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Seniors join climate fight in South Korea, redress for 'dark side' of economic boom

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Seniors join climate fight in South Korea, redress for 'dark side' of economic boom
South Korean senior citizens have joined the climate movement with a group called 60+ Climate Action, which held its first event on Wendesday. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, Jan. 19 (UPI) -- Dozens of senior citizens took to the snowy streets of Seoul on Wednesday to lend their voices to a climate movement that is typically the domain of much younger activists.

Calling themselves 60+ Climate Action, the seniors staged a rally outside the city's historic Tapgol Park and marched to a nearby plaza in downtown Seoul, wearing green face masks and carrying hand-drawn signs with personal messages to their grandchildren.

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The group's organizers said it was time for South Korea's older generations -- often conservative-leaning and considered deeply out of step with the fast-moving society -- to get more involved with the most urgent issue of the day.

"The climate crisis is not only an issue for the young generation," Yun Jung-sook, a longtime environmental activist and co-director of 60+ Climate Action, said. "We think that 60+ people need to change our role, to show a new, active and different voice."

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Yun said older generations grew up celebrating South Korea's stunning industrial transformation from a ravaged post-war nation to a global economic powerhouse -- a change that came with an environmental cost, as the country became one of Asia's biggest greenhouse gas emitters.

"From the very early days of elementary school, we learned that economic growth is progress, is success," Yun said. "But there was a dark side."

Now the seniors are trying to do something to address the legacy they've left behind.

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"Our generation got to enjoy the industrial development," 67-year-old Min Yoon Hea-kyung said. "But we produced too much. We consumed too much. And we didn't care enough about our future generations. So now we've got to help change things for the generation coming up."

The South Korean seniors aren't alone -- a growing number of gray-haired groups have sprung up around the world, such as the Swiss grandmothers who sued their government for failing to protect them from heatwaves caused by climate change.

Bill McKibben, one of America's foremost environmental writers and activists, also recently founded his own group to mobilize senior support for climate issues, Third Wave.

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The activists on Wednesday said senior citizens bring a number of advantages to the climate action movement.

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"Some are very well-educated, some have connections, some have many more resources than the younger generation," said Rhee Kyung-hee, 74, a retired professor. "Most important of all -- we have plenty of free time."

The 60+ Climate Action group was initially formed in September and counts around 100 active members, with several hundred more who have signed on to express their support.

Members have started projects such as a visit to environmentally vulnerable areas on the island of Jeju to meet with locals and help attract media attention. Organizers are working on letter-writing campaigns and looking to increase the pressure on political and business leaders to address the climate crisis.

South Korea has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030-- but the country still remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels for its energy needs, generating around 40% of its electricity from coal and only 6.5% from renewable sources.

Climate watchdogs say South Korea's goals are not nearly enough to meet the demands of the 2015 Paris Climate Accords, which aim to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels in order to avoid environmental catastrophe.

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"The people realize that climate crisis is a serious issue but the government is moving too slow," Yun said. "This is not an agenda for the future or for the young. It is here, right now, and all the generations have to be involved."

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