What is Greta’s message?
This blog post on climate change was originally written in 2020, during the first wave of the Pandemic. It is still relevant today, in fact moreso. More fires and more rising temperatures are hitting the world. More melting ice and rainfall where it should never rain. We need to take this seriously. It is our last chance.
I listened to Greta Thunberg on a BBC Radio 4 podcast the other day. She was reading out an essay, composed originally for Swedish radio, mostly about her past year and whirlwind tour of North America. It was during this trip, in September 2019, that she delivered her famous "How dare you" speech to the United Nations. I thought this Radio 4 podcast provided a clear explanation of where she is coming from in terms of explaining the effects of climate change and the climate emergency.
In this blog I will arrive at the 9 points that Greta is making in the Radio 4 podcast. I want to do this because it strikes me that a lot of people just dismiss her (in my age bracket at least) as a precocious teenager, without listening to what she has to say herself. These nine points summarise her message, as I see it, and make her position clear. Please read through to the end of this blog in order to fully understand how I get to the Greta Thunberg 9 points. At the end of reading this blog I would be delighted if you would comment with your thoughts, on the media treatment of Greta Thunberg as well as climate change in general and the risks you think we face.
Also, what does it mean to live sustainably in an urban environment in 2020? Is our very habit a contradiction to the environment or can we personally and ethically live and commute here whilst aiming for a zero carbon footprint? Please comment down below!
The Thunberg essay made me think more about what I am trying to communicate myself about the urban environment in 2020, for it is that which is a huge driver of carbon emissions, such as traffic pollutants; at least it has been until recently, and is still at an unacceptable scale. I talk about the greeting cards that I sell on my website (to celebrate the urban theme) being “environmentally friendly”, but what does that mean exactly, and is it sufficient or just empty words?
I also have been wondering what changes might take place beyond 2020 as a result of Coronavirus, in terms of how central London and other major towns and cities might adapt in the future. With lots of offices and commercial spaces seemingly no longer required, will they become ghost towns, or a sterile museum of how people before 2020 used to commute into cities? Or will it adapt into something more sustainable and allow us to continue to celebrate all the diversity and beauty that exists in our urban neighbourhoods and communities? Obviously, the big carbon emitting factories tend not to be placed in cities anymore, and instead are displaced around the country. This is still something that we need to resolve.
The urban model has been around since the start of the industrial revolution when new technologies created work around water power and people migrated to the new towns and cities of the north to find work there. My own ancestors did the same when they migrated from the centre of Ireland to the filthy conditions of urban Victorian Manchester in the 1850s. I have talked a bit about this in another blog about my family history. In recent decades commerce and industry has dispersed somewhat away from the towns, but really that is just shifting the problem.
Initially urban industries were not clean technologies. The current climate change debate centres around how we can extract ourselves from this, still, relatively dirty urban economy into something more sustainable. That cannot, unfortunately, be resolved by the flick of a switch or the enactment of a new law. It takes consensus and gradual change in attitudes, economic models and lots of communication. Unfortunately, the time to do that is running out.
I know a lot of Gen-X and Baby Boomers who do not really understand the Thunberg message and just see an image of a precocious young girl who might even be under the influence of pushy parents who just want to make money. They also make statements such as, but what does she want? There is no solution. There are just too many people in the world! I also know that is a controversial opinion to state and it is not my opinion, but I have heard it said a lot.
I thought, therefore, I would delve a bit deeper into this topic in order to get past the media spin about Greta Thunberg and hopefully explain the salient points she is trying to make.
What hope is there if the media and politicians do not understand the emergency?
We all remember seeing the reports of Greta’s United Nations “How dare you” speech in the past year where she berated the politicians for leaving it to a schoolgirl to push for a response to the climate crisis. It was interesting, therefore, to hear her own words around her UN experience. Her speech was actually about the carbon budget and the responsibility of developed countries to take this seriously. We all need to be aware of the 7-8 years remaining to act, according to scientists in the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report. This is all the time left for the world to address the rising temperatures and keep them below the 1.5 degree increase from pre-industrial levels, as was previously predicted at the time of the Paris Agreement of 2016. This agreement aimed to maintain that level, but by 2019 it was clear that it would no longer possible if we just follow the terms of the Agreement without any enhancement. This statement is outlined in the IPCC report by the scientists for anyone who chooses to read it. It is clearly frustrating to Thunberg how the media trivialises this message that she is trying to convey.
