If you don’t know who Greta Thunberg is at this point then you might want to emerge from underneath your rock. The 16-year-old Swedish girl who began the school climate strike movement with a solitary protest a year ago has become internationally recognized for her activism and have since gone onto speak at the United Nations Climate Change Summit, met with world leaders, appeared in US Congress and is currently on a global journey to lead youth climate change protests in 161 countries.
Since August 2018, the ninth-grader has rallied hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, adults and world leaders to take action on climate change. Thunberg initially launched the “Fridays For Future” movement, encouraging students to skip school to demand action on climate change from their governments. Today she’s at the helm of the largest global climate change movement yet, involving over 4 million people around the world. But while the numbers are impressive, is it enough to create the governmental responses needed? Greta has accomplished what few adults could and turned the climate change debate into a global movement – but it’s still not enough.
Protesting alone is not enough
If you can’t translate the passion for demonstration into radical change, what are you really protesting for? Do protests always work? Mass marches function first and foremost as movement-building tactics, giving people an immediate sense of being part of something larger than themselves, a palpable collective sense of power. But does it always work? Sure, the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act followed on the heels of the historic 1963 March on Washington, but the influence of the march on the legislative victories was an indirect one, and more often than not, marches do not result in the practical solution they so crave.
Campaigns are not enough to make fundamental change. Other activities are important, like building economic and social alternatives and stimulating cultural and personal transformation.
Global Climate Strike
The kickoff of the Global Climate Strike proved that climate activism is coalescing into a powerful global movement, but the real question is whether there’s enough pressure, not just to prompt bold talk from progressive politicians but to pass rigorous policies and legislation in the face of intense government polarization.
At the climate summit last week, it became glaringly obvious that most of the major economies fell woefully short. Andrew Steer, chief executive of World Resources International, said in a statement, “The lack of ambition stands in sharp contrast with the growing demand for action around the world.”
The mismatch between when we need to act and when many of the benefits will accrue helps to explain why climate change is such a politically and economically thorny problem. It’s proven problematic to ask individuals and governments for investment in a far-off future despite evidence from the scientific community that the earth’s thermostat is essentially being turned up and there are no readily foreseeable ways to turn it back down.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently said that he’s expecting leaders to cut back on “beautiful speeches” and instead, bring “concrete plans and clear steps to enhance nationally determined contributions by 2020, and strategies for carbon neutrality by 2050.” Thunberg echoed the Secretary’s sentiment in an impassioned, tearful speech to world leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit saying “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean,” she said with tears in her eyes. “Yet you all come to me for hope? How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”
Be the Change You Want to See
Like they say, talk is cheap. It’s one thing to march on the streets and demand that governments take action but we’re all equally responsible for the carbon footprint we imprint and what we need is not radical speech, but radical change. The biggest challenge with getting people to act on climate change is that it involves a trade-off between short-term and long-term benefits, which is the hardest trade-off for people to make.
Ignoring climate change in the short term has benefits both to individuals and to organizations. Individuals do not have to make changes in the cars they drive, the products they buy, or the homes they live in if they ignore the influence their carbon footprint has on the world. Companies can keep manufacturing cheaper if they don’t have to develop new processes to limit carbon emissions. Governments can save money today by relying on methods for generating power that involve combustion rather than developing and improving sources of green energy, even those that are more cost-effective in the long run.
Ultimately we need to be honest about how we choose to enrich our lives in the present at the cost of the quality of life of future generations. If we can’t look ourselves in the mirror and be authentic about our own impact on climate change, we should hardly expect governments to do it either.
Limit Your Carbon Footprint
We can’t reverse the damage that has already been done, but we can set our sights on what’s happening right now — and commit to doing better. Start with yourself. When you go into the marketplace next time, choose the most climate-friendly, environmentally-friendly alternative. Try and buy locally when you can — whether it be food or other products. Investing in the assets readily available to you in your own neighborhood can also help you reduce your carbon footprint, like use your car less. Walk more. Use public transport. Whatever you choose, it’s not just about reducing emissions but you’re also sending a message to your municipal government. That message being that your community wants, and would use, infrastructure that would help you to drive less.
Whether you agree with Greta or not, she has managed to completely disrupt the climate change conversation with her relentless activism and thought-provoking speeches across the globe. Whether the fervent political energy on the ground can result in practical solutions, however, is still tentative.