Wearing a bird feather headdress fashioned for going into battle, Txai Surui, a young Indigenous woman from the Brazilian Amazon, stood at the podium at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow on Monday, Nov. 1, delivering a message that met the moment’s gravity.
“The Earth is speaking,” Surui said. “She tells us that we have no more time.”
At 24 and delivering an eloquent speech that could shame most politicians, Surui powerfully demonstrated the urgency and moral clarity so many young people bring to the climate crisis, recognizing as they do that the planet their children will inherit is in peril.
Equally powerful was the example set by those who were not at the summit. They include leaders from some of the most powerful countries in the world — including the presidents of China, Russia, Mexico and Surui’s native Brazil.
Yet Surui and other young activists such as Mexico’s Xiye Bastida and Sweden’s Greta Thunberg are far better climate change messengers than these absentee leaders. They represent the generation on whose shoulders it will soon fall to advocate for and eventually implement new policies and investments that delay, mitigate and adapt to climate change by the G-20 nations — which contribute roughly 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Together they also represent a hopeful undercurrent of the world’s climate response, which is making progress but at a pace scientists continue to warn is too slow to avert disaster. If the pace of that response is ever to increase, it will likely be as much due to these young people as to leaders now in office.
Even resolute calls for action by leaders at previous climate summits have been met back home with backsliding, temporizing and delay.
Despite President Joe Biden’s restoring climate policy to the top of the American agenda after taking office in January, he still arrived in Glasgow all but empty-handed when it comes to major climate change legislation. The president’s now-$2 trillion economic plan that would spend $555 billion on climate programs — the largest clean energy investment in U.S. history — is still languishing in Congress, even after compromises have scaled it down from $3.5 trillion.
One large reason? Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee who also raised $400,000 from the oil and gas industry in the third quarter of 2021 alone.
Still, negotiations over the bill continue, and there are other, broader reasons for optimism.
Biden’s first statements in Glasgow trumpeted his reversal of the foolish decision by his predecessor to pull out of the 2015 Paris climate accords, which, for the first time, required every country to submit a plan for curbing emissions.
The president has already made headway by announcing strong new Environmental Protection Agency regulations curbing methane emissions and launching a Global Methane Pledge — to slash such emissions by nearly 30 percent by the end of the decade — with commitments from nearly 100 countries. Biden also signed on to a pledge to reverse deforestation by restoring nearly 500 million acres of forest and other ecosystems by 2030.
Scientists say that to avoid disaster, the world needs to slow global warming so that the average temperatures won’t rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial level by the end of the century. Before the Paris climate accord, temperatures were on track to rise 4 degrees. Clean energy, and even the shift from coal to natural gas made possible by the Texas-centered fracking boom, have helped put the world on pace to warm by just 3 degrees Celsius.
That’s not good enough, but it’s proof that public pressure and market demands have worked to bring about changes in nations such as the United States where government intervention has lagged.
Even Texas, a world capital for oil and gas and America’s largest carbon emitter, has staked its claim as the nation’s leader in wind energy. There is now enough wind and solar capacity in Texas to power nearly 10 million homes with a total of about $72 billion invested in clean-energy projects in the state as of the end of September.
That’s good news for the next generation.
Long after the Glasgow summit ends, it will fall on its members to hold world leaders accountable for preventing the worst of the predicted consequences should we fail to slow global warming to within the 1.5-degree window experts now say is all we have. To succeed, young activists such as Surui, Bastida and Thunberg must continue to demand our attention and remind people across the globe of our collective promise to leave the world a better place than we found it.
It’s an unfair burden — to ask young people who were not responsible for imperiling our planet to lead the charge in saving it. But, given the denial and inertia among older generations, they’re the best hope we’ve got.