The wisdom of youth: On climate change, adults should listen to young voices

Young Manitobans rallied students for climate action at the Manitoba Legislature last week, hoping to make their voices heard. And when the people who will live with the most profound effects of climate change talk about its dangers, adults should take notice, says Susan Huebert.

Young activists around the world, including in Manitoba, are fighting for the planet's future

Metro Vancouver students skipped school to rally for climate action at Vancouver city hall on Dec. 7, 2018. Last month, students in Winnipeg rallied at the Manitoba Legislature. 'Perhaps they will be the conscience of society,' on the subject of climate change, says Susan Huebert. (Mael Thebault/CBC)

When students from Grade 4 to middle school talk about the dangers of climate change, adults should take notice.

They are the ones, after all, who will have to deal with the consequences of a warming climate and rampant pollution that are devastating the environment in areas around the world.

In Winnipeg, young people gathered in a Jan. 11 rally for climate action at the Manitoba Legislature, hoping to make their voices heard. Several of the dozens of school-age participants at the rally had the chance to give formal speeches, but they were all able to join in chants that they had prepared for the occasion.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, 16, was the inspiration for the Manitoba students participating in the rally. Last year, the teenager started monthly school strikes, stating that preparing for a future without a viable climate was pointless.

Students in Winnipeg have taken the idea and worked out their own version of the action, planning to strike once a month until people in power do something.

The Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition promoted and helped organize the event, but students themselves were the driving force behind it.

A child stands at the top of a hill in a poor neighbourhood in Lima, Peru in May 2008, just before a meeting there of heads of state to discuss climate change. The issue is of vital importance to young people, who will live with the most serious consequences of climate change, says Huebert. (Esteban Felix/The Associated Press)

The recent documentary Anthropocene shows just the kind of future the young people who rallied at the legislature are hoping to avoid.

Vast pools of toxic mine tailings, landscapes left bleak and treeless after resource extraction companies go through, and smokestacks spewing fumes into the air are only a few of the graphic images that the film shows.

Signs of hope, but need for action is urgent

For far too long, people have acted as if they were the Earth's owners rather than its tenants, and they have treated their home planet as if they had only themselves to consider.

When David Suzuki visited Winnipeg in November, he painted a dire picture of what has already happened to the Earth in the reckless pursuit of profits over people and the environment.

Yet he, unlike many other scientists, does not believe that it is too late to preserve the planet for future generations, and his call was for real action to combat what he referred to as this generation's Pearl Harbour.

A child inflates a balloon that reads 'Future is Renewable' during a Sept. 8, 2018, protest in Brussels demanding leaders honour their commitments to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. 'Young people are easy for the rich and powerful to ignore, but they are the voice of the future,' says Huebert. (Francisco Seco/The Associated Press)

That kind of hope is what has prompted students to take action and to try to raise awareness of the need to readjust the way that people think and work.

There are already many signs that people cannot afford to take the consequences of a changing climate lightly.

The water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa, in early 2018 was one such sign. When officials warned that the city was within months of running out of water, people took action to conserve resources, and the crisis was at least temporarily averted when these efforts came in conjunction with the return of rainfall.

Canada has not yet faced the same crises that other areas of the world are encountering every day. Yet forest fire seasons and droughts are getting worse, while insects from the south are bringing new diseases to Canada.

Some officials in Canada are trying to make changes to address climate change here.

Following a youth rally in British Columbia, Vancouver city council voted on Jan. 16 to declare a climate emergency in that city. Council there is trying to encourage people to leave their cars at home by offering free fares for anyone under 18 and a sliding scale for low-income riders.

But other governments are still refusing to act, and are even taking steps backwards.

For example, a reliable, affordable, and accessible transit system is necessary for any city that wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and yet the provincial government has frozen Winnipeg Transit funding, while also rejecting the federal government's carbon tax plan

Young people are easy for the rich and powerful to ignore, but they are the voice of the future.

As Winnipeg's climate activists continue to strike each month, perhaps they will be the conscience of society.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Susan Huebert is a Winnipeg writer for children and adults, on topics ranging from science to current events and social justice.