The greatness of Greta

The endearing picture of the diminutive Greta Thunberg bumping fists with former US President Barack Obama is, in a way, an affirmation of the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist’s own words: “No one is too small to make an impact and change the world.” Thunberg has been trying to do that for over a year. She began by striking schoolwork every Friday to protest in front of the Swedish Parliament and shame the political class into taking action on the catastrophic problem of climate change. Her lone protest, with placards that had slogans like “School strike for climate” and “I’m doing this because you adults are shitting on my future”, quickly swelled into a movement. Since then, thousands of school kids around the world have followed her lead and come out on the streets to demonstrate against governments not doing enough to reduce carbon emissions and save the earth from irreversible environmental damage.  

“I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists,” Thunberg told the US Congress this week, submitting what she called her “testimony” — last year’s report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that warned that the world needed to significantly cut emissions if we are to limit global warming to 1.5°C, beyond which the planet’s climate could become unsustainable.

Listening to Thunberg speak in her clear, calm voice, watching her grave face as she makes her implacable point, you are awed by this teenager’s resolve to make the powers-that-be understand that the world is not theirs to squander, that the young have the biggest stake in it and adults have a duty to protect it for future generations. And listening to her, you also feel a stab of hope that while the likes of US President Donald Trump scoff at the very idea of climate change, at least Thunberg’s generation recognises its awful truth and its calamitous effects and is doing what it can to keep the conversation centred on the urgent need to bring in regulations to reduce greenhouses gases.

You are awed by Thunberg’s resolve to make the powers-that-be understand that the world is not theirs to squander
Unsurprisingly, Thunberg is rigorous in her commitment to minimise her own carbon footprint. She is a vegan and has persuaded her parents to give up meat and eschew air travel. Her current trip to the US was made on a zero-emission, solar-powered racing yacht that set sail from Plymouth in the UK and took 14 days to cross the Atlantic and reach New York. Thunberg is a vigorous champion of the flygskam (Swedish for “flight-shame”) movement that’s aimed at making people embarrassed about flying because of the gazillions of emissions that the aviation industry throws up. 

Is this extreme? Perhaps. However, extraordinary circumstances may well require extraordinary and exemplary responses. Today, a lot of millennials are deciding not to have kids because they don’t want to bring children into a world which is staring at disastrous climate changes leading to droughts, floods, wildfires, extreme heat and food shortage. BirthStrike is a British organisation of people who have pledged not to have children because of the impending “climate breakdown and civilisation collapse”. Many others feel the same way. US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently voiced this concern amongst the youth: “There’s scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult” as a result of climate change, Ocasio-Cortez said. “It does lead young people to have a legitimate question: Is it OK to still have children?”

This week Emma Lim, an 18-year-old Canadian student, started a movement called #No Future, No Children, vowing that she would not have kids until the government took serious steps to combat climate change. Nearly a 1,000 youngsters have already put their signatures on the pledge. Yes, many of these teens are little more than children themselves, and some could change their minds after a few years. And yes, scientists say population control cannot mitigate the effects of the scale of climate change we are looking at. But the very fact that the young are so deeply troubled by this existential threat to the planet that they feel they do not wish to procreate, shows their resolve to fight climate change. 

Perhaps Greta Thunberg and young crusaders like her will take the earth back from the brink. If they have the time.   

Shuma Raha is a journalist and author based in Delhi @ShumaRaha

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