Attention on climate raises important ethical questions about environmental responsibility

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In the week following the global climate strike, it must be said that the velocity the environmental movement has gathered cannot fall again while the issue remains so urgent. On campus, the Cleveland Climate Teach-In represented a push to continue the conversation on environmentalism and ethics.

Mounting evidence from the past several decades has proven to the world that climate change is not only real, but continues to grow at an unprecedented rate and is becoming difficult to reverse. However, little legislative or political action has been taken in the past several years, with a recent G7 summit—a meeting of the seven wealthiest nations in the world—raising only $20 million to fund efforts to stop the fires in the Amazon. 

With the growth of the environmental ethics and conservation movement in the past year, it is especially important that the movement is largely led by the youth. Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg made news at the U.N. on Monday when she called for change, saying, “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you?”

Her words resonate with students who understand feeling both powerless and being hailed by elder generations as solutions to a problem that they continue to worsen. Thunberg’s words also mesh strongly with Case Western Reserve University Ethics Professor Jeremy Bendik-Keymer’s concept of presentism, or the bias against future generations in favor of the current generation.

It should not be the responsibility of students, from teenagers to recent graduates, to fix a world that they had little part in breaking. When the responsibility of environmental protection and conservation is delegated to the younger generation and, in a larger sense, consumers, it relieves those who actually create and sustain the problem of the blame. While students should be aware of their actions, like energy use and recycling habits, currently 100 companies around the globe account for 71 percent of carbon emissions worldwide.

The question that we face has widened from how we can take personal responsibility for our carbon footprints to how we manage our ethical responsibility to the environment. Do we, and should we, as the younger generation, be the one to find solutions to a problem we did not start? Movement leaders like Thunberg prove that we may not have a choice, and must take up the mantle and work to improve our environment before irrevocable damage ruins it forever.

Thunberg brings up important and necessary points in her speeches to global institutions, namely that her position as the leader of a global movement is a reluctant one, and that she acts in large part to pressure current leaders to establish change instead of continuing to push the responsibility onto the next generation. By refusing to act and knowing they will not face the consequences of their actions, current leaders are being deeply unethical and incredibly selfish.