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The Grandmas Who Took on Climate Change, Why Our Civilization’s Paralyzed, and the Myth of the Boy Genius

The Grandmas Who Took on Climate Change, Why Our Civilization’s Paralyzed, and the Myth of the Boy Genius

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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  1. ‘Water is more valuable than oil’: the corporation cashing in on America’s drought (The Guardian)
  2. This might be Trump’s most inflationary, economically destructive idea yet (WaPo)
  3. We Don’t See What Climate Change Is Doing to Us (NYT)
  4. Shrouded in secrecy: how science is harmed by the bullying and harassment rumour mill (Nature)
  5. The dictionary to orient yourself in a new world order (El Pais)
  6. Anything Elon Musk Can Do a Bus Can Do Better (New Republic)
  7. ‘Self-annihilation?’ L.A. rabbi wants to heal a ‘world on fire.’ (LA Times)

The Grandmas Who Took On Climate Change—and Won

By now, you might’ve heard. I’ve been meaning to talk about this for a while, because it’s big news—a true capital-I Issue. 

The grandmas who fought climate change—and won. They brought a case before one of the world’s highest courts, and it ruled in their favor. What did the ruling say?

Inaction on climate change is a violation of human rights.

So said the European Court of Human Rights, as it handed down a ruling on Tuesday in favor of a group of women alleging the Swiss government failed to protect their health amid worsening climate change-related heatwaves.

The “Swiss grandmothers” (minimum age: 64) had initially sailed up the Rhine in 2020 to deliver their complaint to the Strasbourg-based court – after being dismissed by the legal system in their own country.

That system failed to “take into consideration the compelling scientific evidence concerning climate change,” or to take the case the women brought before it “seriously,” the ECHR said.

Now, effects of Tuesday’s decision could trickle down to dozens of countries in Europe. One expert described its impact as “huge.”

Switzerland has not complied with its duties under the European Convention on Human Rights related to climate change, the ECHR said – there are “critical gaps” in domestic regulation, coupled with a failure to achieve greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.

“The Swiss authorities had not acted in time and in an appropriate way,” the court said.”

Now. Why is this an Issue? For many, many reasons. Let’s take them one by one.

The European Court of Human rights ruled that inaction on climate change is a violation of human rights. This is a sort of groundbreaking ruling, a truly precedent-setting one. Because of course now the question can be asked, and rulings issued, in many different ways. If climate change violates human rights, does this form of it violate those human rights?

That matters a very, very great deal. This ruling connects two of the world’s greatest issue, and establishes, for the first time, really, a direct line between them—which we all know is there, but hasn’t had institutional legitimacy until now. Climate change, and human rights. 

Think about the world today. What’s happening in—to—it? Human rights are under severe, sustained, worldwide attack. This is what “democracy’s cratering below 20%” means, in hard terms, the statistic we so often discuss. In the real world, that means everything from America invoking centuries-old laws to roll back women’s rights, to the rise of the far right in Europe and even India, to China’s sort of dystopian techno-state-communist-capitalism, and on and on.

And then there’s climate change. What’s that going to do? Presciently, these grandmas nailed it. It’s going to accelerate our already dramatically shrinking set of basic human rights. If you don’t understand how, think of how clean air, food, and water are already becoming luxuries in many parts of the world. Canada burns, and the air in American cities becomes unbreathable. Droughts stretch from Spain to Mexico and beyond. The price of coffee, cocoa, and olive oil’s skyrocketing because of crop failures. Air, food, water—three human basics. In peril, and about to be under increasing strain.

Of course, that’s just the beginning. What happens as, for example, crops like cocoa and coffee begin to fail? Those poor subsistence farmers become migrants, heading to more stable parts of the world. That destabilizes polities, and fuels demagoguery—and accelerates the startling decline of democracy. Yet another way that climate change and the loss of human rights are linked.

So: the grandmas nailed it. And the ECHR made precisely the correct decision, setting a true precedent for the 21st century, the first time that climate change and human rights have been so powerfully institutionally linked. That’s the beginning of what we so often talk about: a true paradigm shift.

Why Our Civilization’s Paralyzed

All this matters for another reason, too, though. The grandmas themselves. Lest you think I’m being derisive, they literally call themselves grandmas. Why is that important?

Young people today should be…the sort of crux…of a revolution. Look at the world—falling apart. Beset by all these existential threats, from climate to inequality to stagnant economies to downward mobility. Young people should be fomenting political revolution everywhere, which is sort of their thing, after all—but instead, they’re not.

Because they’re traumatized. As we often discuss, in America, the majority say they’re “numb,” “completely overwhelmed,” and “can’t function anymore.” Meanwhile, in China, they call themselves the “lying flat generation,” to signal much the same thing. So because young people are sort of in shock about not having a future, they’re paralyzed. With fear, pain, anxiety, glued to screens, seeking some kind of salve for it all. If you think I exaggerate, remember a telling statistic: the majority of young people around the world think, literally, “humanity’s doomed.”

