At one point in her podcast for Swedish public radio on Saturday, Greta Thunberg invokes a 183-year-old Danish morality tale that perfectly captures the new ways of thinking she says are needed to solve the climate crisis and her surreal journey to the heights of global climate activism.
The 17-year-old Swedish teenager, whose August 2018 protests in front of Swedish parliament sparked the Fridays for Future “school strike for climate” movement, draws parallels between her experiences and those of the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” published by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen in 1837.
“The emperors are naked. Everyone single one. It turns out our whole society is just one big nudist party,” she says of the governments and businesses that — like the tale’s naked emperor, who parades around in allegedly invisible new clothes until a child finally calls his bluff — act as if they are reducing carbon emissions but, in fact, either “simply refrain from reporting the emissions, or move them somewhere else, to systematically sweep things under the carpet, lie and blame someone else.”
As she calls attention to the “creative accounting” that is widely used to avoid drastic cuts to industrial CO2 and other warming gases, Thunberg indirectly highlights her own role: the “child” unafraid of speaking truth to power. It was that fearlessness in her that gave rise to the youth climate movement.
“No one is held accountable. It’s like a game. Whoever is best at packaging and selling their message, wins. And since the truth is uncomfortable, unpopular and unprofitable, the truth doesn’t stand much of a chance. Moral truth, long-term and holistic thinking seem to mean nothing to us,” Thunberg says in her 75-minute podcast airing in Swedish and English on SR International – Radio Sweden.
She wants listeners to comprehend the staggering “absurdity of the situation,” a world in which adults lie to themselves about what they are doing and what is needed, thus becoming dependent on kids to tell the truth about the planet’s existential threats: “The fact that the responsibility to communicate them falls on me and other children should be seen for exactly what it is: a failure beyond all imagination.”
The podcast begins with her trip to last year’s United Nations General Assembly in New York, where her startling newfound celebrity outshone many of the world leaders on the world stage. She arrived there after spending two weeks aboard the 18-meter, carbon-neutral Malizia II sailboat to avoid flying. Commercial aviation generated 2 percent of all human-caused CO2 emissions before the coronavirus pandemic.
“Presidents, prime ministers, kings and princesses all come up to me to chat. People recognize me and suddenly see their opportunity to get a selfie, which later they can post on their Instagram with a caption #savetheplanet,” she said, evidently repelled by fame for its own sake. “Perhaps it makes them forget the shame of their generation letting all future generations down. I guess maybe it helps them to sleep at night.”
Even U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel lined up to snap selfies and have a quick chat with the teenage activist extraordinaire. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern waited in line, but ran out time. Six months earlier, Thunberg was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Three months after the assembly, she would be named Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2019.
In her message to Guterres’ U.N. Climate Action Summit, held on the sidelines of the assembly, Thunberg angrily denounced world leaders for relying on youth to demand changes to current policies that U.N. Environment, or UNEP, says will heat the planet by 3.2 degrees Celsius by this century’s end. At the summit, just 40 percent of the U.N.’s 193 member nations committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.
“Yet another meeting is over, and all that is left are empty words,” she says in her podcast.
“The emperors are naked. Every single one. It turns out our whole society is just one big nudist party.”
— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) June 20, 2020
Lawmakers with ‘pink milkshakes’
Thunberg is clear: She doesn’t know how to solve the climate crisis. Neither does anyone else.
“There is no magic invention or political plan that will solve everything,” she says. “Because how do you solve a crisis? How do you solve a war? How do you solve a pandemic without a vaccine? The only way is to treat the climate crisis like you would treat any other crisis: to come together, gather all the experts, put other things aside and adapt to the new reality. To act as quickly and strongly as the situation allows.”
And therein lies the answer, she says, which is to respond to rising temperatures as the existential crisis that it is — and to take real action that is based in science. By the time she’s grown up and finished her education, Thunberg notes, the world will have run out of time to fulfill the 2015 Paris Agreement’s goal of preventing temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees C. above pre-industrial levels, or 1.5 degrees C. if possible.
“In a crisis, you act even if you don’t know exactly how you are going to solve the problem. In a crisis, there’s no time to wait for specific answers and details. Because the answers have to be found along the way,” she says. “In a crisis, you need to put all cards on the table and think long-term and holistically. The climate crisis doesn’t have a vaccine. We have to admit that we don’t know how we are going to solve it. Because if we would have known, then it wouldn’t have been a crisis in the first place.”
On her visit to Washington last year, Thunberg recalls, she felt disgust at all of the fast food available in the corridors of the U.S. Congress, where she urged the House Climate Crisis Committee and a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee to “united behind science” by heeding scientists’ forecasts and taking real action to slow global warming. Thunberg is vegan because of animal agriculture’s major contributions to climate change.
“Here you find the most powerful policy makers in the world sitting in their suits while drinking pink milkshakes, eating junk food and candy,” she says, though she adds that “politicians are pretty much the same no matter where you are in the world.” Animal agriculture is the second biggest contributor to human-made carbon emissions after fossil fuels, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the leading cause of water and air pollution, deforestation and biodiversity losses.
She recalls telling U.S. lawmakers about the important work of the Nobel Prize-winning United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, which reported in 2018 that it’s life or death for much of the planet as soon as 2040 — and that the difference between another half-degree or 1 degree C. will mean fewer deaths and illnesses, 0.1 meters less sea rise and half the number of people lacking fresh water supplies.
“Then they laughed nervously and started talking about something else,” she says of the lawmakers’ reaction.
