowling, a set pattern of weather provides a framework for their narratives. Twenty-five degrees in February is as dystopian as a clock striking thirteen. Do the young people notice and does it frighten them?
Earlier in the year I was with a group of young people who certainly were afraid – at the first mass school strike in London. The kids there were desperate for change before its too late – afraid that their generation will be the last, or at least the last to live in anything like the luxury and the civilisation that we currently enjoy.
“Net zero” is what they are demanding. A big fat 0 to save us from a more-than-1.5° catastrophe. But when?
The government is pledged to 2050. The big charities in the Climate Coalition are saying 2045. It sounds realistic and achievable. And it seems to follow the letter of the latest IPCC report.
But when I look at those boys, heads down, looking at a table of CO2 emissions in a Chemistry exam, or a map showing migration trends in Human Geography, I know that we can’t wait for another generation to sort this out. We can’t lay this on them. Not just because the science says, actually, 2045 might be too late, but because it isn’t fair!
We have already had 40 years to act on Climate Change. Like a teenager putting off their revision we have, for most of that time, known what we need to do, but assumed that “later” is a better time to do it. And each “later” brings more danger to our children.
It isn’t fair and it is too risky.
Once we reach net zero we may well have trouble staying there. Politics is too unpredictable. Who knows when we might get a Trump in Europe? We need to declare a real state of emergency now and mobilse as fast as we would if there was a war. Like 1939, not 1938 because you can’t appease the climate!
Greta Thunberg says we don’t need any more science – we know the facts and we have enough technology. Its policies and laws we need now, and a target of 2025 for net Zero. Yes, we may well miss that target, but at least if the target is in place there can be consequences for failing to meet it.
Exam candidates know, postponing the exam does not make the chance of success higher – you’ll simply put off your revision.
As my exam candidates know, once you’ve learnt what you need to know, postponing the exam does not make the chance of success higher, but it makes it practically certain you’ll put off your revision.
As I wander round the school hall, I notice the names on the wall – “Old boys who gave their lives in the War of 1939-1945” There’s also a plaque immortalising the prefects who helped rebuild the school after it was hit by a V2 bomb. The kids sitting in front of me almost certainly won’t have to deal with these horrors, thank God! But we all need to accept a similar scale of emergency mobilisation, without the loss of life of war, to achieve the changes required to prevent the worst affects of climate breakdown. An emergency that will see massive changes within the next five years – anything else will lead to appalling loss of life.
One way or another its going to be tough for these 16- and 18-year olds coming of age while our economy is in transition and the status of the UK in the world is in flux. But delaying action on the climate is only going to make it more likely that they will be contending with climate refugees, food shortages and life-threatening weather, just at the time when they ought to be settling down and having children of their own to worry about.