The Swedish environmental activist has sparked a nu-gen climate revolution, but her mission holds universal appeal.
In April, a 16-year-old girl was invited to address members of parliament in Westminster on the subject of climate change. Dressed in purple jeans and a check shirt with her hair plaited in pigtails, the diminutive figure seemed shy as she took the microphone to address a packed audience of prominent politicians. That was, until she started to speak.
“Can you hear me?” she began. “Around the year 2030, ten years, two hundred and fifty-two days, and ten hours away from now, we will be in a position where we set off an irreversible chain reaction beyond human control that will most likely lead to the end of our civilisation as we know it.”
The teenager was, of course, none other than Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who captured the world’s attention last August with her solitary climate change protest outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm.
Nine months later, and Thunberg’s Skolstrejk för Klimatet (school strike for the climate) to raise awareness of global carbon emissions, environmental destruction, and climate change has sparked a global youth movement in 112 countries across the world, inspiring tens of thousands of young people to strike for the environment with #FridaysForFuture protests.
As public concern over the environment reaches an all-time high in the UK since Thunberg’s parliamentary speech and Extinction Rebellion protests earlier in April, the climate crisis has never been more prominent in our consciousness. According to YouGov, the environment is considered by almost half of 18-24 year olds as the third-most pressing issue facing the nation, ahead of the economy, crime and immigration.
Naysayers have been quick to use Thunberg’s age to discredit her activism, including Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill, who branded the teenager a “millenarian weirdo” for her progressive values and passionate youth following.
And, while it’s true that Thunberg’s message has inspired an unstoppable wave of nu-gen activism, her message truly does hold universal appeal for those feeling disillusioned with the languid pace of change in addressing the climate emergency.
Look closer at Thunberg’s speeches, and you find a unique talent for holding a red flag to political inertia. From the COP24 UN climate talks and the World Economic Forum in Davos, to the EU Parliament in Brussels, Thunberg has repeatedly held governments accountable for delaying, defaulting, or refusing to take action on the climate crisis.
In her speech to MPs in the Houses of Parliament, for instance, she launched a blistering attack on the UK’s “very creative, carbon accounting” around emissions, as well as taking them to task for continued fossil fuel consumption and fracking.
“This ongoing irresponsible behaviour will no doubt be remembered in history as one of the greatest failures of humankind,” she told the packed audience. “You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to.”
You’ll also notice that Thunberg is upfront about the fact that she wants the adults in charge of creating legislative change to behave like adults.
In a new interview with Wired, Thunberg clarified that at the heart of her personal climate activism and wider #FridaysForFuture protests is a mission to disseminate scientific information, not oversee law-making.
“I have spoken to many politicians who ask me ‘What do you think about this?’, and it’s just insane,” she explained. “We are not doing this because we have solutions and we want to be the ones in power, we are just messengers. We are just children and we cannot solve this. We cannot wait for us to grow up and become the ones in charge because by then it will be too late.”
In other words, confronting those in power with the grave environmental facts they so assiduously work to conceal, is the means by which we can all put environmental issues on the agenda and engender change.
And though Thunberg might be a compelling public speaker who doesn’t shy away from presenting us with visions of an apocalyptic future, her power lies in encouraging us to call bullsh*t on the lack of action coming from our political institutions - and then taking matters into our own hands, whether we protest on the streets, lobby our local MP, or raises our voices online.
In the words of Thunberg, “When we start to act, hope is everywhere.”
Four simple ways everyone can stand up to climate change in 2019
1. Make your voice heard
First things first, speak up. While traditional methods of activism such as marches and protests still hold major power, in the digital era, there are a world of possibilities to show you care about a cause. From emailing your parliamentary representative to ask them about their commitment to tacking environmental issues, to contacting your favourite fashion and beauty brands to ask them about their production processes, we can all push for greater transparency around protecting planet earth. While you’re scrolling Instagram on your lunch break, lend your support to environmental campaigns, then spread the word among your family and friends, too.
2. Use public transport
It’s quick, it’s cheap, and it reduces the levels of toxic air we breathe on a daily basis. So if you’re in an unhealthy relationship with Uber, it’s time to break up. Resolve to travel more responsibly, whether that’s by using the train, bus or tram to get to work. If you’ve a serious aversion to public transport, consider cycling, carpooling with friends, or better yet, putting your feet to the pavement. And while you’re planning that European minibreak, why not look into travelling by train like Greta Thunberg, or even exploring the hidden gems of the UK with a British staycation.
3. Reduce your waste
In 2019, reducing your waste isn’t simply about carefully sorting your black and green household bins once a week. Every single product we buy comes with an environmental footprint, so when you’re doing your weekly food shop, try to buy loose, packaging-free produce, and support local suppliers where possible. Pick up a food waste bin for your scraps, and if you don’t have the option of collection from your local council, look into starting a compost heap in your garden, or even find an allotment nearby. Failing that, get creative in the kitchen and find ways to make tasty meals from your leftovers.
4. Embrace a sustainable diet
We’ve known for a long time that food production has a toxic impact on the environment, but new research has shown that meat and dairy account for 83% of farmland use and produce 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, meaning there’s no time like the present to embrace a plant-based diet. Instead of making meat the focus of your meal, reorient your thinking and embrace a wider range of vegetables, grains and legumes. If you’re stuck for ideas, get used to ordering from the vegetarian menu next time you’re out for dinner, then introduce a meat-free day once a week.