Is sustainable systemic change an intergenerational challenge?

| 12th March 2018

Kevin Anderson speaking at the COP23 said: “My generation have fundamentally failed."

NICK BREEZE, co-founder of the Cambridge Climate Lecture Series, responds to Dr Robert Biel's article on systems theory to discuss climate change and the failure of one generation and the agency of the next

We have chosen to fail on climate change, collectively as a whole. We don’t know what to do about it. I would rather that we hand over the baton to them [young people], that we allow them to take over the leadership.

It does not take much probing of the scientific data to come to the conclusion that urgent action on a societal level is required to avert a global ecological catastrophe.

Yet, looking around, we see little evidence that empowered people across the developed world are really steering us to a brighter future.

When George W. Bush was president, many of us craved a climate aware world-leader. Soon after, our prayers were answered with president Barack Obama, a man openly concerned with the state of the planets ecology, who liked to talk about climate change.

Unintended consequences

Yet still we waited and nothing significant happened - except the seemingly toothless framework of the Paris Agreement, towards the end of his second term in office. Emissions continue to rise, and rise.

His climate denying successor could, ironically, be the most galvanising force of them all so far. Donald Trump’s overt contempt for decency has potential to deliver real systemic change. He is nothing but a law to himself of unintended consequences.

But, caught in the reflection of Trumpism, it is hard not to notice the broader incumbent generations who are stuck in a linear feedback loop of accumulation and pollution. Literally: resources in, pollution out! 

The elite 1 to 10 percent of society - that could partially include myself - cannot adapt to the challenges of averting dangerous climate change fast enough. This idea of the linear feedback loop of accumulation is lifted from Dr Robert Biel’s current article discussing Systems Theory in The Ecologist.

The result is a 20th century system that is dangerously out-dated and out of control. It is characterised by scaling up consumption, dominating the political agenda with cyclical post-war debates and exacerbating fear of the other. All the while, the emerging generation remain conspicuously absent, especially at the polls.


In an interview I conducted with Professional Schellnhuber at the Royal Society in October 2017, he responded to a question about post-Brexit UK and European collaboration on climate action by saying we needed to “self-organise” to overcome the political barriers arising.

It was this idea of self-organising that was my take-away from the interview as I headed to COP23 in Bonn a month later. The COPs are meant to embody the global effort to implement changes at a political level in order to avert the worst global impacts of climate change. 

Incumbent system failure

Despite this, the sum total of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC’s) proposed by every country on Earth, even if achieved - which is doubtful in itself - deliver a +3ºC globally average hotter climate. This warmer world was aptly anticipated by Professor Kevin Anderson at COP23 when he said on a panel: “We are going to hell in a hand basket”.

Emerging systems 

Despite such proclamations, the COP was crawling youth activists, converging, networking and sharing ideas. A local initiative, set-up by 27 year old Johanna Schafer, called the BonnLab embodied this idea of self-organisation.

The BonnLab, best described as a city-lounge, was a hive of activity with new people arriving, international friendships being forged, live-streaming across social media, as well reports on the COP itself.

There was energy and buzz. It was kind of like a pub for a new connected and open generation, demonstrating this self-organisingprincipal being put into action. 

Zombie systems

The penny dropped at COP23. A new generation is rising and they are not interested in the rhetoric of previous generations who still wield disproportionate power and consume too much of the worlds resources, from money to energy. 

As the clock ticks, we do need to resolve international and intergenerational differences, whilst at the same time listen and aid the emerging systems of a rising generation.

With their more sustainable new world outlook, they have the energy to forge a truly liveable world. 

I’ll end with the prescient words from my COP23 interview with Kevin Anderson: “My generation have fundamentally failed.

"We have chosen to fail on climate change, collectively as a whole. We don’t know what to do about it. I would rather that we hand over the baton to them [young people], that we allow them to take over the leadership.

"They may need some of the skill sets that we have. One of them of course, which we know very well and fundamentally: how to fail!” 

This Author

Nick Breeze is a climate journalist living in London and a cofounder of Inspired by Dr Biel’s article on system theory in The Ecologist, this piece is also a much shorter version of an article being published in the next Yes & No Magazine due out shortly. Follow him on twitter at @NickGBreeze