There is no denying that climate change has shaped, is shaping, and will continue to shape the state of our planet for a long time to come. Most of us born in the 1990s have grown up hearing about how important it is to remember to turn off the lights, use public transport, and save water. However, it is only recently that the threat of climate change, only occupying a small space in the back of most people’s minds, has evolved into fear of a climate crisis. Climate change is now being understood as a climate crisis by the wider public. The UK Parliament, as well as the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, officially declared a national “climate emergency” in the past month, setting stricter zero net carbon emission targets, including dates for when these targets are to be achieved. Anybody who has been following news coverage on the issue will undoubtedly say that this declaration of a climate emergency came quickly – only days after Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests and climate activist Greta Thunberg’s emotional and well-researched speech to MPs.
Greta Thunberg with her trademark sign, outside the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm.
In August 2018, teenager Greta Thunberg cycled to the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm, carrying handmade leaflets and a sign with the text “Skolstrejk för klimatet (School strike for the climate).” The first day of her strike, she spent about seven hours outside the Parliament alone, as a protest against politicians’ failure to act on the facts. Her first strike lasted for three weeks and has evolved into the global #FridaysforFuture, now a weekly movement, which Greta invites all school children to join. At the time of writing, she has taken part in her protest for 37 weeks – however, now she is not alone in skipping school once a week. When interviewed by the BBC in September, she stated that her purpose was to achieve media attention, hoping it might spur people to “see the crisis and treat it like a crisis, and do something about it.”
Greta has certainly gained “media attention”, giving speeches at TEDxStockholm, the UN Katowice Climate Change Conference, British Parliament, and the XR protests in London during Easter Weekend - this is by no means an exhaustive list. Greta is now a Nobel Peace Prize nominee at age 16. Consequently, it would be hard to deny that Greta has contributed hugely to climate change activism gaining momentum.
Though Thunberg’s critics comment that she is but a child, I would argue that it is just that which makes her arguments so poignant and her voice so loud. Calling her naïve would be unjust; she has proven that she is both mature and highly aware of the complexity of our climate crisis. Even though consequences of current climate actions are unclear, Greta urges us to take immediate action, urging us to use so-called “cathedral thinking”. She occupies traditionally adult-dominated spaces, demanding that world leaders and politicians listen. Yes, Greta is not a “grown-up”, but as she often points out, climate change will hit younger generations the hardest – so it’s in our best interest to act now to ensure our voices are listened to. In fact, Greta appears to be in a better position to voice her opinions on climate change, compared to politicians, who tend to be more caught up in, well, politics. Confronting world leaders at a UN climate change conference, she said: “You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and a living planet.” In doing so, she has become a voice for future generations.
Political float of Greta Thunberg holding the “older generation” accountable for the climate catastrophe, demanding action (Düsseldorf carnival).
Furthermore, Greta is open about her Asperger’s and selective mutism, which make her “see the world a bit different, from another perspective”. She likens her passion for climate change activism to “a special interest”. She has time and time again proven that she is educated, well-researched and brutally honest in what she preaches. Those claiming that she has been indoctrinated, or used by other organisations as a mouthpiece, have clearly not taken the time to listen to what Greta has to say. She fully understands the extent of the issue, and refers to evidence from trusted bodies, such as the UN’s IPCC report; she is likely more aware of the facts than the average political leader, frequently retweeting updates on her Twitter @GretaThunberg. In response to critics, Greta has said, “I think it’s a positive sign that there is a lot of hate,” as she believes it ”must be because they see us as a threat.”
The real threat, however, is not climate change activists such as Greta Thunberg and XR - it is what they are campaigning against. The consequences of “human-induced climate change” are apparent. There will be increasing severity and frequency of global natural disasters such as floods, typhoons and wildfires, bringing about climate breakdown inequalities. Although climate change does not discriminate, climate-related disasters affect already socially oppressed populations to a much greater extent. For example, a 2006 report summarised ways in which Africa – despite playing much less of an active role in perpetuating climate change – in particular, is more negatively affected than any other continent.
Essentially, the facts about how we are destroying our planet are easily accessible for anybody who is unaware, or sceptical – all that remains is to act on them. Likewise, it is all well and good for governments to declare climate emergencies; but without acting on their words,they become nothing but empty promises and hypocrisy.
Picture from Extinction Rebellion’s Instagram, 20 April 2019. The movement has seen a variety of people from different backgrounds and walks of life uniting to call for the government to “tell the truth” and “act”.
It is tempting to talk about a “we,” because there is now a more pronounced group mentality with regards to tackling the climate crisis that we will all face. Greta Thunberg remains an advocate for individual efforts – such as adopting a vegan, low-consumerist lifestyle and not flying. She practises what she preaches, travelling exclusively by train since 2015, even though it is more expensive and time consuming than subsidised flights that are readily available. She says, “it’s worth it, because I couldn’t look myself in the eyes at the same time as I was living that lifestyle.”However, there is only so much change individual lifestyle changes can bring about; Greta recognises the additional need for radical political change – hence the call to action.
Greta no longer strikes alone – she has inspired both young and old on an international level. Although perhaps not directly attributable to her activism, some of the changes we may observe globally are definitely connected, such as the rise of XR and the 15 March strikes that saw over 1 million students walking out from school in over 100 countries. The crowd of voices uniting against the lack of political action and calling for politicians to deliver on their empty promises is growing louder. As Greta Thunberg repeatedly points out, “The climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change.”
*Illustration by Juliet Richards*