That divide, between people young enough to feel the effects of what’s to come and those old enough to escape it, was demonstrated starkly in an exchange Friday between Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and a group of students from the San Francisco Bay area. The students were asking Feinstein to support the sweeping environmental and economic aims of the Green New Deal, which she declined to do. A video showing snippets of the conversation went viral, casting Feinstein as unexpectedly stern in her response.
“Senator,” one of the adults accompanying the students said, “if this doesn’t get turned around in 10 years, you’re looking at the faces of the people who are going to be living with the consequences.”
"The government is supposed to be for the people, and by the people, and all for the people,” a student added.
“You know what’s interesting about this group is, I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Feinstein said. “I know what I’m doing. You come in here, and you say it has to be my way or the highway. I don’t respond to that.”
Climate activist Bill McKibben, writing for the New Yorker, noted the significance of the time frame presented by the senator.
"The irony is that, when Feinstein said she’s been 'doing this for thirty years,' she described the precise time period during which we could have acted,” McKibben wrote. “James Hansen brought the climate question to widespread attention with his congressional testimony in 1988. If we’d moved thirty years ago, moderate steps of the kind that Feinstein proposes would have been enough to change our trajectory."
McKibben hits on a central point. For years, the political fight over climate change has been between those who accept the scientific consensus that the world is warming — and, increasingly, the direct evidence of that warming — and those who either denied that warming was taking place or, also increasingly, denied that human activity is the main driver of that warming. (This excellent interactive rebuts the latter point.)
Now, there’s a new divide: between those who think that addressing climate change can happen at a moderate pace and those who are responding to the urgency that has become a steady undercurrent of new climate analysis and reporting. In a live stream Sunday evening, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the primary sponsor of the Green New Deal in the House, called those who fall into the former group “climate delayers.”
As Vox’s David Roberts pointed out over the weekend, this was precisely the distinction that the New York Times’s Bret Stephens failed to grasp in an essay this month. In it, Stephens framed the opposition of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to the Green New Deal in the context of the existing climate fight. Was Pelosi a climate skeptic, he asked insincerely, given that she didn’t embrace the idea that immediate action was needed through mechanisms such as the Green New Deal?
“Stephens gets the basic question right: Is climate change a priority-one emergency, threatening progress in all other areas, as the [U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] and America’s own scientists say? Or is it a manageable problem, addressable with patient, meliorist policy?” Roberts writes. “Stephens chooses the latter. Tellingly, he offers absolutely no evidence, no reason to distrust the scientific consensus.”
For decades — not quite 30 years — Congress has debated whether to even embrace those latter incremental changes. As that debate has happened, the United States has continued to produce a disproportionate amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases relative to our population. Other countries, similarly, haven’t done much to curtail emissions or even curtail growth in emissions. So, to avoid the worst-case scenarios for warming, scientists tell us, we need more drastic action, sooner.
Think of the problem like a gambler at a blackjack table in Reno, Nev. As the night wears on, he loses more and more money as the inexorable odds favoring the house work their magic. To break even, he needs to get lucky on bigger and bigger bets. That, scientists say, is where we are now on climate change. If we’d gotten a lucky hand at 8 p.m., we could have broken even fairly easily. But now it’s 4 a.m., the casino floor is mostly empty, and we’re desperately pushing stacks of chips across the table in the hopes that we’ll get dealt an ace.
Age is not an insignificant factor in the new push for urgency. Ocasio-Cortez is, famously, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. It’s also younger Americans who are most likely to see climate change as an issue that demands urgent attention.
In California, that’s even more the case, with polling suggesting that 80 percent of residents feel climate change is a threat to the state’s future. Three-quarters of those under 35 favor the state making its own policies to address the problem, compared with 55 percent of those 55 and older.
The political fight over climate change has become firmly cemented in partisan opinion, thanks in part to a concerted effort by those opposed to taking significant action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. So the views above reflect not only views by age but also that younger people are more likely to be Democrats than are older Americans. But some part of it is also the tacit recognition that for an 18-year-old, imagining 2100 — the common target date for climate-change related research — is far less abstract than it is for older people like me and (probably) you.
That partisan cementing emerged largely in the past decade or so, in response to new attention being paid to climate change and to efforts by Democrats to implement systems meant to address the problem. Whether taking action at the outset of Feinstein’s career in the Senate would have been more possible isn’t clear. But for the second half of it, partisan tension has largely limited the national conversation to incremental steps when it’s been a conversation at all.
A veteran senator might understandably look at that and say it's the best that can be done. A young person would be forgiven for expecting more, sooner.
After Feinstein told the students in her office that she was an old hand at fighting ineffectively for serious action on climate change, the same student who'd pointed out that senators were meant to serve the people was more direct.
"We're the ones who are going to be impacted!” she exclaimed.
Feinstein understood, she assured them. She has seven grandchildren.