Gen Z can’t save us from climate change.
It is tempting, at times, to look at the generation born between 1997 and 2012 – brimming with passion about the need to clean up our environment – and think they can deliver us from a future of extreme weather events, our current record-setting heat wave included.
They’re certainly talking about it: A recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that 67 percent of Gen Z respondents say they’ve discussed the need for action on climate change at least once or twice in the past several weeks – more than any other generation.
“I bet if you asked my students to list their worries about the future, climate change would be in the top three,” says Jennifer Mathieu, an author and English teacher at Bellaire High School.
She thinks for a moment, before adding, “In fact, I’m willing to say it would be number one.”
So Mathieu, who rose to fame a few years ago when Amy Poehler adapted her young adult novel “Moxie” into a Netflix film that Poehler also starred in, decided to write about it. Her latest novel, “Down Came The Rain,” about two Houston teenagers who are forced to grapple with the devastating effects Harvey has had on their mental health and family life, will be published by Roaring Book Press next month.
But it stands to reason that kids and young adults in Houston might have their antennae a little more attuned.
“Living here, how can you not be concerned, because it’s around you all the time,” Mathieu says.
A lasting effect
The students Mathieu will teach this year were in elementary school when, six years ago this week, Hurricane Harvey brought hell and high water to our city. Over the course of five days, our third “500 Year” storm in three years maintained tropical storm intensity, pummeling Houston with 51 inches of rain.
More than 300,000 people lost power; 40,000 people were displaced; and emergency officials conducted more than 30,000 water rescues. And it took a toll on us in numbers that can’t be pulled from emergency reports. In the years since Harvey, I’ve listened to a surprising number of Houstonians tell me they now shake when it rains, or their children cry and hide in storms.
A 2020 study published in the public health journal, “Disaster Medicine And Public Health Preparedness” found that “exposure to Hurricane Harvey is significantly associated with symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and perceived stress.”
Mathieu, who lives in Westbury, counts herself among those affected.
“Cuddling up in bed as it rained outside used to be one of my pleasures in life,” she says. “But for about a year or so after Harvey, I really struggled personally. When it rained, it would just bring me back to those days.”
Mathieu’s new book feels, in many ways, like Houston’s story of a generation. Even the dual protagonists, Javier and Eliza, cannot untangle themselves from the causes of climate change – not in Houston, where both of the high school seniors have a family member who works in the oil and gas industry.
And this particular generation – Gen Z – makes its needs known. In 2022, Gen Z made up the entire cohort of 18- to 24-year-old midterm voters for the first time. That year, 28.4 percent of eligible voters that age cast a ballot, significantly outpacing the 23 percent of millennials like myself who voted in 2006, when we hit that benchmark.
It also eclipsed the 23.5 percent of Gen X in 1990 and 27.4 percent of Baby Boomers in 1972, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
We’ve seen Gen Z prove this point over and over again, with examples like Greta Thunberg, and a recent crew of young plaintiffs who won an environmental ruling in Montana. And it’s not just climate change: The survivors of the Parkland High School shooting in Florida have made it their mission to combat the gun violence that killed their classmates.
So yes, it’s easy to read a book like Mathieu’s, where the main characters work through their personal pain to make a difference, and think: These kids are all right. And they’re going to save us all.
But wow is that unfair.
Shifting the burden
“I love and am inspired by young people. I make it my mission to work with them every day as a high school teacher,” says Mathieu. “But it should not be on them. It’s not their job to save us. It’s all our jobs, collectively.”
She’s so right.
I wrote a few weeks ago about the shortcomings of the word resilience, which we threw around here in Houston in the shadow of Harvey. I love the hope in the word resilience. But I have grown wary of the ways it allows those in power to shift the burden of recovery onto survivors and victims, who are too busy trying to bootstrap their lives back to normal. Assigning Gen Z clean up duty for a planetary problem we’ve all been contributing to long before they showed up seems like Version 2.0 of this idea.
In the final pages of her book, Mathieu likens living in the city of Houston to living as Cassandra, the figure in Greek mythology who was fated to forever tell true prophecies while never being believed.
“We’re experiencing effects of climate change in ways that many other parts of the country aren’t yet,” Mathieu says. “But it’s here. You know, it’s here.”