Thunberg’s journey through the U.S. and Canada lasted five weeks. They heard nonstop Christian pop and country music, and saw redwoods and buffalo; mountains, lakes and forests; canyons, glaciers and deserts; prairies, swamps and cotton fields. She ate canned foods, beans, french fries, bananas and bread. Her father, 50-year-0ld Swedish actor Svante Thunberg, drove an electric car borrowed from Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Some things made deep impressions: the damaged pine trees throughout the West, gnawed by mountain pine beetles proliferating in a warming climate, and the melting glaciers, vanishing at rates of 5 meters a year.
“There are signs of change, of awakening. Just take the ‘Me Too’ movement, ‘Black Lives Matter’ or the school strike movement, for instance. It’s all interconnected. We have passed a social tipping point. We can no longer look away from what our society has been ignoring for so long, whether it is equality, justice or sustainability,” says Thunberg. “From a sustainability point of view, all political and economic systems have failed. But humanity has not yet failed. The climate and ecological emergency is not primarily a political crisis. It is an existential crisis, completely based on science. The science is there. The numbers are there. We cannot get away from that fact.”
They stayed in motels or at the homes of activists, scientists, authors, doctors, journalists, hippies, diplomats, movie stars and lawyers. They made it to 37 U.S. states, where through car windows she saw coal trains in Nebraska and Montana, oil wells in Colorado and California and ghost factories in Indiana and Pennsylvania.
She saw 16-lane highways and endless parking lots and shopping malls. She counted 40 different types of coffee and 200 varieties of soda for sale at some gas stations. She passed by big livestock trucks with cows and pigs on their way to the slaughterhouses. She glimpsed too many brand new RVs, motor boats and tractors to count. She noted the giant billboards bearing anti-evolution, anti-abortion and anti-science messages. She saw oil refineries coast to coast, but relatively few sightings of wind farms or other renewable energy sources.
Her impressions form something of an ironic rejoinder to the observations that Alexis de Tocqueville conveyed in his mid-19th century classic, “Democracy in America,” which focused on how the young immigrant nation seemed to be improving upon the social conditions that settlers left behind in Europe.
“I’m stunned by the economic differences and social injustices which, in many ways, are an affront to all forms of human decency,” Thunberg says. “I’m outraged by the oppression targeting especially Indigenous, Black and Hispanic communities.”
She rails against climate injustices, namely those against the people who she says are and will be hit the hardest, same as in most other crises: the poorest and most vulnerable, particularly women and children.
“They are the ones with the least resources living in the most vulnerable parts of the global society,” she says. “The United Nations predicts that by the year 2050, there will be up to 1 billion climate refugees in the world. I wonder what will it take for us to start facing these issues, and begin to ask the uncomfortable questions?”
Verhojansk north of the Arctic Circle in Siberia recorded +38°C today… https://t.co/qla2lfvxeh
— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) June 20, 2020
Time to do the ‘seemingly impossible’
In the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement canceled everything. She takes it philosophically; everyone had to “take a few steps back” and act for the greater good.
With governments closing borders and ordering people to stay at home, carbon emissions dropped to 17 percent below 2019 levels, according to a study published in May. Yet as nations sought to reopen their battered economies, emissions in mid-June climbed back up to 5 percent below the 2019 average.
“There is nothing positive about the corona crisis from a climate perspective. The changes made in our daily lives due to COVID-19 have extremely little similarity with the action needed for the climate,” Thunberg says. “The corona tragedy, of course, has no long-term positive effects on the climate, apart from one thing only: namely, the insights into how you should perceive and treat an emergency.”
It is not lost on her that nations were forced to respond to the pandemic with financial bailouts, tough restrictions and other measures that she has been calling for to deal with the climate crisis — or to prevent the millions of deaths each year due to polluted air. The World Health Organization has reported that “known avoidable environmental risks” cause at least 13 million a year in preventable deaths, or a quarter of all deaths and disease burden, including 7 million deaths a year from air pollution.
And last November, U.N. Environment reported that the world must begin cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 7.6 percent a year starting in 2020 to meet global targets for avoiding the worst effects of planetary overheating. Its report found the gap is dangerously wide between the goal of limiting global warming to no more than 2 degrees C. this century and the reality of what is politically achievable — left unchecked, the world’s current policies will likely result in a 3.2 degrees C. temperature rise.
“The people in power have thus practically already given up on the possibility of handing over a decent future for coming generations. given up without even trying. It sounds terrible, I know, but in reality it is even worse,” Thunberg says. “Because even if they want to act in line with what is needed, which actually sometimes is the case, they can’t. And that is because we are stuck in already written contracts and business agreements. It’s just simple math.”
“So if we are to avoid a climate catastrophe, we have to make it possible to tear up contracts and abandon existing deals and agreements on a scale we can’t even begin to imagine today,” she continues. “And that alone requires a whole new way of thinking. since those types of actions are not politically, economically or legally possible today. The climate and ecological crises cannot be solved within today’s political and economic systems. That’s not an opinion; that’s a fact.”
Thunberg says the “green deal” debates, such as the European Union’s ambitious three-decade European Green Deal unveiled last December or the “Green New Deal” sought by Democrats in the U.S. Congress, “ironically risks doing more harm than good, as it sends a signal that the changes needed are possible within today’s societies. As if we could somehow solve a crisis without treating it like a crisis.”
But she ends her podcast on a high note, saying “things may look dark and hopeless, but I’m telling you there is hope. And that hope comes from the people, from democracy, from you, from the people who more and more themselves are starting to realize the absurdity of the situation.”
“Nature doesn’t bargain, and you cannot compromise with the laws of physics,” she concludes. “And either we accept that, and understand the reality as it is, or we don’t. Either we go on as a civilization, or we don’t. Doing our best is no longer good enough. We must now do the seemingly impossible. And that is up to you and me. Because no one else will do it for us.”