Greta Thunberg's radical response to a strange world

No One is Too Small to Make a Difference
By Greta Thunberg
Allen Lane/Penguin Books, 2019

On August 20, 2018, rather than go to school, Greta Thunberg sat outside the Swedish parliament to protest inaction on climate change. The then-15-year-old Swedish school student had with her some flyers and a hand-painted wooden sign that read Skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for the climate).

On the first day of her strike she sat alone, but news of her protest quickly spread via social media. On the second day, others joined her, and so began a global youth-led protest movement comprised of millions who have taken to the streets to demand a livable future.

If Thunberg’s act of civil disobedience attracted considerable interest, her gifts as a public communicator, evident in numerous speeches given since, have magnified her spotlight. These speeches were published last May as No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference. The book has was republished in expanded editions late last year to include speeches delivered by Thunberg since May.

Much of Thunberg’s activism involves pointing out what is already apparent: Climate change is happening and is a genuine global emergency, the solving of which requires unprecedented action. Obstructing urgent action, she points out, ingores the extent of the crisis.

Although we are witnessing the effects of the climate crisis all around us, Thunberg notes “there are no headlines, no emergency meetings, no breaking news” regarding climate change itself. “No one is acting as if we were in a crisis,” she says.

Thunberg points out that immediate action is needed to end greenhouse gas emissions by shifting to renewable energy sources. The emissions curve, she explains, is the only thing that matters. And the curve continues to rise.

António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, has deemed climate change as “a direct existential threat” and “the defining issue of our time”. The Paris Agreement, an international treaty forming part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was established in 2016. Countries pledged to keep the rise in global average temperatures “well below 2°C” while “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”.

Achieving the 1.5°C target is critical, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says this “would reduce challenging impacts on ecosystems, human health and well-being”. However, this “would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”, with “the next few years [being] probably the most important in our history”.

We have already surpassed 1°C of warming. Yet, much of the world is still on a business-as-usual trajectory, with few if any countries having so far demonstrated a readiness to undertake the unprecedented, transformative changes required to secure a safe and livable future.

Confronting the climate change therefore means recognising, as Thunberg does, that the world’s political and economic systems seem utterly incapable of solving the very crisis they have helped bring about. “You [politicians] … are only interested in solutions that will enable you to carry on like before”, she says. “And those answers don’t exist any more. Because you did not act in time.”

Thunberg prefers to define herself as a realist rather than a radical, and resists the perception that she is political: “This is not a political text”, the book’s opening speech proclaims. Her reluctance to be thought of as such terms is perhaps in part strategic. Her critics, eager to divert attention from the pressing issues, label her exploited, indoctrinated, and compromised by vested interests.

Eschewing ideological labels and sticking to the science seemingly affords Thunberg a sense of intellectual independence, making her message more difficult to dismiss. “Many people love to spread rumours saying that I have people ‘behind me’ or that I’m being ‘paid’ or ‘used’ to do what I’m doing”, she writes. “But there is no one ‘behind’ me except for myself.”

And unlike politicians who are desperate to “talk about almost anything except for the climate crisis”, science is at the heart of her message. “We [young activists] don’t have any other manifestos or demands — you unite behind the science, that is our demand.” Speaking in front of the United States Congress in September, 2019, Thunberg submitted into the record a report from the IPCC in lieu of her own testimony.

Yet, when one considers the implications of what “unit[ing] behind the science” means for our political and economic system, to be a realist in a time of crisis requires radical alternatives. “[O]ur current economics,” she notes, “are still totally dependent on burning fossil fuels, and thereby destroying ecosystems in order to create everlasting economic growth.”

Thunberg lays the blame not on the populace at large, but on corporations and the politicians who work in their interests. “[S]omeone is to blame,” she insists. “Some people — some companies and some decision-makers in particular — have known exactly what priceless values they are sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money.”

The cause of the crisis, in other words, is neither corruption nor an aberration from the norm. Rather it is our political and economic systems running precisely as intended. “We live in a strange world”, she writes, “where no one dares to look beyond the current political systems even though it’s clear that the answers we seek will not be found within the politics of today.”

