Stylist’s Moya Crockett thought she was doing her bit in the fight against climate change. But seeing 16-year-old Greta Thunberg in action made her realise something: she’s not doing enough.
Every so often, a young woman comes along who is so awe-inspiring – so courageous, so clear-eyed, so firm in her understanding of herself and assured in her perspective on the world – that all you can do is sit back and marvel. Malala Yousafzai has this quality. Emma González, who instantly began campaigning to reform US gun laws after her friends were shot dead at Mary Stoneman Douglas High School, has it too. And Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist who just took the UK’s politicians to task for their apathy on climate change, has it in spades.
Thunberg first came to international attention last August, when she began striking from school in protest at the Swedish government’s approach to climate change. She abstained from school for 20 days until the Swedish general election, sitting outside the country’s parliament building each day holding a sign reading Skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for the climate). Once the election was over, she continued to strike from school every Friday, and has been credited with inspiring hundreds of thousands of students in over 1,600 countries to strike from school to demand action on climate change.
In recent weeks, Thunberg has met Pope Francis, addressed a committee of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, and delivered a speech to UK MPs in Westminster. A little over a month ago, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Arguably, this teenage girl with a steely gaze has done more to push the conversation about climate change forward than any one individual in recent years, with the possible exception of David Attenborough. She is that kind of phenomenon.
Thunberg is remarkable for several reasons. Many activists, like Gonzalez and Yousafzai, are legitimately motivated by something traumatic that occurred in their past, but Thunberg is spurred on by her fear for the future. She says she first learned about climate change when she was eight, and by the age of 11 had fallen into a deep depression that only lifted when she decided to dedicate her life to helping the environment. She has Asperger syndrome, a form of autism more often diagnosed in boys, and describes it as a “gift” that helps her “see things from outside the box”.
“I don’t easily fall for lies,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme during her recent trip to London. “I can see through things.”
This sentence – cool, level-headed, resolute – sums up Thunberg’s approach to raising awareness of the climate catastrophe. She is absolutely, categorically unwilling to be fobbed off by politicians and pundits who would like her to stop worrying her pretty little head about the environment; who would like the world at large to believe that things aren’t that bad, that they’ve got everything under control. Thunberg is here to tell us that actually, things are that bad – and our current crop of politicians are nowhere close to tackling the issue. In her speech to British MPs at the Houses of Parliament, she called out our politicians for their apathy.
“You don’t listen to the science because you are only interested in solutions that will enable you to carry on like before. Like now. And those answers don’t exist any more. Because you did not act in time,” she said.
She went on to pour scorn on British politicians who paid lip service to the issue of climate change while failing to take real action. “We have not taken to the streets for you to take selfies with us, and tell us that you really admire what we do. We children are doing this to wake the adults up.”
Thunberg has woken me up. As an adult woman 11 years her senior, I have to admit that I find her presence on the planet both unspeakably inspiring and slightly shaming. When it came to the environment, I didn’t think I was doing too badly. I recycle; I rarely buy fast fashion; I don’t own a car. I carry a reusable water bottle. I fly rarely. I turn off lights. But seeing Thunberg, a schoolgirl from Stockholm, take the world’s politicians to task over climate change has made me realise something: I’m not doing enough.
For years, I had convinced myself that these small props and rituals – hitting the lights, going to the recycling bank – were enough; that they constituted me ‘doing my bit’. But really, they have functioned more as a comfort blanket, reassuring me that I’m not a terrible person while allowing me to turn my head away from the brutal, terrifying reality of climate change. Last autumn, a UN report written by the world’s leading climate scientists warned that we have just 12 years to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5C. Beyond that, any increase will dramatically heighten the risk of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) thinks we still have a chance of keeping warming to 1.5C. But the time for tentative, gradual action is over. This is urgent. And while we should all keep doing our bit individually to help the environment – cutting back on single-use plastic, switching to green energy suppliers, et cetera – we also need large-scale, structural change. For that to happen, we need politicians to start seriously prioritising this issue, and fast.
So far, the signs aren’t encouraging. Theresa May flatly refused to meet with Thunberg, and Boris Johnson – the man widely tipped to replace her – has sneeringly dismissed young climate change activists as “smug, irritating and disruptive” (three words that could just as easily be used to describe the man himself).
But we have only to look to the suffragettes to know that politicians will often change their minds if they think the public mood is turning against them. And how can we make this clear? By taking part in mass demonstrations; by lobbying our MPs; by joining local environmental action groups.
We can all do more than we’re doing. We can all be more Greta.
Images: Getty Images