In one of the many characteristics of biology, kids hear differently than the rest of us. There are frequencies that only teens and young adults can make out. Lately, it appears that the under-20 crowd is hearing one particular high pitch much more solid than the rest of us, including most business leaders: the fear that climate scientists have been sounding.
Consider the recent Swede, Greta Thunberg, who just turned 16 in January. Last year, Thunberg quit going to school to protest inaction on climate change, saying there was little point in studying for a future that may not exist. Within months, Thunberg prompted immediate action from business leaders at the World Economic Forum and the told the UN’s Secretary-General and others at the global climate summit in Poland that they are “stealing children's’ fate in front of their very eyes.” What she started is growing, and she’s been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.
Every week, thousands of Belgian youth are protesting on the EU capital of Brussels. And on March 15, in what may be the biggest youth-led protest in history, an estimated 1.6 million students in 300 cities around the world stepped out of school to march for climate action. I went to the New York March and the energy was electric — and I didn’t even take it individually when a group of teens called some colleagues and me “old people who need to do something.”
Before writing this off as a lot of noise, examine the role of youth in previous social movements. Baby Boomers, when they were kids and teens, began the anti-war movement. The famed Greensboro lunch counter sit-in was led by four young men aged 17, 18, and 19. African-American kids bravely desegregated schools, and the first person to get arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat was not actually Rosa Parks, but 15-year-old Claudette Colvin. A generation later, Gen X and then Millennials turned the debate on LGBT rights and gay marriage at a remarkable pace. In fact, it’s hard to think of any substantial social movement that didn’t have young, fearless people at the centre.
And now, with the powerful tools of social media and 24×7 connectivity, the pace of social movements is quickening. The “Parkland Teens,” the survivors of the horrific school shooting in Florida last year, pulled millions of Twitter followers in days. Within just a few weeks, they called for marches, which over one million people showed up for around the world. Cut to a year later, and the U.S. House of Representatives just passed the first real gun control legislation in many years.
Will this climate movement end up as significant as the anti-war, civil rights, and gay rights movements? It’s hard to predict. But what’s clear is that we’re in the middle of a major re-alignment of values around climate. It’s now unacceptable to young activists, and the millions of people they inspire, to espouse climate denial or play the “let’s go slow” card. They don’t appreciate being handed a disaster movie for them to live with for 70 to 80 years.
This brings me to business, and a warning: no organization can avoid values shifts. Remember, there were moments in history where it was generally acceptable to use slave labour or children in supply chains, to wink at rampant sexual harassment in offices, and to freely discharge pollution in rivers and the air. None of these problems are extinguished today, but very few in business would suggest that they’re ok. Morals changed, and then laws.
And while executives do increasingly appear to be moving toward action on climate change, with public pronouncements to cut their own emissions or buy renewable energy are becoming the norm in large companies, it’s not clear whether those actions are enough to meet this next generation of customers and employees. In fact, corporates seem to be more comfortable taking public stands on issues like race, immigration, gun violence, and transgender rights before talking strongly on the environment.
But that needs to change now. It’s time, in the words of U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, for “corporate good guys” to “prove up in Congress to lobby for climate action.” We need CEOs in the halls of influence at the state and federal level pushing for aggressive policy.
This isn’t a new idea, of course, but the history of climate lobbying is sparse. There are “DC visit” days organized by a few focused NGOs, and they’re always hoping for bi-partisan climate solutions. But in reality, with a few exceptions, only smaller companies have been willing to put themselves out there. The big guys' badge on to public statements like “We Are Still In,” which is a good start, but is inadequate to the level of change required. They need to put some skin in the game and become more vocal and more assertive.
In practice, this will mean disagreeing with politicians, up to and including the president, who says it’s too expensive to act, or that climate is a hoax. In fact, a recent survey reveals that 76% of Americans want companies to take a stand for what they believe, even if it’s politically controversial.
It may just take the freshest Americans to get companies to take a real and public stand for aggressive global action on climate change; after all, if they don’t, they risk getting out of action with an entire generation of employees and customers.