She concludes that “maybe we should change the system itself”. To achieve this, Thunberg advocates “civil disobedience” tactics and “grassroots” social change. “It’s time to rebel”, she concludes.

In the chapter “I’m Too Young to Do This”, Thunberg says the idea of a student school strike came from phone meetings with other activists, facilitated by Bo Thorén from the group Fossil Free Dalsland. During these discussions, Thorén suggested a student strike, an idea inspired by US students who refused to return to school in the aftermath of a 2018 shooting.

Thunberg liked it, but the rest of the group preferred other ideas. “So I went on planning the school strike all by myself”, she writes, “and after that I didn’t participate in any more meetings.”

In a Tweet meteorologist Martin Hedberg confirmed Thunberg’s account. “I participated in a phone-meeting with Greta, Bo and others in June 2018. After a while Greta concluded: ‘You are not radical enough. I have to do something myself.’ [A]nd then she hung up. She went on to do her thing, her way.”

In the speeches added to expanded editions of the book, Thunberg emphasises the global carbon budget, which estimates the amount of fossil fuels the world can potentially consume before we breach the threshold of 1.5°C of warming. Citing “chapter 2, on page 108 of the SR15 IPCC report”, she notes that at current rates of consumption, we will have exhausted that budget in just over eight years from now. “No other current challenge can match the importance of establishing a wide, public awareness and understanding of our our rapidly disappearing carbon budget, that should and must become our new global currency and the very heart of our future and present economics”, she adds.

Thunberg has Asperger syndrome, a condition that she credits for her activism, saying: “[S]ince I am not that good at socializing I did this instead.” She also credits it for her understanding of the existential threat posed by climate change. Because she tends to see things as “black and white”, Thunberg avoids the cognitive dissonance and doublethink that comes with being passive and complicit in a toxic system: “They keep saying that climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all. And yet they just carry on like before.”

Thunberg’s use of stark binary terms evokes the urgency of our times: “If the emissions have to stop, then we must stop the emissions. To me that is black or white. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival. Either we go on as a civilization or we don’t.”

Thunberg is one of the truthtellers of our age. She aims to awaken us to the horrifying real-world consequences of endless consumption and exploitation. “I have a dream”, she declares, invoking Martin Luther King, Jr. (whom she mentions by name). “In fact I have many dreams. But … [t]his is not the time and place for dreams. This is the moment in history when we need to be wide awake... 

“And yet, wherever I go I seem to be surrounded by fairytales. Business leaders, elected officials all across the political spectrum [are] spending their time telling bedtime stories that soothe us, that make us go back to sleep... It’s time to face the reality, the facts, the science.”

It is sadly predictable — and a testament to the topsy-turvy nature of our times — that someone as clear-sighted as Thunberg should be so regularly denounced as a tool of propaganda. In 2018, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, an organisation concerned with assessing existential risk, set their metaphorical Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight. It was set this close to midnight just once before: In 1953, the peak of the Cold War.

The Bulletin has branded the times in which we live as the ‘new abnormal’. In addition to two major existential threats — the climate crisis and the proliferation of nuclear weapons — the Bulletin cited the “ongoing and intentional corruption of the information environment”, or the spread of propaganda by way of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, which has undermined our capacity for rational discourse.

Last August, the Sun Herald columnist Andrew Bolt wrote a tawdry attack piece in which he repeatedly referenced to Thunberg’s mental health, calling her “deeply disturbed” and likening her to a cult leader.

“Where are the adults?” she responded on Twitter.

A similar question was recently on the mind of the dissident intellectual Noam Chomsky as he pondered, in an interview, this “scandalous” state of affairs in which the fight for a survivable future has been left largely to teenagers. “It’s literally the case that this generation is going to have to determine whether organised human society persists,” he said. “Where’s the rest of us?”

[The expanded edition of No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference is available in both illustrated and non-illustrated formats. Greta Thunberg’s next book, Our House Is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis is a memoir, co-written with her family; it will be published in English in March.]