The fact that the media reported mainly on the emotional “how dare you” part of the speech is a little unfair. You could argue that it gave her message more of a spotlight until you notice that the main argument of her speech was ignored. The whole problem with the climate debate is firstly that it is a debate at all, but also that the issues are not being reported properly by the media, who prefer to sensationalise the person rather than the message, because they think that is what people want to read and hear. The truth, after all, when you look into it, is just not palatable.
Greta comes across as a quirky young girl because of how she is reported by the media, and subsequently this is how she appears to those who consume the media. Yet she would argue that it should not be for a child anyway to be the only adult in the room when it comes to something as important as saving the planet from irreparable damage. She knows that politicians will try to exploit this child for their own political benefit. They do not really understand the urgency of the climate emergency and are keener to have a selfie taken with her to post onto social media with the hashtag #savingtheplanet. Yet at the same time, these same politicians, as observed by Greta in the UN building, obliquely consume their junk food lunches in the canteen and have no awareness of the lack of priority and focus they place on this emergency.
It is rather depressing to hear Greta’s experience in a meeting with other young people, including some Dakota people, in Nancy Pelosi’s office where it becomes clear that resolving climate change can never happen whilst there are so many social injustices still to resolve in the world. Interestingly she references the large portrait of Abraham Lincoln hanging on the wall. Lincoln, in December 1862, was responsible for one of America’s largest massacres, when 38 Dakota Indians, including women and children, were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota for a rebellion. This is quite like the injustices felt within the Black Lives Matter movement and the injustice of seeing so many statues of slave owners and racists dotted around the country. It is all inter-connected.
Coronavirus shows us how it is possible to treat an emergency
One has only to compare the response to the Covid-19 emergency to notice the stark differences. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the world is united in finding a solution to the problem: funding research, changing behaviours and listening to the science. With Covid-19 we cannot put a price on saving lives. Yet 17 million people die every year from air pollution. What must we do for politicians to treat the climate emergency the same way as they do for Covid-19? Coronavirus has not really helped the climate issues, but it has provided some insights in how to address it if we are to treat it as the emergency it is.
Climate emergency is happening right now
Greta describes her journey, in an electric car, across North America from Manhattan towards San Diego in Chile where she believes the next UN conference will be held. She observes the excessive consumption of carbon along the route, from oil fields, shopping malls, cattle trucks being taken for slaughter, RVs, motor homes. The list is endless. There is no obvious sustainability model being followed.
Another observation Greta makes about the climate emergency is that it is not something to solve for the future of our children. It is happening right now, impacting people right now. She visits several sites along her trip that support this argument. Forests are burning down American towns, such as Paradise, CA in 2018, because of the higher temperatures and drier climate. In the Canadian Rockies, the Athabasca Glacier is melting because of the effect of sunlight on soot deposits embedded in the ice from nearby forest fires. One specific and frequent fire is in the nearby mountain pine forest, which is about 50% impacted by the explosion in population of the mountain pine beetle and is dying at an exponential rate. Previously this beetle would have died mostly in the cold Canadian winter, but the warmer climate allows it to survive, causing a devastating impact on the pine tree population, which in turn becomes fuel just waiting to burn. The chain reaction is quite clear to see and the tipping point is here already. The glacier is melting at a rate of 5 metres a year and, at some point, will be gone forever, removing a huge source of drinking water for millions of people.
Are there too many people in the world?
It is often said that there are too many people in the world, as if it is the developing countries, such as India, who are to blame with their “over population”. Yet these larger developing economies are well within the carbon limits. India, for example, consumes only 1.7 metric tonnes per capita, compared the USA's whopping 16.5 or the UK's 6.5. It is the developed world, of fewer people, who are ignoring the limits set out by the Paris Agreement (of course, China is included in this list as the top offender). Worse still, they wilfully export their carbon consumption by employing cheap labour in these developing countries in order to appear compliant.
Which version of the science should we follow?
The debate about the Paris Agreement is over and the differences of opinion amongst scientists can no longer be exploited by those who deny that we are responsible for climate change. The reason: global temperatures are now expected to surpass the 1.5 degree increase level even if the commitments to the Paris Agreement are met. We need to return to zero emissions, or lower now.
The effects of climate change are real and happening right now. The raw truth is that there is no magic wand that will fix everything. We only have best guesses, and right now that is about controlling carbon emissions. The point is not about the solution that might or might not be the right one, it is about focusing on the emergency and coming together to resolve it.
