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The Sunshine Economy

How two generations are fighting climate change by focusing on finance and age

A woman walks along a flooded street caused by a king tide, Sept. 28, 2019, in Miami Beach, Fla. Low-lying neighborhoods in South Florida are vulnerable to the seasonal flooding caused by king tides. While higher seas cause much more damage when storms such as hurricanes hit the coast, they are getting to the point where it doesn’t have to storm to be a problem. High tides get larger and water flows further inland and deeper even on sunny days. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)
Lynne Sladky
A woman walks along a flooded street caused by a king tide, Sept. 28, 2019, in Miami Beach, Fla. Low-lying neighborhoods in South Florida are vulnerable to the seasonal flooding caused by king tides.

Delaney Reynolds and Bill McKibben are from different generations and live on opposite ends of the East Coast. Both have committed themselves toward fighting climate change and rallying politicians and people, while increasingly focusing on finance.

Editor's note: After the program was originally broadcast, the Florida State Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services confirmed that an announcement will be made Thursday morning, April 21.

As a teenager, Delaney Reynolds took on the state of Florida over climate change. She was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit over pollution. Lawyers for the state argued there is no legal guarantee to protect the climate from the causes of climate change.

A state circuit court judge eventually dismissed the case. The judge said the concerns in the lawsuit were legitimate, but ruled they were not a matter for the court.

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Reynolds wasn't discouraged. She and others then demanded the state follow two laws passed several years ago directing the Department of Agriculture to come up with goals to switch electricity production from fossil fuels to renewable energy. A month after submitting the petition, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services filed notice that it was working on coming up with a rule, including "the gradual phaseout of energy production from non-renewable sources."

About 70% of electricity generated by FPL, the largest electricity provider in the state, comes from natural gas.

Reynolds expects an announcement about those goals will be made Friday — on Earth Day.

"It's going to be, quite honestly, a landmark change for the state of Florida when it comes to climate solutions, and I'm very excited about it," she said.

The Department of Agriculture would not confirm any announcement to WLRN. If the commissioner sets goals for Florida electricity to come from renewable energy, it would be the first specific timeline by the state government setting targets to reduce greenhouse gases and increase clean energy.

Climate activist Delaney Reynolds, 22, speaks at a press conference where U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla, was announcing a solar power initiative for the state, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, in South Miami. Reynolds, who founded The Sink or Swim Project at the age of 15, continues to run her non-profit and push for policy change, while also pursuing dual PhD and law degrees. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Rebecca Blackwell
Climate activist Delaney Reynolds, 22, speaks at a press conference where U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla, was announcing a solar power initiative, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, in South Miami.

Reynolds grew up in Miami and the Lower Keys. She’s now studying for a law degree and a PhD in environmental science and policy at the University of Miami.

She may be in her early 20s, but Reynolds has been active since she was a teenager, working to raise awareness among kids and young adults about the threat of sea level rise, especially in South Florida. She has grown frustrated by the lack of action by older generations.

"I would say that we're fed up with it, quite honestly. I think that that's something that we've seen manifesting over the last few years," she said.

A veteran of environmental and climate activism agrees. Bill McKibben has been arguing to pay attention to climate change since the late 1980s before the phrase ‘climate change’ was well-known outside of the scientific and environmental communities.

In his first book, The End of Nature, McKibben wrote, "Changes that can affect us can happen in our lifetime in our world — not just changes like wars but bigger and more sweeping events. I believe that without recognizing it we have already stepped over the threshold of such a change: that we are at the end of nature.”

That was in 1989.

LISTEN MORE: Bonus podcast with McKibben on why he thinks Russia's war in Ukraine may be a turning point for fossil fuel.

"It's both wrong, morally and impractical, to demand the biggest problems in the world be solved by 17 year olds — to tell them that in between algebra homework and field hockey practice, they also have to save the world," he said during an interview while visiting South Florida in March.

Both activists are focused on marshaling their peers and the power of commerce on climate change. For McKibben, that means asking people over 60 to use their economic power to influence corporate climate behavior.

"We vote in astonishing numbers. So nothing happens in Washington without our say so. And fairly or not, we ended up with all the money," McKibben said.

Author and environmental activist Bill McKibben.
Nancie Battaglia
Author and environmental activist Bill McKibben.

That concentration of assets is a focus for McKibben's latest call-to-action for his fellow Baby Boomers. He founded Third Act last year to organize people over the age of 60. And he knows Floridians are a key audience with its rapidly growing over-60 population.

"I think that older Floridians have to make a choice," he said. He described that choice as reflected in a bumper sticker that boasts "I'm spending my kid's inheritance," or "defending their kid's inheritance."

He's asking older consumers to leverage their spending power by threatening to cancel credit cards and close accounts at four big banks by the end of the year unless the banks stop helping finance fossil fuel projects.

"The most important thing an individual can do at this point is be less of an individual. Join together with others in movements large enough to shift the economics and the politics," he said. "We're past the point where we can actually solve this crisis one Tesla at a time. We need to be able to move it one senator time, one government at a time."

Reynolds' generation may not have the spending power or the voting power yet. "We're not the biggest population right now. That's the older generation — the Baby Boomers — so they often dominate the voting numbers," she said. "But I think that as we start to vote more and more as we realize that this is a very important way for us to get our voice out and to get things like climate change solved, we're going to see even more of that."

"Politics, politics, politics" is the lesson Reynolds said she learned from her unsuccessful climate lawsuit against the state. "It gets in the way of everything. It's a long process, is what I learned," she said.

But politics is a reality. This spring as state lawmakers debated a measure formally creating a statewide Office of Resilience and requiring the state transportation department to develop a resilience plan, an amendment to expand the office's duties to "reduce the root causes of sea level rise and flooding" was defeated.

Delaney's Generation Z has a slight edge in numbers over Baby Boomers, according to Census Bureau data from 2020. By the inexact definitions of generations, Millennials is the largest generation by population.

"I think that the way that we spend our money is incredibly important, and I think that it's something that we have to think about more and more," Reynolds said. "So as we move forward through to the future, it's going to be expensive to solve climate change, even on the individual level."

Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.