Elders standing up for the young

The world is “on the precipice of irreversible, catastrophic climate change”, over 100 leading Australians, mostly scientists, said in full-page newspaper ads last week. Unfortunately the lever-pullers of government and commerce don’t appear to understand. 

Some political and industry leaders must take more blame than others for our awful predicament. But all are to some extent puppets in a self-perpetuating system that understands only one thing: growth and more growth fuelled by gas, oil and coal.

In fact, stopping what they (and we) are doing and starting afresh on a whole new course is a hard ask of anyone in their middle years focusing on looking after growing families. Which leaves those yet to enter the workforce and those who have left it. 

Many young people seeking a low-carbon future for themselves are already speaking out, notably through the global school strike for climate movement. Last week I looked at how the young might be further empowered if they were able to vote. The trigger for this was a pair of passionate Launceston men at my end of the age spectrum.

Steve Biddulph is known to millions around the world for his best-selling books about nurturing young people, who he feels are being betrayed by a retirement culture of leisure activities like golf and ocean cruising: “I feel horror and grief at the world we are handing on to them.” 

Biddulph points to global studies showing that the climate is a significant factor in poor youth mental health. Allowing 16-year-olds to vote would be a message to all children that their country wants their active participation “sooner, not later”. 

“People argue about maturity,” he says. “But maturity means above all putting the future ahead of the present and thinking not only of yourself. Young people pass that test. We have failed it.”

Jeff McKinnon, a retired Baptist minister, had a troubled childhood and had to learn parenting from scratch. “No matter how old my kids are I am always their parent. I deeply want, as best as I can, to leave them a great future just as I was afforded.”

Baby Boomers may be judged by history as complicit in “the great climate crime”, he says. Collectively we have focused too much on our own security, comfort and entertainment and left it to others to determine the world left for our children.”

McKinnon, too, feels grief at the failure of many older Australians – especially those in leadership positions – to appreciate the urgency of the climate crisis. In recent years he has expressed that grief through civil disobedience as a member of Extinction Rebellion – “a rebellion against extinction” – sitting in roads and other busy places to draw attention to a life-threatening crisis. Last week he was arrested for the fifth time.

Now he is joining with Biddulph to start a movement they are calling Standing Up for the Young, or SUFTY, seeking a global network of people over 50 with the goal of securing a 16-year voting age everywhere in the world.

“Older people are desperate to see climate change solved, and find ways to help the young survive after we are gone,” says Biddulph. Tapping into a growing sense among older Australians that dangerous climate change overshadows all other future issues, this month he and McKinnon will open a website which aims to get 10,000 older people joined up.

Biddulph says “serious resources” are going into bringing together older people who care about the young, in a two-pronged process – getting the idea out to millions that a youth vote is both just and right, and creating branches for supporters in every Australian electorate to make it happen here.

This week the Albanese government embarks on its signature legislation to make our country’s big emitters reduce the carbon they put into the air. It is an important step along Australia’s rocky climate road, but its effectiveness is compromised by deeply problematic offsetting provisions and undermined by hugely resourced lobbying for big new coal and gas projects from Bass Strait right across the continent to northern lands and waters.

We should all heed young people who have grasped the gravity of our situation. But people my age are able to remember many decades of weather and climate. We know in our hearts – as science has shown in the data – that the disastrous weather events of recent years are not what we grew up with. 

This is no time for older Australians to retire to the shadows while younger minds and bodies take over. It is our fight too. We need to stand up and make ourselves heard.

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