It’s our job to lead young people towards the revolutions they should be fomenting. And the truth is that we’ve failed at that badly. My generation has been especially terrible at it—we’ve produced leaders like Barack Obama, who was a good President, but has kind of…disappeared…since then. In art, culture, literature, my generation thinks little of today’s Big Questions—we shy away from them, because, who knows, they might damage our reputations, or make us seem too “radical.”

The grandmas who took on climate change won are that rarest of things in our world today. Leaders. Look around and tell me who’s a leader, in the true sense of the word. Trump? He’s a demagogue—the opposite. Biden? Not quite. Figures like those in Britain are laughable. Europe, too, suffers a profound leadership deficit.

And because we have a gaping leadership deficit in the world today, we’re paralyzed, as a civilization. But we need to break this deadlock, this stalemate, escape this traumatized place of inaction and fatalism we’re in.

What do leaders do? They model behaviors and actions. That’s probably the most formative element of leadership. Not just talking the talk, but walking the walk. We all know that climate change is an everything-wrecking issue—economy, democracy, society—but what do we do about it?

The grandmas just showed us. By taking on climate change in the most powerful way there is, they showed us all how to do it. And especially young people. Think of how young people are demonized for caring about anything…real. Being an influencer’s just fine, but hey, be a Greta Thunberg, and you’ll have every maniac in the world baying for your blood. The grandmas are changing this narrative, this norm, sparking a paradigm shift, saying, no, this is not OK.

Leadership in the 21st Century, Or What a (True) Paradigm Shift Looks Like

Let me delve into that “most powerful way to fight climate change” for a moment. Let’s think about what the grandmas accomplished.

There have been plenty of court cases against Big Oil, various polluters, and so forth. Some win, some lose—none have made a dent. There’s are whole organizations, whose raison d’être is being sort of law firms who goes out there and sues various companies for climate reasons. 

And yet…nothing’s changed. Emissions are still skyrocketing.

So this approach isn’t working. It might be necessary, but it’s not sufficient, to really change the paradigm.

So what might be? Why doesn’t this approach work?

What the grandmas accomplished was very different. They didn’t just sue companies, who then turn right around, and find a new loophole to exploit, thanks to armies of lawyers, or take decades to obey the law, and so forth—the approach that’s not really working. They sued their country. Not for damages, which is what the corporate cases are about, and no amount of damages is going to bankrupt a major corporation, really, which is why that paradigm isn’t working, too. But for rights.

Rights are much, much powerful than…anything else. What are constitutions there to give us? Rights. What does the rule of law exist to enact? Rights. What are public institutions there to guarantee? Rights. What are private institutions bound to respect? Rights. Rights operate at a level far, far above damages, or money, or pocketbooks, or any of the rest of it.

That’s why this ruling is so critical. It says that inaction on climate change is a violation of human rights, and in doing so, it re-establishes the primacy of rights. It makes rights matter again, and forces institutions and lower courts to now reckon with the Big Question of the 21st Century: what are basic rights in an age of catastrophe?

For example: is it a violation of basic rights to have a…collapsing water system? That’s what Britain has. Is it one…to fail to provide people clean air? How about: is it a violation of human rights for people to endure 50 degree days regularly, which approach the limits of human survivability?

And if so, then how are we to address it? You see what I mean a little bit: now we have to take what human rights are in the 21st century much more seriously. The idea, definition, purpose of rights expands now, which is what needs to happen for our institutions to function again. All that’s true in Europe now, which leads the world in so many ways.

Let’s go a bit further. Is it a violation of human rights to…fill the waterways with micro plastics? How about…is a mass extinction of animal life a violation of its rights? Shouldn’t nature have rights, too, right down to being represented in our democracies? This ruling brings us much, much closer to these foundational questions, which we’re going to have to ask and answer, if we’re to survive this century, at least with a thing called “civilization” intact.

The Myth of the Boy Genius

So. All that’s why the grandmas who fought climate change and won matter. It’s a Big Deal. I love it and I applaud them, for all these reasons above. They’re leaders. They shifted the paradigm. They established the link between climate change and human rights—and have finally begun to expand what rights are and should be. And by doing all that, they model for us, in a way, transformation

It’s a beautiful thing, in my opinion, to see grandmas doing all that. Because our society has a bias towards…young dudes. Think of, I don’t know, a sort of gross guy like Elon Musk, who’s lionized in every corner as a “genius” despite it all, from tanking Twitter to being a lunatic. This bias is making our civilization stupid. Wisdom, grace, truth—all these reside in our elders, who’ve lived it, seen it, and understand, more than anyone else, how badly the world is doing these days, and how much people are hurting.

Hell, I’ve been the boy genius, and I can tell you for a fact that it’s a game, a pretense, which leads us nowhere. It’s a role, scripted, made to fit a certain kind of person, to preserve certain power structures—but serves no real purpose anymore.

So the final norm these grandmas challenged is that only young dudes are Geniuses who Change the World. Eye-roll at that. These grandmas just did more for the world than any number of boy genius would-be trillionaires ever will. They didn’t just make money. They made…history.

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