Caleb’s Corner: Can climate change ignite the next student protest movement?

It might.

Caleb Headshot Xander Opiyo/THE REVIEW
Editor in Chief Caleb Owens.

Editor in Chief

Shortly after the 2016 election, a guy from my hometown, in his mid-60s, made the startling suggestion that the United States reinstate the draft.

At age 18, I had difficulty supporting this bright idea. He carried on. He recalled his role in the antiwar student protest movement, as a student at the restive University of Wisconsin, and how involvement surged when the Vietnam draft became a legitimate threat for young people, students included.

Since that conversation, I’ve spoken with several others who raised the same prospect. If the draft still stood — if students had to face the threat of war, or for that matter think about it — protests would ensue. One veteran maintained that we would no longer be fighting a war in Afghanistan, and that the government would not get away with much of what it does. Indeed, then and now, students are at the core of mass resistance, the first and necessary level of any formidable opposition.

But, as a college newspaper editor at a time of political chaos, instability and widespread uncertainty about the future that we will inherit, I’ve thought at length about how few protests we have the opportunity to cover, how few fiery opinion submissions we get. Here and nationwide, campuses are mostly dormant, no longer the protest hotbeds they once were. College students — kids with knowledge, money, opportunity, access, energy and, hence, collective influence — have made few public displays of resistance, going through the motions with little evident dismay at our social and political situation.

I’m inclined to think that this is because, for the most part, today’s political reality has left the living reality of most college students untouched. The very traits that give students influence — knowledge, money, opportunity, access and energy — have allowed them to face recent tumult unscathed. Without a draft, or anything capable of radically disrupting the lives of usually immune students, there’s little reason to think about the plight that others face, about the crumbling of democratic institutions here and abroad. As an article I recently read put it, “We live in an economy rather than a nation.”

Of course, there are other contributing factors. I’ve talked to many students who are extremely troubled by today’s political world, but who rarely engage in public resistance. With tens of thousands in debt, they opt instead to look forward, burrowing themselves in books now with the hope of contributing in several years through some career or another. Moreover, in an age of constant documentation, with digital trails left everywhere, outspoken, even illegal resistance could disqualify students from future employment or internship opportunities. With no immediate threats looming, such as a draft, waiting it out feels smart and appropriate.

But today, we — particularly us college students — face a menace whose scope is indiscriminate. Whose wrath, unlike the draft, which left the lucky and the wealthy mostly off the hook, will affect all, at first indirectly and eventually very directly. The specter of climate change, now hovering in the background, easy to ignore as you hike through White Clay, will come crashing down, irreversibly upending life (human and otherwise) as we all know it.

A recent federal report tells us as much, although its findings are hardly surprising. In the coming decades, assuming the U.S. and others continue to neglect their own wellbeing, climate change will bring us refugees, whether from Florida, California or Haiti. It will leave us without foods we currently enjoy (or food at all), without water and without a natural world. As resource scarcity gets severe, war will likely ensue. One historian has even suggested that climate change will bring us the next major genocide. Nobody will escape its reach.

In these respects, the threat of climate change is arguably more terrifying than the threat of a draft, which, back in the day, would have launched you into an undeveloped country armed by the most powerful military in the world. Unlike the draft, which left open the possibility for exemption, climate change can and will disrupt the life of every living college student. There is no dodging nature.

It seems, then, that climate change fulfills all of the requirements for provoking a student protest movement. The question remains as to why it has not. The answer is, assuming more than a reckless, self-indulgent nihilism of college students (which has a good deal of supporting evidence), that the effects are not immediately present. As Elizabeth Kolbert has written, the “back-loaded temporality” of climate change makes its consequences difficult to grasp. The particularly devastating effects will cascade into destruction and unrest only once certain thresholds are reached, and the effects of proximate causes today, such as coal emissions, may not manifest fully for decades.

But, should students and others wait to hit the streets until catastrophic exigencies provoke it, their protests will be in vain. Unless a movement starts today — unless governments are pressured to impose stringent regulations, reduced to fear and action, by civilian unrest, which must begin with students — then our planet will burn and drown in glorious chaos, and we will go down with it.

So can climate change ignite the next student protest movement? Precedent tells us it can. Maybe it will. But, as it is not occurring now, and as it shows few signs of materializing in the near future, it will surely be too late.


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