By Congressman Elijah Cummings

When necessary social change occurs, it is our young, more often than not, who are in the lead.

So it was during the civil rights movement of the last century – and so it remains in the struggles for racial justice and reasonable gun safety, economic empowerment and environmental survival today.

Americans of Color will recall that my colleague and friend, Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, was not yet of voting age when he risked his life in the Freedom Rides of 1960, 23 when he joined Dr. King in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and 25 when he led the people of Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, 1965.

This is why we should listen – and undertake effective action – when the young people of our time warn us about the existential threats posed by climate change.

“I don’t want you to listen to me,” the young Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, challenged the European Union Parliament last year and the U.S. House of Representatives just last week.  “I want you to listen to the scientists, and I want you to unite behind the science.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (MD.-7) . (Courtesy Photo)

“I’m not speaking because adults are not listening,” Kallan Benson of Crownsville, Maryland, one of Ms. Thunberg’s leading American counterparts, wrote on her chalkboard during her silent protest for more effective climate action in Annapolis earlier this year.

These young women are the prophets of our time, but they surely are not the solitary figures of old, crying out in the wilderness.  

Called to action by the chilling predictions (and current realities) of global disaster from a worsening world climate, they are articulate and determined in their warnings and demands.

Thunberg and Benson were among the young leaders in an international, million-plus student strike for more effective action on climate change last Friday.  Most of the media coverage focused on the protests in New York, Washington and other world capitals, but students in Baltimore, Howard County, Annapolis and other Maryland communities were just as committed – and just as correct. 

Typically, I would discourage any student from leaving their classes, even for a day.  Still, there are times when it is less important to learn than it is to teach.  

So it is with our committed young people today as our political and economic leaders struggle to come to terms with the damage that our fossil-fueled economies are causing.

Wisdom and courage – the essential seeds of any successful movement – are not the exclusive prerogatives of any generation.  It is time for all of us, without regard to age or political philosophy, to listen to our young people, take heed of the science and act.

This was the core message in the most recent National Climate Assessment as 13 federal agencies and more than 300 experts from around the country warned:  “Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities.”  

The Assessment also found, however, that our response to this crisis thus far is not sufficient to avoid “substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades.” 

As these young leaders are advising, this is not the time for either denial or inaction.  We are confronted by an existential crisis for both the United States and the world. See, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2018 Report, available on the Internet [https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/UN-Climate-Change-Annual-Report-2018.pdf].

As an American, and as a father, I must acknowledge that I am deeply worried about our willingness to undertake the transformations now that will allow us all to survive this challenge.  Yet, the responsibility of every leader today, young and older alike, is to do everything within our power to protect our children’s future – and our own.

This is why I was deeply gratified that the 2016 National Democratic Party Platform Drafting Committee that I had the honor to chair committed our party to achieving real, substantive progress in limiting the impact of climate change [https://www.democrats.org/party-platform].

It is why our Democratic majority in the House of Representatives is pushing H. Res. 109, Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal – and why we passed and sent to the Senate H.R. 9, The Climate Change Now Act, that would mandate concrete actions to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

I was honored to co-sponsor both of these corrective measures, but we now face denial, obstinance and opposition from the President and his Republican Senate allies.

A national and international movement will be required to overcome these obstacles and prevail.  Like the civil rights movement of America’s past, our young people are leading this movement – and, for that, they deserve our lasting gratitude, respect, and action.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.  He serves as Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight & Reform.

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