On a high-speed, zero-emissions vessel, Greta Thunberg arrived in the
U.S. from Europe on August 29 – a masterpiece of symbolism and PR savvy, the kind which by now we’ve come to expect from the Swedish teenager and her fellow activists in the Fridays for Future movement. In the space of just one short year, their audacious “school strikes” on Fridays have prompted a startling reality check among citizens and politicos in much of Europe and beyond, including German chancellor Angela Merkel – but, alas, not in the US. Paul Hockenos reports
Thunberg underscores that she hasn’t spent two weeks on a tiny 60-ft high-tech yacht with no kitchen or toilet in order to have an audience with the US president – or his climate-denying followers.“Why should I waste time talking to him when he, of course, is not going to listen to me?,” Thunberg told CBS. “I can’t say anything that he hasn’t already heard.”
So, why then has Ms. Thunberg taken the trouble and considerable risk to sail carbon-free to the new world? First on her agenda is attending the UN Climate Change Summit in New York on Oct. 15-16. But she’s mentioned no return date and obviously plans to stay a while. In fact, she’s taken the year off from school to engage full-time as global climate activist.
The Fridays for Future campaign here in Europe most probably didn’t convert any of the hardcore climate-change deniers either – and they exist in Europe too, though in much smaller numbers. These types, on both continents, live too deeply in the mostly right-wing echo chambers to be convinced by any quality or quantity of fact.
Rather, Thunberg and peers aim their message of existential urgency at those who already grasp that climate change is human-made, and believe that humankind can still do something to curb it. And they’ve succeeded spectacularly so far by jolting many of Europe’s climate-change believers out of their contrary-to-all-evidence detachment and passivity. The young people speak the truth about global warming’s devastating consequences for their generation. Thunberg is like the child in the Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” who calls out the king’s nakedness.
Yet, this overwhelming majority – no different than believers in the US – had managed to distance themselves, more specifically their consciences, from the ominous, long-term ramifications of their rational, evidence-based convictions. Most of the global-warming believers accept the fact of climate change, as well as some of its consequences – after all, the extreme weather impacts all of us right now – but without letting it affect their daily lives, psychological well-being, or political actions. Books such as David Wallace–Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth, among others that portray the terrifying fate of a world with unchecked rising temperatures, haven’t triggered a collective epiphany.
In light of the facts, the relaxed attitude of most climate-change believers just doesn’t make sense. Here we are, the generation most responsible for the climate crisis, which will alter the world for our children and their children (and all children to follow) dramatically for the worst – and even threaten civilization itself. But, nevertheless, we continue driving, flying, consuming, and voting much the same way as we had in the past: business as usual while the 200,000-year history of humans is spinning out of our control.
There’s a cognitive glitch in play that enables this modus vivendi: a different kind of climate-change denial, but undoubtedly denial about the grave implications of the climate crisis.
It could be naïveté, as one German Green Party leader surmised when in 2017 I asked him why the Greens, the only party emphasizing the issue, stood at just 8% in the polls, even though over 90% accept climate change as a fact. “Many Germans seem to think that we have the Energiewende [the renewables transition] and the Paris treaty, and that’s enough to get the job done,” he told me, referring to the 2015 UN treaty designed to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Or, he presumed, perhaps people are simply lying to themselves in the face of the overwhelming evidence before them. Maybe it’s just too much to process, he suggested.
Until the Fridays for Future movement surfaced, the German Greens were actually downplaying the direness of global heating’s impact, thinking it was counterproductive, that it would scare people off. Rather, they figured, they’d try to emphasize its perks: less pollution, new jobs, local revenue from renewable energy generation, smart cities.
Not eating meat and dairy, switching to renewables, forgoing fossil-fuel travel, taking to the streets in protest, investing in green funds, donating to the pro-climate campaigns and political lobby groups: who wouldn’t undertake such actions – including sailing across the Atlantic Ocean – to save their grandchildren from calamity? The sacrifice wouldn’t be so great for parents and grandparents in light of the suffering in store for our future generations.
The intention of Greta Thunberg’s sea passage is to shatter the comfortable state of denial that reigns, which is a flight from reality no less preposterous than that of the original climate-change deniers. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise – or even slow and stabilize too gradually – the fate of our civilization is at stake. An International Panel on Climate Change report published last year gives us twelve years to bring rising temperatures under control or lose the window to brake warming at 1.5 degrees centigrade. There’s a broad consensus among scientists that this is the case.
Accepting the magnitude of what confronts us, the young activists underscore, means changing our lifestyles, yes, but more importantly it means overthrowing the political status quo. This includes a hefty carbon tax, cutting all subsidies for fossil fuels and binding 2030 targets for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.
Thunberg, known for her unvarnished realism, has her work cut out for her in the US. Even the profusion of Democratic candidates for the presidency fall into the category of de facto climate-crisis deniers. Although they, at long last, address the issue of global heating and many back the Green New Deal, they speak about it very generally, as if it is one issue among many, not the issue of our time.
There can be no more business as usual, which Thunberg’s transatlantic trip emphatically underscores. Only when Fridays for Future’s cogent rationale sinks in, will we respond with the radical, systemic measures necessary to head off the worst of the tragedy upon us.