Every day we are overwhelmed with reports of the climate crisis that is engulfing our planet. The science is clear and the signs of extreme weather events are increasingly impossible to ignore. Cyclones are wreaking havoc on vulnerable communities in south-eastern Africa, record heatwaves are spreading across Europe, and wildfires are burning across California. Yet despite the collective hysteria, many have found it difficult to articulate the urgency of the crisis. That was until Swedish high school student Greta Thunberg showed up.
On 20th August 2018, the then 15 year old Greta Thunberg skipped school to stage a climate strike outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm. Her message was simple: we have to do more to fight the climate crisis.
“I am doing this because nobody else is doing anything. It is my moral responsibility to do what I can” Thunberg has stated. “I want the politicians to prioritise the climate question, focus on the climate and treat it like a crisis.”
Her school-skipping protests became a weekly event outside Swedish parliament. The diminutive teenager’s protests quickly captured the imagination of people across Sweden, a nation which was struck by heatwaves and wildfires in 2018 during the hottest summer since records began 262 years ago.
Today she is not alone. Thunberg has become a global icon, and the face of the fight for climate action. Her protests have led to a world-wide movement, with an estimated 1.6 million students from 125 countries walking out of school to demand climate change action on March 15th. A second general strike was held on May 24th, as hundreds of thousands of children and young people walked out of lessons around the world.
Thunberg’s direct approach towards climate activism articulates the need for us to change our attitudes towards consumption. “We probably don’t even have a future any more” she now famously stated. “Because that future was sold so that a small number of people could make unimaginable amounts of money. It was stolen from us every time you said that the sky was the limit, and that you only live once.”
The pig-tailed teenager has spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the European Parliament and the UN climate talks in Poland. She has even been nominated for the Nobel peace prize for sparking a youth based, world-wide action on climate change.
Recently she met with UK political leaders at the House of Commons, describing the government’s active support of the fossil fuel industry and planned airport expansion as “beyond absurd”.
The 16 year old gave a typically direct speech to British MPs: “this ongoing irresponsible behaviour will no doubt be remembered in history as one of the greatest failures of human kind”.
“I’m sure that the moment we start behaving as if we were in an emergency, we can avoid climate and ecological catastrophe.” Thunberg stated. “Humans are very adaptable. But the opportunity to do so will not last for long.”
Her sense of immediacy is well founded. The authors of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identified that the next twelve years are crucial for stopping climate temperature rise.
A half degree temperature rise will lead to an increase in extreme weather events; ocean acidification; coral die off; coastal and river flooding; diminished crop yields; and an increase of heat related deaths. Perhaps most alarmingly, sea-level rise will affect tens of millions of people by 2100, triggering mass migration from impoverished and low lying regions such as Bangladesh.
Thunberg has also taken a train journey across Europe promoting her cause. Her use of train travel is an example of Sweden’s “flygskam” or “flight-shame” movement, which seeks to promote alternatives to flying. Train travel generates considerably less carbon dioxide per kilometre than flying.
“During the last six months I have travelled around Europe for hundreds of hours in trains, electric cars and buses, repeating these life-changing words over and over again. But no one seems to be talking about it, and nothing has changed. In fact, the emissions are still rising.” Thunberg noted to MPs at the Houses of Parliament in the UK.
Her message is relentless and direct: “Around the year 2030, 10 years 252 days and 10 hours away from now, we will be in a position where we set off an irreversible chain reaction beyond human control, that will most likely lead to the end of our civilisation as we know it.”
Thunberg’s stardom has not only furthered the cause of climate activism. As a public figure who is on the autism spectrum, she is a powerful symbol of what society can achieve when we embrace our differences. Her blunt approach is fuelled by her ‘condition’, which has allowed her to provide a sense of immediacy and clarity which no almost adult activist have been able to articulate in recent years.
As Thunberg’s star continues to rise, we can only hope that the “Greta effect” continues to spread. In the words of Thunberg herself: “Sometimes we just simply have to find a way”.