Greta Thunberg – a hero of our generation?

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December 15, 2019 by Cláudia

Being chosen as the person of the year by TIME magazine was just the consolidation of Greta Thunberg as an inescapable icon. Eloquent, unapologetic and fierce, Greta Thunberg has completely revolutionized the climate justice movement, making it insanely more mediatized (for good and for bad) and mobilizing masses in a way that the other climate activists hadn’t managed to before.

Her harsh criticisms towards political decision-makers reverberate through social media (with different levels of seriousness), official negotiations and apolitical casual discussions. Her speech at the 24th UN Conference of Parties was absolutely revolutionary, not only because of the actual content of it, but also because of the sternness of her voice and the unprecedented level of accusation of political leaders and wealthy stakeholders. She was bluntly saying: It’s your fault and we’re not having it. What really took her to almost immediate stardom was the media’s quick realization of the mediatic value of a child telling off big decision-makers.

The tremendous media coverage that followed made her somewhat of a celebrity. That (uncalled for) sudden stardom brought not only climate justice to the spotlight but also Greta’s personality under close scrutiny. Often disregarded or mocked for her young age or having Asperger’s syndrome, Greta has been a target to her fair share of criticism. At only 16 years old, she has already experienced how being in the public eye turns people into an easy target for criticisms often accused of being uninformed, catastrophizing, being manipulated by her parents or mocked because of her Asperger’s, only to name a few of the least offensive criticisms that are addressed to her on a daily basis.

Greta Thunberg has been a source of heated debate in social and political circles, debates which are not always very productive and seem to often overlook how revolutionary she actually was in the climate movement and in the world History in general. Because of her strong words of accusation and a general call for arms, the climate movement has become incomparably stronger and more cohesive. The massive climate school strikes are something that has never been seen before. While most social movements have had an important student component, being Universities a place of intellectual and political discussion, never have actual children been this mobilized for a social and environmental issue before.

The importance of Greta for this international movement has largely transcended her personality or actions. She woke up many indecisive climate activists and gave a new spurge of energy for many existing others.

But besides what she accomplished as a beacon of hope and cohesion, what has Greta Thunberg actually done?

People criticize her for pointing fingers at a political elite and for blaming decision-makers for not acting on climate change. And they’re right. Her demolishing speeches targeting international political decision-making organizations and national governments could not be clearer – they need to act now. She’s saying it has to come from the people in power and that legislation and restrictions need to make the choices we cannot make for ourselves more sustainable.

I can change all the lightbulbs I want, but if the energy is still coming from fossil fuels, emissions will keep rising. I can eat only vegan meals but if the food is not local and is not produced sustainably, we’ll still be dealing with deforestation, soil erosion and burning of fossil fuels. We can do what is possible to live more sustainably, but if we don’t have any structure supporting us, it’s an effort made in vain. Although it is hard to accept, we as individuals are just not that powerful. Most of the important choices in our daily lives are already made for us.

“I’m not travelling like this [by boat] because I want everyone to do so. I’m doing this to send the message that it is impossible to live sustainably today. And that needs to change. It needs to become much easier. We can not require everyone to rely on people like this to sail you across an ocean. That is absurd.”

Lisbon, 2019

What is usually referred to as “catastrophizing”, is actually coherent with the most conservative peer-reviewed, virtually consensual scientific predictions. She talks about climate with urgency because the current climate situation is urgent and gives little hope. She speaks like it is a matter of life or death because it literally is a matter of life or death.

“People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight?

UN, Climate Action Summit, 2019

Often I’ve heard that her speeches are empty. No real content or solutions. She doesn’t actually know what she’s talking about. Quite the opposite, she has profound knowledge of the IPCC reports, which she quotes and refers to frequently (although those attract significantly fewer media attention. It doesn’t really fit the “angry-girl carnival” that attracts media coverage).

In any case, her speeches are incredibly clear about the solutions we need to see – Greta repeatedly asks politicians to listen to climate scientists. The IPCC has even published a special report called Summary for policymakers with the dire consequences of not keeping the temperature under 1,5ºC and the slim likelihood of that threshold being respected.

Even the most conservative scientific reports are in agreement: the situation is dire and it’s very unlikely that we can prevent catastrophic warming. Solutions, however, exist and have existed for a long time. IPCC created emissions scenarios with the respective average warming for different energy and agricultural systems. So, even if we don’t necessarily know everything about the climate crisis solutions, we know enough to get started (IPCC’s solutions to mitigate climate change).

“But the climat crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions. What we have to do is wake up and change”

TED talk, 2018

Regardless of pointless criticisms, Greta Thunberg is a force to be reckoned with. Her words are sharp and cut right where it hurts. No matter how it’s phrased, criticism towards her always misses the point – because there is just no denying her core message. The uncomfortable message that we are living in a warming climate, that is going to accentuate social disparities and turn society as we know completely upside down. That our society is ruled by private interests and politicians who are short-sighted enough to keep protecting them. Unapologetic and analytical, Greta just tells it like it is. She has the superpower to look at complex interactions and express them in a clear concise way (much like Naomi Klein). It takes a lot of courage to face some of the most powerful people in the world and tell them “we will be watching you”.

Greta is right.


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