Greta Thunberg: 'Wake up and treat the climate emergency as an emergency'

November 9, 2022
September climate rally in Sydney. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Climate activist Greta Thunberg was interviewed by ABC’s 7.30 presenter Sarah Ferguson on November 3. Below is a transcript of the interview.

In your new book you appear to be despairing of our chances of saving the planet. Is that a fair assessment of where you are right now?

I don’t think so actually. People often ask me if I am an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to saving the climate. I always say that I am a realist. It is definitely possible for us to avoid the worst consequences of this crisis, but not if we continue like now. There are certainly opportunities and chances for us to save what we can possibly save. But if we continue as we are now there is not very much hope in sight. The hopeful thing is that we can change what we consider to be politically possible, we can change social norms and we can change our behaviour.

You say in your book that we can’t live sustainably within the world’s current economic system and there are predictions that the world economy will double in size by 2050. So how do you produce the kind of change that you want to see in the face of that?

That’s a very good question. Of course, we don’t know exactly how to do that. If we knew the answer to that it wouldn’t be as big a crisis as it is. When I say we cannot live sustainably in an unsustainable world, one very clear example of that is that I was just sitting here calculating my carbon footprint online.

Even if I click to do everything right, I still exceed the planetary boundaries just by existing and paying taxes. It is impossible to live sustainably today. That is one of the main reasons why I chose to sail across the Atlantic Ocean twice, to show that it is completely impossible to try to live sustainably.

Our society is just not built like that. It will take a lot to change that.

Of course, we need to move away from looking at individual behaviour to having a more systemic approach. It is a good reflection and a good measurement to see how bad the situation really is and to see how far we are from the bare minimum that is required to be done.

You clearly think that the phrase “climate change” is not enough now to describe the situation we are in, now that the climate is breaking down and destabilising. Do you think that process is irreversible?

It’s not a matter of whether I think something is reversible or not. The science now clearly shows that already at 1.5° of global average temperature rise, we will be seeing irreversible tipping points beyond human control. We need to heed the principles of safety. It seems that for every issue apart from the climate issue we go for the safest option.

You have said that net zero by 2050 is too little too late. Why do you say that?

Net zero can be any date. What is usually talked about is net zero 2050 or 2045 as we have here in Sweden. These are cherry picked dates based on carbon budgets, which do not give us a good chance of staying below our internationally agreed climate targets.

It also excludes many crucial factors, such as tipping points and feedback loops as we discussed before, as well as being completely dependent on negative emissions technology, that do not exist at scale.

They also include many loopholes, such as burning biomass, which is considered carbon neutral, when in fact in the short run it means even more carbon emissions per unit than many fossil fuels.

But above all, when scientists talk about net zero 2050 it is as a global target. If countries like Australia and Sweden say they will reach net zero emissions by 2050 it means we have completely given up considering any kind of global equity and completely closed the door on any future global climate movement and thus we give up on our climate targets.

The climate crisis is a cumulative crisis. If we completely ignore the historical emissions that were spent mainly by the nations of the global north we will not solve this crisis. For us to have a 66% chance of staying below a 1.5°C warmer climate, 90% of that carbon budget has already been spent. It is very naïve to we ignore that 90% of carbon emissions.

The big climate change conference in Egypt is about to start. You condemned the previous conference as a failure and a PR exercise and you said the leaders were guilty of decades of “blah blah blah”. Do you expect any more from this one?

I do not, unfortunately. As it is now the COPs are not designed to really change anything. That is not why they exist. Right now, they are being changed into an opportunity for big polluters to greenwash themselves.

As long as the level of awareness remains low as it is now people will not have the knowledge they need to put pressure on those in power, who will continue to get away with not doing enough. They will use words against us, using greenwashing, to make it seem like they are doing something when they are not, using PR tactics and communications strategies disguised as politics.

The only way for me to consider COP27 a success or a step forward, would be if more people realised what a scam it actually is under the current circumstances. Having said that, it means a lot to have representation at COP27of the people most affected by the crisis.

Having the people fighting on the front lines of the climate crisis, those who are being hit the hardest, at the COP is absolutely crucial. COPs are an opportunity to mobilise and to spread awareness about the climate crisis, but we have to bear in mind that it will not be enough.

In Australia we have a new government, which said it is committed to dramatically lowering Australia’s carbon emissions. But at the same time Australia is one of the biggest exporters of coal and gas to the world.If you had one message to the Australian people, what would it be?

I would say wake up and treat the climate emergency as an emergency. It seems that many people in Australia think that now there is a new government in Canberra that everything will be fine. Of course, that is far from the truth. There are some parties and governments that are a bit less worse than others.

