Millennials stepping up to tackle climate change


The sickly yellow-brown pall has lifted and the skies above Vancouver are blue again, broken only by blissful, billowing clouds.

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There’s not a hint of the choking smoke from Interior wildfires that blanketed the metro area for around two weeks – but still lingering is a grim warning that this might be the new normal.

While fires flare up every year in B.C.’s Interior, rarely do they erupt with the aggression they’ve displayed this year. On Wednesday, the B.C. Wildfire Service announced that 2017’s wildfire season is now the most destructive recorded in the province’s history, with nearly 9,000 square kilometres burned since April 1.

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An air quality advisory was in place for Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley from Aug. 1-12. - Dan Toulgoet photo

The rising regularity and intensity of these blazes – seen to particularly shocking effect in last summer’s evacuation of Fort McMurray, Alta. – are proven indicators of climate change. Yes, there have always been wildfires, but they’re steadily getting worse.

“More natural disasters like these are prone to happen. Fires burn larger and more out of control,” says Vancouver-based journalist and author Geoff Dembicki. “The fires are a reminder in our local context. … Climate change is happening right now.”

Dembicki, who grew up in Edmonton, began writing regularly about climate change and environmental issues for The Tyee in 2010.

His experiences travelling across the world, meeting those tackling climate change and relating their stories in such publications as The New York Times, The Guardian, Vice and The Atlantic have led to his first book, Are We Screwed? The book’s subtitle hints at the planet’s potential saviours: How a New Generation is Fighting to Survive Climate Change.

Dembicki believes it’s his own generation, the Millennials, who will begin mitigating the Earth’s warming and its destructive effects. Through stories about a wide range of individuals – including a Victoria student who gave up his degree to go back to the land, and a Fort McMurray resident who chose an art career over lucrative employment in the oil sands – Are We Screwed? shows how Millennials, who are only just pushing into positions of power across the world, are rejecting current economic and political norms and striving toward a system that’s more grounded in ethics and sustainability.

Dembicki believes the political changes are underway. The last chapter of his book details the extraordinary campaign of U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, whose support surged as his message of political change resonated with millions of youth voters.

It’s happening in B.C., too, Dembicki says – witness the ascent to power of the first NDP government in 16 years, aided by the Greens. Already the new government has launched a legal bid to halt the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which would greatly increase tanker traffic in Vancouver’s harbour.

Vancouver itself is a focal point for many of the tensions surrounding climate change, Dembicki says, citing its proximity to wilderness, its many Indigenous peoples, its history of environmental activism and the fact that there’s “one of the biggest oil industries in the world next door trying to build pipelines to the coast.”

Here, Millennials are leading the fight against climate change on many fronts. Even the environmental cause célèbre of progressive Boomers, Greenpeace, which was founded in Vancouver in 1971, owes much of its current success to the commitment of the many Millennials in its ranks.

In the organization’s Vancouver office, 80 per cent of its staff are Millennials. They’re using social media and digital strategies to reach out to their peers – and it’s working. According to 2016 figures, a third of Greenpeace donors are in the Millennial age bracket.

For communications officer Jesse Firempong, it’s a sign of how switched-on her generation is, contrary to the stereotype of the self-absorbed smartphone addict.

“I feel like Millennials often get a bad rap for being politically disengaged,” she says. “But when you realize the civic space is bigger than the ballot box and the conversation on social media is important to shaping people’s minds and their peers’ minds and the general narrative around things, I think it’s undeniable that [Millennials] are super important and politically active.”

Vancouver’s investment in environmental issues can also be measured in the number of green jobs that the city has created; according to a 2016 estimate, that number stands at more than 25,000, an almost 50 per cent increase from 2010. These jobs are attracting idealistic Millennials like Patrick Enright, who recently moved here with his wife from Ontario.

Enright has been working with the City of Vancouver’s Planning, Urban Design and Sustainability office as a green building engineer for a little more than a year, supporting the city’s Zero-Emission Building Plan.

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Patrick Enright (left) with members of the City of Vancouver’s Green Building Team on location at UBC. - Contributed photo

He admits he has felt the drive to use technology and engineering to solve problems on a wider scale from an early age.

“There are so many ways we can do things better,” he says. “We can take the systems we have and improve them, move beyond them. To use renewable energy, to transform all of our systems, whether that’s building or transportation.”

It’s apparent talking to engaged Millennials like Dembicki, Enright and Firempong that they feel a certain responsibility to step up and change things for the better.

“Anyone who’s a Millennial has grown up with climate change all their life. It’s not new to us,” Enright says. “We’ve been hearing about it, for many of us, since the day we were born. [It’s] something that has been known about and has been around our whole lives.”

But it’s a responsibility linked to optimism for the future; the belief that climate change can be addressed, that changing the political and economic status quo is possible.

For Enright, that starts with city projects to provide ultra-efficient housing, or even simple, personal choices like cycling, taking transit, sourcing local food and eating less meat.

For Firempong, it’s her generation’s support for progressive causes.

“I see people voting with their dollars and choosing to support organizations that can bring the change that they want to see,” she says.

Even as Dembicki’s book ends on a downbeat note on the night of Donald Trump’s presidential victory, there’s an undercurrent of hope. Since last November, there has been a groundswell of unified opposition against Trump’s policies that Dembicki has found exciting.

“There’s huge energy now in the fight against Donald Trump,” he says. “The real question is whether that energy can be sustained up to the 2018 mid-term elections in the U.S.

“I think people all around the world are going to be watching those mid-terms with a lot of interest,” he says.

Are We Screwed? How a New Generation is Fighting to Survive Climate Change by Geoff Dembicki (Bloomsbury) is out Aug. 22. 

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