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Fintan O’Toole: Shame on us for forcing children to wake us up to climate change

We have failed to protect our children – now we are looking to them to protect us

Are we so far sunk into indolence and fatalism that we need our own children to save us? The schoolkids’ strikes to demand action on climate change are both heartening and shaming. Heartening because they speak of a generation that is willing to fight for its own future. Shaming because they reverse the proper order of things. We adults are supposed to protect our children and grandchildren. It seems, however, that we need them to protect us.

I keep thinking these days of Pieter Breughel’s great painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. It deals with the ancient Greek story of Daedalus, who made wings of wax and feathers that allowed his beloved son, Icarus, to fly. The father warned the son not to fly too close to the sun, but in his delight and exuberance Icarus did so anyway. The wax melted, the wings lost their power and poor boy plunged to his death. The story has always been a warning about technological hubris and the need for humanity to understand and respect the limits of nature.

But Breughel gives it a twist that is all the more chilling if we think of that searing sun as an image of climate change. For you have to look quite hard at the painting to see the tragedy at all. There’s a farmer ploughing in the foreground, dressed in a vivid red shirt that draws our gaze; ships in full sail on the blue-green sea; jagged mountains and a cloud-flecked sky. Only in the bottom right-hand corner do we at last descry a pale body plunging into the bay, one leg still above water, the rest already submerged, the great wings just discernible beneath the surface.

‘The disaster’

In his poem about the painting, WH Auden notes “how everything turns away/Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may/Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,/But for him it was not an important failure…” And now we as a species are both Icarus and the ploughman. We are flying too close to the sun, unable to restrain our dizzying exuberance even as our wings begin to melt. But we also keep ploughing onwards, seeing the disaster, if at all, only out of the corner of our eye. We have too many things to be getting on with to pay much attention to that pitiless sun, those rising seas.

The kids are right to strike, to be upset, to be frightened and frustrated

There’s another twist, too, one that even Breughel or Auden didn’t think of. In the story, it is of course the wise father who vainly alerts his foolish son to the deadly danger. The older generation understands and foresees the risks inherent in the wonders it has created. The younger generation is headstrong, overconfident, obstinate and intoxicated by the possession of this unwonted power to defy nature. But at our moment in history, we have turned this on its head.

We, the parents and grandparents, are behaving like children, consuming and carrying on as if there is no tomorrow. It is our children and grandchildren whom we are forcing to think about the consequences, to sound the alarms and issue the warnings. We are making them play Daedalus to our Icarus.

Natural impulse

The shame in this is that we cannot do what we instinctively want to do for our kids when they are scared – put our arms around them and tell them not to worry. Our natural impulse is to play down their fears, to tell them that everything is going to be alright. There is no monster under the bed and even if there were, we would make it go away. But they are right to be scared – there really is a monster and, even worse, we the older generations have put it there. And we don't deserve their trust in our reassurances. Especially not in Ireland where, as the European Commission reported again last week, we are "falling further behind" other EU countries in decarbonising our economy. Why should they trust us sleepwalkers when, as a poll published last week by the Environmental Protection Agency shows, just over a third of Irish adults regard climate change as the most pressing environmental challenge facing the country?

Frightened

The kids are right to strike, to be upset, to be frightened and frustrated. They can see more clearly than their elders that climate change makes time precious. When you are young you should be able to luxuriate in the feeling that you have infinite time ahead, that your future stretches out way beyond the visible horizon. But we’ve taken that luxury away from them – the future is coming towards them way too fast. The years left to avoid disaster are way too short. We’ve made for them a world in which the young cannot afford to wait.

Shame on us for doing this to them. Shame on us for creating a moment in history when we need our children to be scared and upset just so that we can see in their faces the future we are making for them. But there is something worse than shame and that’s the contempt of our children. If we are not awoken by their forsaken cries, if we leave them to shout alone, we will have deserved it.