Don't ignore the prophetic voices of our young people on climate change, says ecologist

When Professor Mike Clarke took part in the schools climate change strike in Melbourne last year – with more than 100,000 others – he held a a sign with a photo of his granddaughter who had been born the day before.

“Thou shalt not steal (from future generations),” his sign read.

As a new report from CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology is released today with findings that Australia is already feeling the effects of climate change and predicting our country’s future holds further increasing temperatures, greater sea level rise, and less rainfall in eastern and southern Australia, Professor Clarke’s concern for future generations is made more urgent.

Clarke is Professor of Ecology, Environment and Evolution at La Trobe University in Melbourne. He has a long-standing research interest in the impact of fire on fauna, and was an expert witness at Victoria’s 2010 Bushfire Royal Commission. He is also a fellow of ISCAST, a network of Christians working in science and technology.

“My generation’s negligence amounts to theft from future generations.”

Speaking at an online ISCAST forum last week, Clarke warned his audience that we might be ignoring the “prophetic cries” of our young people. Instead, our reaction to their protests about climate change might be met with our derision or scepticism.

Professor Mike Clarke at a climate change rally in Melbourne in 2019.

Clarke referred to comments by US President Donald Trump earlier this year, when he called on Americans to “reject the perennial prophets of doom,” referring to climate activists such as 17-year-old Greta Thunberg.

“Those comments reminded me of Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians, where he writes, ‘Do not despise prophesying but test everything; hold fast to what is good, and abstain from every form of evil.'”

Clarke says he has done some “testing” of his own – particularly reflecting on what environmental changes he has seen over the course of his lifetime.

“I turned 60 this year. And it’s probably the last 60 years that have been the most damaging to the natural world. I am far from innocent in that damage.”

“My generation’s negligence amounts to theft from future generations,” he said.

Citing research published in the journal Nature in July 2020, Clarke said the impact of Australia’s mega bushfires of 2019-20 is only now fully coming to light. According to the Nature report, 49 “common species” may now need to be reclassified as “threatened.” That’s not good news for a country that has one of the highest loss of species rates in the world.

“I’m not a climatologist, I’m an ecologist. I monitor the natural world. So I’m interested to know what the climate is doing.”

Prolonged drought in Australia – caused by human-induced climate change, according to Clarke – not only exacerbates Australia’s bushfires. It severely impacts other ecosystems such as Clarke’s beloved Mallee region in Victoria. The Mallee is a habitat experiencing, in some areas, the equivalent of coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef.

A critical component of the Mallee habitat is spinifex – a prickly, grass-like plant – that is home to lizards, mammals and birds. But the spinifex is dying – “it’s under real threat, under very prolonged drought,” says Clarke.

“Now is the time for old folks like me to share our dreams for the future with our young people.” – Mike Clarke

It’s not just environmental impacts which our young people will need to come to terms with because of climate change, says Clarke.

Just this week, a new report by Deloitte Economics revealed that if climate change goes unchecked, Australia’s economy will be six per cent smaller and have 880,000 fewer jobs by 2070 (this is within the lifetime of those in their 20s, 30s and 40s today).

The report, A new choice: Australia’s climate for growthfound that more than 30 per cent of employed Australians, and over 30 per cent of national income, sit in industries exposed to economic disruption and risk from climate change and unplanned economic transition.

In contrast, the report continues, action on climate change has the potential to grow the economy by 2.6 per cent in 2017, adding more than 250,000 jobs.

Clarke also believes that, yes, there is hope. “The followers of Jesus are meant to be a people of hope. There are no hopeless cases,” he told the ISCAST forum.

Clarke quoted Joel 2:28, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.”

“Now is the time for old folks like me to share our dreams for the future with our young people. To get alongside these passionate, committed and sometimes naive – but enthusiastic – young people, to empower and equip them for change. To help them enact their vision of the future.”

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