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Let’s try that again: Feinstein and the kids talking climate change

Stefani Reynolds

Have you ever watched a conversation go badly off the tracks? Like an accident unfolding in slow motion, you want to say “Stop! Don’t do it!” That’s how many of us felt watching a recent encounter between Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and her young constituents. 

The kids came in with passion and one thing on their minds: get Feinstein to endorse the Green New Deal. Feinstein seemed to listen at first but then something changed. The conversation switched from climate change to her knowledge and savvy in crafting legislation that actually gets enacted: “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I know what I’m doing.”

By that point, the two sides were not on the same page: The kids wanted an endorsement of the Green New Deal, whether it is practical or not. Feinstein wanted a piece of legislation that could pass and be paid for. Both sides missed the point: When it comes to climate action, we need both the passion of youth and the experience of age.

In the aftermath, discussions in the media and in online communities framed the exchange as a generational conflict: Youth who understand the scope and urgency of climate change and old people who don’t . But this is wrong. Old people do care about climate change. The data are clear: In a recent interview, for example, Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication summarized the polling data: “we have not seen big differences between the generations.”

Yes, older adults may have a disproportionate responsibility for climate action, since they have benefited disproportionately from the energy-intensive developments of the 20th century. This moral argument, however, is not the same as saying that older people don’t care. 

There are differences within and between groups on specific issues. For example, Leiserowitz also points out that young Republicans are more likely to accept the findings on climate change and support action to respond than are older Republicans. But recent data from Yale and George Mason University show that 70 percent of Americans know that global warming is happening and two-thirds agree that Congress and citizens should do more to address global warming. Again, there were no generational differences in these perspectives. The stereotype of greedy geezers just concerned about themselves when it comes to climate change is just that — a stereotype.

If you were going to write a heroic saga about overcoming the global threat of climate change, would you eliminate anyone over 25 or 30? Where would Luke Skywalker be without Yoda? Or Harry Potter without Professor Dumbledore?

Feinstein and her young visitors missed an opportunity to move from generational conflict to cooperation, keeping the focus on climate action. Imagine a different conversation, starting with the shared common ground:

Feinstein” We all know that climate change is real, it is accelerating, and we need to act quickly.” 

Kids: “Senator Feinstein, what’s the best way we could help get the United States to take action? And how might you help the United States move in that direction?”

Feinstein: “Kids, you are energized — that’s clear. Like my grandkids, you have a direct stake in the future since it’s your future. You have energy and I have experience: that’s a winning combination for getting something done.”

Yes, it may be an optimistic view but working together across the generations will be more effective in moving ahead. The Green New Deal announcement itself was an intergenerational effort — with freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (R-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) with more than 40 years’ experience on Capitol Hill. They represented generational cooperation, not competition. Let’s use that as a model for our own next steps. The time is short. Let’s not waste it on generational battles. We are all in this together.

Michael A. Smyer, Ph.D., an Encore public voices fellow, is a professor of Psychology at Bucknell University and founder of Graying Green: Climate Action for an Aging World.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Climate change Dianne Feinstein Ed Markey Environment Green New Deal Michael A. Smyer

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