Youth climate change protesters are misguided

The youth-led protest movements, while well-intentioned, ultimately fails to focus on the core of the issue.


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Environmentally hazardous products like fossil fuels are actually necessary to economic development.

Marc DeJager, Staff Writer

(This story was originally published in print on Oct. 3, 2019).

“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.” This was one of the opening lines from a speech delivered to the United Nations panel on climate change by 15-year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg. 

The speech was delivered with passion and conviction, characterized by shouting, pointing and threatening with tears. Thunberg’s speech at the U.N., while speaking profoundly to an urgent global need, was delivered with the wrong tone at the wrong time in the wrong place. This results in the passion of youth protesters being misdirected and misused. 


The first problem with Thunberg’s speech is the arrogant and condescending tone. If you take the words of the speech as true, you would be convinced that the leaders of the free world sit perched atop a great heap of gold like Scrooge McDuck, cackling as the Earth burns down around them. While this image certainly stirs the imagination and proved extremely effective in firing up a large number of young people, it is far from reality. 

Cutting carbon dioxide emissions is not a matter of a few dozen CEOs and politicians giving up their private jets. It is not a matter of a few hundred Californians only eating beef once a month. Carbon dioxide is not a result of luxury and overindulgence. As of right now, it is a byproduct of necessity. 

As compared to any other power source except nuclear power, fossil fuels are by far the most efficient energy source available to humanity. It is cheap, abundant and effective. The world’s embrace of such a cheap resource as fossil fuels enabled developing countries across the world to finally begin the process of growing their economies. This is not simply a matter of more money in the pockets of already wealthy Americans. For billions of people across the world, this is a matter of life and death. 


According to Our World in Data, during the 20th century, the world’s population grew from 1.5 billion to over 7 billion. Medical technologies, food production resources, communication abilities and so much more exploded in efficiency and advancement. This enabled us to save billions of lives and improve the quality of billions more. 

This explosion of prosperity was fueled by coal and oil. The use of coal and oil to run the human civilization is not simply a tool for greedy men to garner more wealth, but the fuel by which people survive. Thunberg’s painting of world leaders as “evil” for not abandoning fossil fuels immediately does not take into account the billions of lives that depend on the continued use of fossil fuels. 


Thunberg’s speech was not just spoken in the wrong tone, it was directed at the wrong audience. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, China emits more carbon dioxide every year than the United States, India and the entire European Union combined. China has shown absolutely no interest in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. 

According to The New York Times, China made no commitments towards reducing carbon dioxide emissions at the most recent U.N. Climate Change Summit. This is for one simple reason: China values economic growth over environmental sustainability. 

If the young protesters want to address the largest part of the carbon dioxide problem, they should take their concerns to Beijing, the capital of China. Before I move on, I want to make it clear that I am not painting China in a villainous light. Their high emissions may be objectively bad for both themselves and the world as a whole, but they do not choose to ignore these consequences out of simple greed. 


Thunberg’s speech was delivered at the wrong time because she did not consider the necessary consequences of economic development. When a country’s economy develops, it moves from an agriculture-focused system to an industrial system to a service-based system. Going green is not cheap. Renewable energy is far less efficient and far more expensive than fossil fuels, and most countries today simply cannot afford it. 

For us, unimaginably wealthy Americans, to sit in our air-conditioned, solar-powered homes and lecture the rest of the world on sustainable energy is arrogant in the extreme. It took the Western world over a hundred years to even begin developing green technology, and we are developing it as fast as we are capable. Even in my lifetime, renewable energy has taken enormous leaps, and it will only continue to improve in the future. We must encourage these technologies as much as we can, but we cannot assume that the rest of the world can afford them just yet.

 Climate change is happening, and humans are significantly contributing.

The arguments of youth protesting climate change might lead you to believe that the choice is life or money.

Many speakers paint a picture of greedy CEOs hoarding wealth at the expense of all the people of Earth. The truth is far less easy. If the passionate youth direct their fervor to the parts of the problem that are most pressing, such as China’s carbon dioxide emissions, we will still have hope for the future of our planet. 

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