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On climate change, Gen Z grapples with a broken system

By Omar Taleb and Asha Swann

Mary-Elizabeth Chin doesn’t think sustainability is enough anymore. Natural disasters are more frequent and she doesn’t believe the “status quo” is on track to stop this pattern. And with world leaders meeting together for the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) earlier this month, climate change is currently top of mind for many.

“Working to sustain us for the future is setting ourselves up for failure,” said Chin, a fourth-year environmental and urban sustainability student at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU). “It’s about mitigation and combating the effects of climate change—not sustaining it.”

As with many of her peers in university, Chin belongs to Generation Z, the cohort born between 1997 and 2012. Data shows that Gen Z is the most eco-conscious generation yet, willing to spend more on products they deem sustainable and turn down roles at companies that aren’t doing enough for the environment. Climate change has become a generational flashpoint, as Gen Z is demanding action with more urgency than their millennial and Generation X counterparts. What sets them apart is where their activism takes place—not at forums with world leaders like COP27, but online.

“As the boomers age and retire, it will open the door for a new set of ideas at the top”

“We are about to witness one of the biggest demographic shifts,” said Sara Edge, an associate professor in the department of geography and environmental studies. “Climate change has become a real affordability challenge.”

While Gen Z grapples with the idea that they may never be able to afford to own a home in the current housing crisis, giant condos are being built in Vancouver as some of the “greenest skyscrapers on the planet,” according to The Tyee. The expenses that come along with sustainability have some Gen Z-ers questioning the capitalist structure.

“As the boomers age and retire, it will open the door for a new set of ideas at the top,” said Edge.

Chin takes issue with conferences like COP27, which she says don’t do enough to appeal to the younger generation. In previous years, the conference has come under criticism for failing to address the fossil fuel industry. This 27th year of the conference, put on annually by the United Nations (UN), was no different. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said this year that greenhouse gas emissions must reduce by at least 43 per cent by 2030.

“Looking at environmental issues as an intersectional problem would really benefit inclusivity amongst different generations,” Chin said. “When there [are] goals set by one generation, such as boomers, it doesn’t cover a lot of concerns for all.”

“They’re goals,” Chin said, explaining that events like COP27, while well-meaning, can focus too much on policies and governments rather than action. “It is a political agreement,” she explained. “That really excludes a lot of people. And who’s to say that these certain parties are the ones that will cover all the concerns of everyone?”

“Gen Z has been disenfranchised from public policy”

Chin believes there are other issues that accompany climate change, like environmental racism and capitalism, which are often unaddressed at climate conferences.

“A lot of communities that face the brunt force or the negative outcomes of climate change are marginalized communities and those concerns need to be addressed,” Chin said. “It feels like capitalism is often prioritized over actually making tangible change for the environment.”

For example, climate scientists at the Worldwide Weather Attribution initiative determined that the record-breaking flooding in Pakistan in August 2022—which displace over 30 million people and killed an estimated 1,500—was caused by climate change. The same experts also said that while global warming increases the earth’s temperature, the usually-expected monsoon rains may become less reliable. This means Pakistan could see alternating periods of heavy drought and intense flooding in the future. Countless other countries could also follow the same pattern if climate change isn’t reversed.

One of the policies promised by COP7 was to create a “loss and damage” fund for countries damaged by extreme natural disasters fuelled by climate change. While the UN came to a consensus that some countries are “particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change,” there has yet to be an agreement as to which country should pay how much to whom. The fund was resisted by the United States and the European Union.

Matisse Buteau is also a fourth-year student in the environmental and urban sustainability program. While she doesn’t believe that all of Gen Z care more about the environment than previous generations, she said the overwhelming pressure she feels to make sustainability changes is what separates her age group from millennials.

“We are in a system that is not sustainable”

“Sustainability is a mindset in which I push myself to in every aspect of my life,” she said. “I weigh the environmental costs of my activities and try and be mindful of my environmental footprint.”
Chin said while folks in her generation are less likely to pay attention to conferences like COP27 than their millennial or boomer counterparts, Gen Z is most likely to use the internet as a tool for action and organizing.

“Millennials might not have noticed these dramatic changes—we’re seeing it unfold on social media,” she said.

Edge pointed to the “visual evidence” afforded by social media and how the climate situation is getting increasingly dire. These factors create Gen Z’s sense of urgency around climate change. “Social media is a big tool for Gen Z; it’s made it more difficult for people to keep their heads in the sand.”

But while social media has emboldened Gen Z to get louder on climate action, some experts say it’s led to information overload and the phenomenon of eco-anxiety, a chronic fear of environmental destruction.

Rachel Malena-Chan, the founder of Eco Anxious Stories, a digital storytelling platform discussing climate change based in British Columbia, explained that eco-anxiety is not an overreaction or a temporary feeling but an all-encompassing sense of doom related to communities and individuals.
It’s especially pervasive among Gen Z, who Malena-Chan said also feel similarly about politics.

“There will always be capitalistic greed, but it will need a revolution”

“Gen Z has been disenfranchised from public policy. They are more aware that climate change is a political problem and that demand for a different system is clear,” said Malena-Chan.

Anika Kozlowski, an associate professor of fashion design, ethics and sustainability, hopes social media conversation around sustainability will focus more on root causes rather than surface-level solutions like sustainable shopping.

“Ask yourself what political activities and grassroots initiatives you can support,” said Kozlowski. “Everything in sustainability is a greyscale because we are in a system that is not sustainable. Are you better off putting your money toward a sustainable brand or political action?”

Chin and Buteau are hopeful their generation will take the climate action needed for change but that doesn’t mean they aren’t wary of the obstacles in their way, especially if those obstacles are perpetrated by capitalistic greed.

“Older generations need to start being open to bringing in new voices,” explained Chin. “There will always be capital greed but it will need a revolution.”

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