Can the wisdom of a 16-year-old inspire us to action around the climate crisis?

In January this year, an unassuming 16-year-old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, stepped up to a podium before some of the world’s most powerful global leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Her soft voice began to stress the urgency of action around climate change, but she wasn’t looking for pity or to preach a feel-good message around hope. Dismissing hope as a weak strategy, she felt something stronger was needed: fear.

Still in school, Thunberg is too young to vote, has no economic resources, and lacks any position of formal power that would allow her to sway global markets. But she does have a voice, and a growing following of young people around the world that join her to “strike for the climate.” Love her or dismiss her, there’s no ignoring that this teenager is inspiring young and old to act around the world. Here’s what she had to say:

“According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) we are less than 12 years away from not being able to undo our mistakes. In that time, unprecedented changes in all aspects of society need to have taken place — including a reduction of our CO2 emissions by at least 50 percent. And please note that those numbers do not include the aspect of equity,
which is absolutely necessary to make the Paris Agreement work on a global scale. Nor does it include tipping points or feedback loops such as the extremely powerful methane gas being released from the thawing
arctic permafrost.

At places like the World Economic Forum in Davos, people like to tell success stories. But their financial success has come with an unthinkable price-tag. On climate change, we have to acknowledge that we have failed. All political movements in their present form have failed, and the media has failed to create broad public awareness. But homo sapiens has not yet failed. 

Yes, we are failing but there is still time to turn everything around. We can still fix this. We still have everything in our own hands. But unless we recognize the overall failures of our current systems, we most probably don’t stand a chance. We are facing a disaster of unspoken suffering for enormous amounts of people. Now is not the time to speak politely or focus on what we can or cannot say. Now is the time to speak clearly. 

Solving the climate crisis is the greatest and most complex challenge that homo sapiens has ever faced. The main solution however, is so simple that even a small child can understand it — we have to stop our emissions of greenhouse gases. Either we do that or we don’t. You say that nothing in life is black or white — but that is a lie. A very dangerous lie. Either we prevent a 1.5 degree of warming or we don’t. Either we avoid setting off that irreversible chain reaction beyond human control — or we don’t. Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t. That’s about as black or white as it gets. There are no gray areas when it comes to survival. 

We all have a choice: We can create transformational action that will safeguard the living conditions for future generations, or we can continue with business as usual and fail. This is up to you and me. Some say that we should not engage in activism. Instead, we should leave everything to our politicians and rather vote for change.
But what do we do when there is no political will? What do we do when the politics we need are nowhere in sight?

Just like everywhere else, everyone is talking about money. It seems that money and growth are our only concerns. Because the climate crisis is one that has never before been treated as such, people are simply not aware of the consequences in their everyday lives. People are not aware that there is such a thing as a carbon budget and just how incredibly small that remaining carbon budget is. That needs to change today. 

No other current challenge can match the importance of establishing a wide, public awareness and understanding of our rapidly disappearing carbon budget. This should (and must) become the new global currency and the very heart of our future and economics. 

We are now at a time in history where everyone with any insight into the climate crisis, that threatens our civilization and the entire biosphere, must speak out — in clear language — no matter how uncomfortable and unprofitable that may be. We must change almost everything in our current societies. The bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty. The bigger your platform, the bigger your responsibility. 

Adults keep saying, “We owe it to young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”  

Greta Thunberg is a Swedish climate activist.