Boycott Your Parent? Anything for a Climate Fix | Opinion

With the U.N.'s latest report—plus the atrocities of Hurricane Ida's wake—reminding the planet's inhabitants (again) of our precarious position unless we act fast and boldly, millennials and Gen Z might collectively say, "Ok, Boomer, thanks for the news flash." Scientists the world over keep throwing stronger, less refutable data our way about emissions' effects on climate, but younger generations aren't the ones who need convincing to drastically curb activity literally lighting us on fire. Teens and 20-year-olds, after all, both readily acknowledge climate change (98 percent overall, 93 percent of young Republicans), and more so than their parents and grandparents say they're willing to live without fossil fuels while also taking steps now to address the problem.

But it's the younger generations who are all about "me me me"? Come on.

Older Americans—Gen X and above—have consistently acted from immediate self-interest when it comes to the habitability of our shared home. That's obvious from our behavior and from legislators' repeated failures to address the problem in any meaningful way. As of this past March, admittedly before release of report "Code Red," 139 officials (109 representatives and 30 senators)—one-fourth of Congress—continue to "deny or dodge" climate science. It's not as though, up until the U.N.'s recent warning, we hadn't already been inundated with findings leading up to the latest crescendo, specifically, that in order to stabilize the temperature we must net close to zero carbon emissions over the next decade.

We've had stark facts for some time; so why haven't we done what's needed? Some big-moneyed interests, including the very ones who falsely believe they stand to lose by going greener, dictate the political moves of many on the far right. Oil, gas and coal industries have lined the pockets of those 139 climate science deniers with $61 million since running for and taking office. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of coal-country, was the highest recipient of that money and a longtime climate denier. And yet this Kentucky senator, one of the most strategic persons in the country, who could get the country to "yes" on climate reform if the political will was there, has himself acknowledged over the past couple years that climate change is indeed real and that it requires at least some action. Anyone pushing for green legislation, but for something more effective than his proposed baseline, must first ask: What got him there? We need to know—and act—now, even before democracy reform kicks in to reign in the kind of corporate political buy-outs that got us into this mess.

To be sure, McConnell's recognition of the problem hasn't translated (yet) into the sort of action required to safeguard the health—and continuity—of the planet and future generations. As for what prompted him to move from intransigent silence to a vocal admission—was it the mounting irrefutable evidence? Big shifts in national polls? Or could the influence of his daughters, one of them a registered Democrat and the other a rumored environmentalist, played a role?

As Greta Thunberg told it, before taking a climate-cure campaign to the Swedish legislature and international bodies, she first made the case to her parents. Upon convincing them, she knew she could reach other adults, particularly those with political power. Just think of the results her strikes—as effective as they were—could have produced in decision-making bodies had her parents been the ones voting yay or nay on the floor. The fact is, family are more susceptible to a person's plea than are strangers; that's just obvious. But researchers, too, have found that family members can influence a legislator's vote: on reproductive matters, for example, having a daughter makes one much likelier to protect such rights, no matter the lawmaker's political party; and the more daughters one has, the more often the elected representative votes to uphold these rights. Plus, when it comes to climate change, at least one controlled study showed that children can "foster climate change concern" in their parents, with the effects being "strongest on male parents and conservative parents," demographics that could use a nudge toward action.

Students in New York demonstrating
Students in New York demonstrating on the 20th September Climate Strike, part of a worldwide day of climate strikes, on Sept. 20, 2019. Barbara Alper/Getty Images

We already know that younger activists, through consistent efforts, have moved legislators closer to acknowledging the truth—and acting on it. Those working at "the intersection of environmental and racial justice," for example, have filed strong lawsuits and worked with businesses to employ environmental cures; a group of teens in Utah convinced conservative legislators to adopt a resolution seeking to identify ways to reduce emissions; and Gens Y and Z the world over regularly engage in Fridays for Future protests and walk-outs in over 7,500 cities, all to highlight the need for action now. They're making significant inroads and build on wins with each successive year.

But they could use some help. And that help should come from the inside. Children—and grandchildren—of legislators enjoy a proximate position to powerful decision-makers that no lobbyist, or advocate, will ever know. These relatives have more than just a power broker's ear for a 30-minute meeting on the Hill. Assuming a relationship with at least some connection or openness, the opportunity exists to persuade one's grandfather—or mother or uncle—of the very real impacts inaction on climate change today has on future security, on their security.

Piggybacking off the work of scientists and activists, legislators' relatives today have an easier sell to make than they did just a few years ago. Since 2017, 41 senators and representatives have moved from public denial or silence to at least some acknowledgement of climate change. And yet, they've not felt an urgency to adopt the sorts of bold reforms needed to cut further emissions fast. Environmental activists, including a great many from younger generations, have gone to incredible lengths just so we'll open our eyes. Thanks to them and the scientists providing a constant pitter-patter of reality, we're closer to full-on recognition of the problem. But to get the country (and industrialized world) to implement key reforms we might also need the sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of legislators to lobby from within.

How to do it? That's up to them. No teen, college kid, or young professional need take advice from a Gen-Xer on how to effectively reach a parent (or other politically-powerful kin) on issues affecting them more than any other age group. As 19-year-old climate activist Jamie Margolin put it, her age-group peers are so anxious about today's climate that the general zeitgeist is "not really believing in the future." That's frightening and maddening, particularly because my peers—those in their 40s and up—are the ones most to blame for having treated a shared planet as a waste dump, as something that would mend itself, despite all evidence to the contrary. To those younger, I say do what comes naturally, do what's worked in the past with your family members; connect, show urgency and encourage action. And to those with family members in positions of power, who can and must pass groundbreaking (or ground-healing) legislation, take it a step further. Heart-to-heart over golf, an impassioned plea at the dinner table, a TikTok video shaming your parent? (Hey, it got Kellyanne Conway's attention.) Boycotting Thanksgiving? Anything goes so long as it feels authentic and gets their attention in the way only you know how to do. After all, you're a member of a generation with everything on the line.

Maybe that's how McConnell's daughter(s) inched him a tad closer to taking action. And maybe—alongside the work of activists, scientists and policy makers already convinced of the need to take serious actions—that's how we'll collectively push a green deal over the finish line.

Allegra Chapman is a political and democracy-reform consultant.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.