But as long as we treat the climate crisis as a side topic or just another political issue among many others and do not treat it as the emergency it is and as long as we do not connect that crisis to the many other interconnected crises then the more time we lose. If we keep pretending we can solve this crisis by having a new government then that is not really appreciating the full extent of the crisis. We have to keep pushing in every possible way.

The view of successive governments here has been that it is up to the countries where we export the coal and gas to be responsible for the emissions they create. Do you accept that argument?

Emissions counting is very complicated. There will always be someone who blames someone else making it difficult to hold anyone to account. What we need to do is to take collective responsibility while ensuring that everyone takes responsibility for their bit, for what they can do.

Of course, not everyone can do everything. But if you have the opportunity to do something or to stop doing certain things it is your moral obligation to do so, even if some people might use that opportunity to blame someone else.

Recent studies show that up to 23% of global CO2 emissions could be excluded from the international statistics, the very statistics that future projections and carbon budgets and scenarios are built upon.

That is because everyone uses the same tactic, everyone has the same mindset of sweeping it under the carpet and blaming someone else. That seems to be the universal norm. Unless someone is willing and able to give up that mindset, no one else will so it either.

If countries like Australia and Sweden are able to give that up and start taking responsibility, then why should we expect anyone else to do so.

Have you always seen climate change as a moral question?

Yes, I think so. When it comes to, for example, historical emissions and the aspects of equity in the Paris Agreement and in global climate ambitions and cooperation, it’s very difficult.

Sometimes science is not enough when we are accounting for historical debts that need to be compensated. That is not politics any more, it is a question of common sense. When it comes to that I think it is a question of morality.

Have you come to the conclusion that sometimes green ideology gets in the way of sensible climate action?

It’s fun that people want to put me and other climate activists into different categories. I have never supported any political party. People sometimes assume that I support Green parties but it is not true.

All the current ideologies and party politics have failed to create the necessary changes. No current political party is doing even remotely enough for what is needed. The needed changes are not going to come from inside, from politicians trying to change things from the inside, when everyone else has failed to do just that.

Now, the changes that we need are so big that we need massive pressure from the outside and that will be done by organising on the grassroots level. That is what we are doing and that is why we don’t engage in party politics.

Is your argument that burning coal carries bigger risks than nuclear power?

It really depends on location and the local circumstances. If it is already running it is a completely different matter. We have a very limited carbon budget left that we cannot continue to ignore.

You make the point that the richest countries in the world are responsible for more than half of the world’s emissions. How do you stop developing nations from making exactly the same mistakes as they grow?

That is a very difficult thing to do, especially when we in this part of the world are not even close to being ready to take action on any level. But that just increases the argument even more that we need to take a leading role and act even more forcefully than we would need to do otherwise. It is impossible for us to do so because who are we to say that.

One of the sections of your book that I found particularly fascinating was the one you say we should keep coming back to, which is when you describe what you were doing when you first emerged in Sweden. You say it was more about education than protest. What is the difference between those two things?

In the beginning I didn’t see a difference between them because I thought I was going on a protest in order to educate people. That is also what I hope to do with this book, to raise awareness and educate people, while at the same time leading a call to action. I believe that when we are fully aware and understand the implications of the climate emergency that we will know what to do and we will take action.

You say you take some hope from the great shifts in behaviour we saw during COVID-19 and you put a lot of that down to simple unadorned facts being communicated to the public. Is that part of the reason why you have been so successful with the straightforward recitation of facts?

Maybe. I’m not a communication expert. I just decided to do what I thought was right. For me it has always been so obvious and I just tell it like it is.

I don’t package my message to fit with anyone else’s view or to please anyone. I don’t care if it is something you can like on Facebook or not. I think many people appreciate that.

I don’t think, even if the communications experts say we must appear positive and optimistic, that aligns with the fact that we are in an existential crisis. If we say one thing and act in a completely different way people don’t know how to react. That is how I reacted in the beginning. I thought, if they are saying this is an emergency why aren’t they acting like it’s an emergency? Why are they still saying everything will be fine? I thought is the climate crisis even real.

Do you see the dramatic change in behaviour during COVID-19 because of science?

It’s difficult to compare because the changes we saw during the Covid pandemic are nothing like what we need to make a sustainable transition. But we did see very big social normative changes and changes in the narrative and people’s approach. That could be a source of hope because it shat when we decide to do something we can change. We can treat the crisis like a crisis.

The media can treat the emergency like an emergency. Having said that, the way some people handled the Covid pandemic is very questionable.

But there is something about a straightforward message that does impact humans?

Yes. I think so.

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