The protracted United Nations climate talks that ended in failure recently in Madrid serve to highlight a division that’s distinct from the familiar gap between clean-energy activists and fossil fuel interests. It’s the alleged chasm between young and old.

This split received worldwide attention last September. That’s when Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, scolded heads of state for, as she put it, stealing her dreams and childhood with their empty words.

It also was on display last November, when a 25-year-old New Zealand legislator was interrupted by an older member while she was endorsing a climate action bill.

“OK, boomer,” she replied, using a phrase now popular with Generation Z that’s meant as a dismissive retort to baby boomers.

Having once been young and vowing not to trust anyone over 30, I love this dig. And I don’t disagree with the sentiment. But I also recall that when you’re 16 or even 25, everyone looks old. So blaming climate inaction on boomers may seem on point, but it’s not. It’s naïve and self-defeating.

Because the true enemies of climate inaction are the same foes that were arrayed against the then-young activists who took up the premiere fight against air and water pollution in the 1970s – multinational fossil fuel interests and their allies in business and government.

That battle is far from over. But young Mainers today may not appreciate the hard-fought progress they take for granted, measures that benefited not only the local environment but also the Earth’s climate.

Young Mainers never saw the Androscoggin River so choked with sludge and paper mill waste that fish died by the millions. They never experienced the haze that covered Rumford or gagged at the rotten-egg smell from the papermaking process.

Some young Mainers may never have heard of Ed Muskie, who grew up in Rumford when parents told their children, “That’s money you smell burning,” as if living with choking pollution were the trade-off necessary to make a living. As a U.S. senator,

Muskie in 1970 helped pass the Clean Air Act, the basis for efficiency rules that made power plants and automobiles use less fuel and, therefore, emit less carbon. Muskie wasn’t young then. He was 56.

That also was the year of the first Earth Day. The idea came in the aftermath of a massive oil spill off Santa Barbara, California. It inspired Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin to propose a nationwide day of education and protest. He was 54.

1970 was the height of a counterculture youth movement. It was natural that young people wanted to save the planet they would inhabit, and they prodded the old people in charge to act.

But even then, young people shared political alliances that would be impossible today. Earth Day’s co-chair was an old-school, anti-war, conservative Republican, Sen. Pete McCloskey. He was 43.

Then there was President Richard Nixon, who was despised by young people for prolonging the Vietnam War, among other things. But the growing environmental movement prompted Nixon to propose the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1970. He was 57, four years from resigning over the Watergate scandal.

But the biggest catalyst for climate action wasn’t a young person or a middle-aged politician. It was the Middle East countries that organized an embargo on exporting petroleum to the United States in 1973.

Most Maine homes then were uninsulated and heated with oil. People drove vehicles that averaged 15 miles a gallon, and soaring oil prices hit residents hard. But for the Earth, the embargo was the best thing that could have happened. It galvanized the long and difficult process of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions.

This was the birth of efficiency. The energy innovations young people take for granted today – LED lighting, solar panels, electric, hybrid and high-mileage gasoline vehicles – were encouraged by government policies that, as a side benefit, reduced carbon in the atmosphere.

All these innovations were opposed in some fashion by fossil fuel interests, in tandem with the business and political allies that benefited from the status quo. So while progress was made, it hasn’t been enough.

And sometimes, we just stumbled backward.

For instance: Attracting industry to the Portland area was an understandable goal in 1957, when Central Maine Power built an oil-fired power plant in Yarmouth. Portland was a depressed seaport then, not a trendy foodie destination.

But maybe we should have know better by 1978, when a huge generating unit and smokestack were added that tripled the capacity of Wyman Station. Maybe we should have anticipated that the era of oil-fueled electricity was ending. Perhaps we wouldn’t have expanded a plant that would become the largest single source of air pollution in Maine, spewing soot across waterfront neighborhoods and emitting tons of Earth-warming carbon.

Sorry about that. Our bad.

Today, cheaper natural gas generation has made Wyman mostly unprofitable to run. The current owner makes money by backing up the region’s power grid on the coldest days. And while it’s rare to see a smoky plume, the 421-foot stack looms over the tip of Cousins Island, the largest structure on Casco Bay and a monument to the age of petroleum.

Meanwhile, an impressive 75 percent of Maine’s electric supply now comes from hydro, wind and biomass. But three decades later, oil remains the dominant heating fuel in Maine and petroleum-fueled transportation is the state’s largest source of greenhouse-gas emissions.

So what can young people do about stolen dreams and lost childhoods? Lecturing world leaders makes good video and headlines, but it has little effect. Greta and other youthful climate luminaries: The heads of China and India are beyond your influence.

Young Americans: Do you want to have real, near-term impact on climate change? Put all your efforts over the next 10 months into denying Donald Trump a second term. Same with his Republican enablers running for election or re-election to Congress.

If you’re too young to vote, help with registration drives. Make sure your family and voting-age friends go to the polls.

This is not a political statement. It’s not even a Gen Z-vs.-boomer thing. It’s just reality.

No one else has done more to set back progress on climate action in the United States, the world’s second-largest greenhouse-gas emitter after China. From “clean coal” to oil and gas “energy dominance,” Trump stands apart as the world’s leading climate change denier and climate destroyer. No one else gives more comfort and cover to the same fossil fuel and industrial interests that have held sway since the days of Ed Muskie.

Think about the damage of another four years.

Then think about what change looks and feels like, on a much smaller scale in Maine.

For eight years, then-Gov. Paul LePage and his Republican allies ignored climate change and did all they could to hamstring solar and wind energy. In less than a year, Gov. Mills has reversed most of LePage’s anti-renewable energy policies and is trying to position Maine as a national leader in fighting climate change.

It’s too soon to say how effective her efforts will be, but young Mainers, Mills is your Green New Deal. On Monday, she’ll turn 73.


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