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acemoglu12_FABRICE COFFRINIAFP via Getty Images_climateprotestgirlstudent Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Are the Climate Kids Right?

The young activists leading school strikes and mass protests around the world have been highly effective in sounding the alarm about climate change. But if the movement is going to be anything more than a flash in the pan, it must adopt realistic policy objectives that the broader public can support.

CAMBRIDGE – The increase of greenhouse-gas emissions (GHGs) in the atmosphere has caused average global surface temperatures to rise by almost 1°C over the past century. There is no doubt in the scientific community that these changes are a direct consequence of human activity. Yet it seems increasingly unlikely that we will be able to reduce GHG emissions sufficiently to halt and then reverse global warming.

The costs of this failure – rising sea levels, mass population displacement, more frequent extreme weather events, and the spread of new infectious diseases – are expected to be catastrophic, even without considering the truly apocalyptic “tail risks” identified by the late Martin Weitzman of Harvard University. And many of the costs will be borne by today’s young people.

Given this, could the “school strike for climate,” an international movement of students and youth activists, be the solution? Yes and no. The world – particularly the United States – needs a wake-up call. Our false sense of comfort – encouraged by disingenuous narratives about geoengineering or other technological silver bullets – needs to be shattered. Marshaling robust responses to massive collective challenges has always required sustained engagement by citizens and civil society.

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