Structural change is needed
If we look more closely at North America, we see structural changes that are firstly required if the continent is to have any hope of becoming sustainable. The unsustainable consumption that Greta describes on her trip through the US and Canada all needs to change (as does much of Europe, by the way). But how can we do this when the media is complicit in supporting the politicians with their current economic models? These models are incongruous with sustainability. There are empty gestures of course, just like the inane small talk that Greta experiences at the UN by those who supposedly care about the environment. But words, such as “environmentally friendly”, “organic”, “fossil free” etc are meaningless if our entire economic approach is still focused on carbon rather than sustainability.
Yet how can there be a feasible solution when we look at what exactly is required right now in order to be suitably sustainable? In her essay, Greta acknowledges the enormous structural changes required to meet the carbon budget in order to control global temperature rises, as are outlined in the IPCC report. Here is a quotation from the page in the report that she references:
“This would require large-scale transformations of the global energy–agriculture–land-economy system, affecting the way in which energy is produced, agricultural systems are organized, and food, energy and materials are consumed.”
(IPCC report Page 108, Chapter 2.3)
What will it take for this to happen, but also for it to be palatable to the consuming public? We live in a democracy, after all.
We need to achieve negative carbon consumption, not just curtail it
By sustainable, it is no longer sufficient to curtail our carbon emissions. We need to go negative in the 7-8 years remaining. That is not a long time, more-or-less the same as the 2012 Olympics to right now. If we do not prevent the 1.5 degree increase in global temperatures from pre-industrial levels by then, there will be irreversible damage (according to the IPCC report), much worse than the effects we are seeing currently. We have already passed 1.2 degrees and can see the changes happening. We should be treating this as an emergency, just like Covid-19. We should be looking to make structural changes, even if that means ripping up legal constraints that are used as excuses to do nothing. We should listen to the science.
The economic model has failed but humanity has not
Greta does not actually believe that people are wilfully ignoring the evidence. The problem is that, for the majority, people do not understand it, and the facts have not been communicated to them coherently. The media is complicit in trivialising the message and politicians seem only concerned in winning votes rather than addressing the emergency as they should. Everybody is interested in Greta the person, but she is just a messenger, as well as a child. She would prefer people to learn about the science rather than learn about her. She is not as important as the climate emergency.
There is no solution, currently, to the climate emergency. That should not stop world leaders from investing time and resource to find a solution. Technology might be the answer, and there are prototypes to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, but it is not yet mature enough. If we focused our energies on something like that, in the same way that we are seeking a vaccine to Covid-19, there could be an answer. Until then, communication is key. With 7-8 years remaining to reduce our carbon emissions sufficiently there is no time to waste.
To rip up legal constraints and destroy structural economic models before we can fix the problem is not a popular answer. It might not even be the right answer if it is not done properly. It makes the whole cause sound like a Marxist plot, which does not really help. Yet reducing carbon emissions is all we have, with the current science. How we achieve that is down purely to our own creativity. And that is endless.
In the end, in absence of any political leadership, it is down to the people to form the movement for change, just like they have done previously with Me Too, Black Lives Matter or school strikes. There is hope if we can educate, listen to the science and treat the climate emergency in just the same way that we treat Coronavirus. There might not be a solution right now but carbon control is our best bet so far. Let us invest our energies into finding a solution, investing into solving the problem. This is not a problem for the future it is a problem that is occurring right now.
To summarise, here are the Greta Thunberg nine points:
- Greta is misrepresented by the media who trivialise the message she is conveying.
- Her message is to listen to the science and act as you should in an emergency
- The effects of climate change are happening right now, not in the future.
- Effort, focus and creativity will lead to a solution, but will it be in time?
- Covid-19 has shown us how people can act if required.
- Structural change is required, which is extreme, but necessary
- Change will come from the movement not (initially at least) from politicians.
- Economic models have failed but humanity has not.
- Why does it take a child to say this?
Obviously, you will have your own thoughts on whether you respect what Greta Thunberg has to say. Please leave a comment below! For me, she has opened my eyes to a document that I had not read. From that I can make up my own mind. Regardless of the politics around this we should still respect those who have an opinion and try to stay with the published evidence. With the lack of any political choice in mainstream politics it might seem that the solution is far away. Perhaps Covid-19 will turn out to be the planet’s saviour as it guides us towards the solution.
Finally I would recommend everybody to listen to the BBC Radio 4 podcast which is available on BBC Sounds and make your own mind up!
(edited in September 2021: the same message applies, only it's worse this year)