“Please send the police now,” begged a fourth-grade girl at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24. It was her fifth 911 call since a gunman entered her classroom and began shooting.
By that time, police had been in her school for more than an hour, according to the timeline laid out by Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, in a news conference Friday. Some had been waiting in the hallway for 40 minutes. It was 27 minutes since she had called to say that eight or nine of her classmates were still alive.
The American public is justifiably aghast at police who failed to act quickly in Uvalde. There were safety plans for how to prevent the situation that unfolded, and for how to respond immediately and forcefully if prevention failed. They weren’t followed. This is a failure of execution more than open to criticism.
Most Americans would like to believe they’d act immediately and decisively to save children’s lives. But look around and you’ll see a society throwing its young people under the bus—not by failing to act in a moment of high tension, but by failing to act over the course of years. The United States is desperately in need of heroes willing to stand up not only to a teenager with a semiautomatic rifle but also to the corporations and politicians repeatedly choosing profits and popularity over the lives, liberty, and happiness of children. It’s not just guns. Experts have been warning us about climate change, online hate, and other threats to kids’ lives for decades. Now those threats are in the room with us, but the people best placed to do something have been dawdling in the hallway for decades.
Paralyzed, bought, and captured. Some readers might find it unseemly to talk about climate change and other issues in the same breath as the Uvalde massacre. The nation is in deep mourning for the 19 kids and two teachers who were slain only days ago. But that doesn’t mean we have to stop talking about the children being killed or injured in Ukraine. Or the children sickened and killed by extreme heat in India and Pakistan. Or the children dying from severe malnutrition in places like Somalia and Afghanistan.
Instead this could be a moment to reflect more deeply on what really matters, and to make meaningful changes to save large numbers of children’s lives via real, long-term policy changes. Americans cannot continue to react to tragedy with only thoughts, prayers, and empty promises. Being “sensitive” means taking a hard look not only at the horrors in Uvalde but also at other dangers that have been simmering for decades but are now reaching full boil.
No close observer of the foot-dragging that has characterized the US response to climate change for several decades is surprised by the nation’s ineffectual response to mass shootings. As former vice president Al Gore observed last week: “Some of the same reasons why the United States has been incapable of responding to these tragedies are the same reasons—lobbying, campaign contributions, the capture of policymaking, the control of politicians with money, lobbyists—that it has been impossible to pass climate legislation. Our democracy has been paralyzed, bought, captured. It has to stop.”
America isn’t saving its children. The United States has addressed some threats to children’s lives—for example, requiring protective seats for children in vehicles, setting safety standards for furniture and toys, and funding research and treatments to combat childhood diseases. However, federal and state governments have failed to make progress against other, even bigger threats—despite urgent and repeated warnings from the experts who study them.
Firearms became the leading cause of death for children aged 1 to 18 in the United States in 2020, killing 4,368 children. Nearly two-thirds of those children were homicide victims, but the rate of youth suicide has also been rising, and the average age of children who commit suicide has been falling. Children the age of those who died in Uvalde are as likely to die from suicide as from a car crash. Children living in households with guns are four times as likely to commit suicide as children who live in gun-free homes. Nearly one in five high school students have seriously considered attempting suicide, and more than one in three say they’ve felt persistent sadness or hopelessness, according to data from the CDC’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
But as gun violence has increased, Texas and other states have loosened gun restrictions.
Nearly one in seven children in the United States lives in poverty, with a flimsier safety net than this country provides for the health of its elderly. One in five children are obese, which puts them at high risk for diseases such as diabetes. And while many adults were thumbing their noses at vaccines and face masks, more than 200,000 children lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19.
The United States has also left its children relatively defenseless against extremists and bullies who can stream violence, hate, and insecurity to still-developing brains. A recent survey published by the nonprofit organization Common Sense Media reported that kids age 8 to 18 now spend an average of 7.5 hours a day on screen time, and that doesn’t include screen time while learning at school or doing homework—an overexposure that makes many kids sedentary and sleep-deprived. In some cases, it feeds anger and resentment that can explode in violence.
And what kind of future awaits children? At this point, it seems impossible that any adults in the United States are unaware of the rise in extreme heat waves, drought, flooding, wildfires, and other slap-you-in-the-face signs of climate change. And yet many adults, most notably those with the power to pass legislation or to radically change their business practices in ways that would put the brakes on global warming, are instead allowing it to keep speeding toward the cliff. They are consigning their own children and grandchildren to a future climate that will be miserable if not altogether unlivable.
A culture that fails to take obvious steps to protect its children from murder and misery has no future. It is, as Elizabeth Bruenig wrote last week in The Atlantic, a culture of death. “All around us things that ought to matter shrink in proportion to things that ought not to.”
Pleading and leading. It is no coincidence that the climate movement is primarily led by youth. Do something, children are pleading. And still the authorities hesitate outside the door.
Children understand that they are the ones who will have to live in the degraded future adults are creating for them. According to one recent study, an American child born in 2020 will experience seven times as many heat waves, twice as many wildfires, and nearly three times as many droughts and river floods as a grandparent born in 1960. UNICEF reported last year that one billion children live in countries at “extremely high risk” of climate and environmental shocks.
Children are also more vulnerable in the present. For example, they are more susceptible than adults to extreme heat: They have smaller bodies (which can dehydrate faster), they play outside more, and they are less likely to pay attention to signs of heat stroke and exhaustion.
Young people are fighting for their future by suing state and federal governments for the right to a livable planet. They are speaking out at rallies and summits, demanding ambitious climate action and criticizing world leaders for stalling. Young people are leading the global climate strike movement.
Kids are also protesting gun violence. Many walked out of schools four years ago, after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Students walked out again on Thursday at schools across the country.
These protests have had some results. After Parkland, 19 states passed laws that made it easier for law enforcement and others to seek orders preventing people at risk of violence from purchasing or possessing firearms. After Sandy Hook, some states passed gun permit laws. Researchers have documented that states with more restrictive gun laws have lower rates of mass shootings than states that are more permissive.
Do something. Too often the debate over firearms, or climate, is framed as all or nothing. But “arm everyone to the teeth” and “take everyone’s guns away” are not the only options. Violence epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina suggests interventions modeled on public-health measures, such as mandating safe gun storage and teaching people how to respond when shooters “leak” their plans to family and friends.
The same is true for climate. Society doesn’t have to choose between “business as usual” and “stop burning all fossil fuels tomorrow.” There is a world of “do something” between the extremes of doing nothing and doing everything.
Modern societies don’t lack strategies or resources; they lack willpower and leadership. Interviewed by The Guardian before last year’s UN Climate Change Conference, more commonly known as COP26, climate activist Greta Thunberg said she was not optimistic that the conference would achieve anything. “We can have as many Cops as we want, but nothing real will come out of it,” she said.
Perhaps the same applies to school safety: It doesn’t improve with more cops. A 2021 study by researchers from the University of Albany and the Rand Corporation found that armed officers in schools may help prevent fights but they do not prevent school shootings or other incidents involving guns.
That’s not to say we don’t need cops of any kind. Police officers entered the elementary school in Uvalde only two minutes after the shooter. We need the kind of cop who doesn’t wait an hour to storm into a classroom, and who values the life of an unarmed child more than his own.
But we need long-term responders even more—the kind of responders who make sure the failures of the past don’t keep repeating.
We can’t wait for the next crisis, or the one after that. Already this year, Texas has experienced a record-shattering May heat wave, drought that covers most of the state, wildfires that have destroyed dozens of homes, and crop failures.
Summer is coming.
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