If the children are our future, the future will be typified by insolent hectoring about climate change.
Earlier this month, thousands of teenagers in Belgium, Germany, and Sweden skipped class and took to the streets, paralyzing their respective countries’ urban centers, to protest climate change. “We are called young and naive,” said 17-year-old called Anuna De Wever, “but maybe being naive is what we need right now.”
These teens were reportedly inspired by 15-year-old Greta Thunberg, a precocious young climate activist who has turned condescension into a profession. “You are not mature enough to tell it like is,” she recently told a gathering of diplomats, conservationists, and scientific professionals at the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference. CNN described Thunberg and her fellow critical minors as “among the strongest moral voices at the talks.”
This isn’t simply a European phenomenon either. Currently winding its way through the courts, Juliana v. United States, AKA the “children’s lawsuit,” was filed by 21 children, the youngest of whom is just 11-years-old, which seeks an injunction on new leases to firms engaged in fossil fuel production. These kids enjoyed a modest victory when a district court judge found in the Constitution’s innumerable penumbras “the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life.” But that victory looks to be ephemeral as a similar suit brought by two children and the Clean Air Council (surely more the latter than the former) was thrown out by a Pennsylvania judge, who added that the finding in Juliana “contravened or ignored longstanding authority” in service to ecological activism.
Deploying children to front for activist causes isn’t new, but it is effective. Their earnestness mimics moral authority. No one wants to explain to a passionate young idealist that an urgent moral imperative is no substitute for a plan of action, even when they’re being harangued. Well, almost no one. Senator Dianne Feinstein has fewer misgivings about bursting precious little bubbles.
The California senator was recently accosted outside her office by a group of children ages 7 to 16, who were organized by advocacy groups including Sunrise Movement and Youth vs. Apocalypse to hector her for failing to support the so-called Green New Deal. But unlike her more obsequious colleagues, Feinstein had enough respect for these young people to tell them that they were dead wrong.
The nearly 15-minute long encounter is illuminating. Feinstein was told by these children and the adults who used them to advance their agendas that “our earth is dying,” “we have 12 years to turn this around,” that failing to support this resolution robbed children of “the best chance” they have of “really giving them a life,” and that “you’re supposed to listen.” Feinstein patiently explained to the children and their guardians that the Green New Deal, as written, would never pass the Senate and she could not support it because of its literally incalculable costs. She then proceeded to hand out copies of her own proposed resolution for addressing climate change and offered one of the students an internship.
But who has a whole quarter hour to devote to understanding issues as complex as legislative affairs? In an age of puerile exigency, history is written by the tweeters. And so, what most observers saw of this interaction was a viral 2-minute clip in which Feinstein lectured to these children that she was, in fact, the only adult in the room. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I know what I’m doing,” she said. “You come in here, and you say it has to be my way or the highway. I don’t respond to that.” Though curt, the senator’s advice to the children who presumed to admonish her was valuable: “Maybe people should listen a little bit.”
Indeed, these children appear to be laboring under the delusion that the senior senator from California was their peer. Their elders have done them a grave disservice if that is their assumption. Of course, this was not a constituent services meeting; it was an opportunity to propagandize the Green New Deal and to caricature its adversaries as thoughtless dotards indifferent to the dystopian future they are building today.
In barely veiled remarks, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attacked Feinstein on moral grounds. “This idea that if we just, you know–I’ve been working on this for X amount of years–and it’s, like, not good enough,” she said. “We need a universal sense of urgency and people are trying to, like, introduce watered-down proposals that are frankly going to kill us.” The congresswoman’s advisor, Robert Hockett, called Feinstein an “elderly” “old-timer,” who lacks the energy and vision of her younger interlocutors. Demos Senior Fellow Heather McGhee choked back tears on the set of “Meet the Press” when she condemned Feinstein’s lack of urgency.
The adults who use these children as political props are conditioning them to live with existential dread. The kids are told that incrementalism and the compromises that result in legislation are threats to their very longevity. They are being encouraged to believe that passion is morally superior to a lifetime of experience and knowledge and that their elders have nothing to teach them. Conscripted into a campaign of emotional blackmail, these children are being robbed of their innocence and, ultimately, their childhoods. And they are doing the cause they claim to support no favors. The deployment of children to agitate for a political outcome signals a sort of intellectual surrender. It is an appeal to emotive reasoning when logic and rationality have failed to persuade.
Unlike the fatalists at her left flank, Feinstein has not surrendered. She hasn’t abandoned the legislative process, as have those who endorsed the Green New Deal’s fanciful economic and environmental reforms. These children should take the senator’s advice; stop talking and start listening. They have a lot to learn.