Future Concerns: Climate Change and the Environment

After decades of domination by the baby-boom generation, Canadian politics will soon be the domain of Generation Xers and Millenials. Future Concerns is a regular column that investigates the political issues that are, or will soon be, emerging in Canada’s mainstream debates, as the inevitable passage of time moves the boomers off stage left.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, entire swaths of the New York City area have seen massive devastation — most notably on Staten Island. Immediately after the hurricane had passed, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — a professed centrist and ultra-successful media tycoon — took the opportunity to endorse Barack Obama for president, specifically citing, among other things, his considerably more proactive stance on climate change. Bloomberg seems convinced that the hurricane is the result of preventable climate change, and sees Obama as the better choice to address this.

In Canada, before the recession hit, concern for environmental issues and climate change had reached its highest level in history, surpassing perennial issues of concern such as health care, the Afghan war and even the economy. This momentum was halted when the recession forced any policy measures that potentially harmed the economy into the political fringes. In addition, our Conservative Party, with a mixed level of climate change science acceptance, has consistently dragged its feet on the issue and appeared eager to relegate it in favour of economic concerns.

These two examples — Bloomberg’s endorsement and the pre-recession poll — provide some evidence that public figures and the general population alike are increasingly beginning to make clear links between human activity and the volatile weather.

Taking climate change seriously, however, hasn’t yet resulted in consistent political pressure. The human brain is inherently poor at rationalizing clear short-term sacrifice for vague long-term gain. This is why you eat a whole bag of Oreos in front of the TV or buy a new PlayStation 3 game instead of saving for your retirement.

This is also why the specter of a failing economy scares people. The imprecise, long-term and shared costs and benefits of fighting climate change are more abstract and non-immediate than economic concerns. But since lowering emissions and slowing the exploitation of natural resources, particularly in Canada, would likely cause some hardship to the economy, the two issues cannot exist without coming into some kind of conflict.

However, there are three reasons why we will see this trend gradually sway in favour of the fight against climate change:

1.) Support for the environment is much stronger and consistent amongst young people.

2.) This trend is indicative of a general trend in youth values — namely, that they possess post-materialist values. Expressed a different way, youth care less about straight-up moneymaking, and more about values-based issues, such as justice, rights, progress and — again — the environment. This means that youth not only care more about the environment, but also that they are less likely to allow economic-based arguments dissuade them from this belief. Indeed, this issue is becoming even starker as youth are increasingly used to the idea that their hard work and education does not necessarily transfer into economic prosperity and stability. Thus, they look elsewhere for satisfaction.

3.) As technology improves, the present economic sacrifices required to properly grapple with climate change will lessen. As I shall investigate in a future column, this generation is both technologically savvy and obsessed, and their support for government-driven technological innovation is a lock. This innovation means solutions will be cheaper, better, and, well… cooler.

The one major concern with this issue, however, is whether the shift will come before massive damage has already been done to the environment. Of all the issues that I investigate in this series, this may be the one that most desperately needs youth to intervene in the political system  — and as soon as possible.

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Iain W. Reeve is a PhD candidate in Political Studies at Queen’s University. However, in his free time he is a musician, armchair political commentator and pub enthusiast. He will occasionally make time to tweet.