On Monday, September 23rd, 2019, Greta Thunberg delivered an angry and pained speech to the UN Climate Action Summit 2019. But it follows 120 years of increasingly bewildered and uneasy communications by the climate scientists and experts who preceded her. We should have listened to them.
Before we get into Thunberg’s powerful message, let’s talk about what has been tried before to communicate the urgency and severity of the issue of human-caused global warning and attendant climate change.
Around 1890, a guy named Arrhenius calculated the impacts of burning fossil fuels on global warming. It wasn’t pretty. He put up his hand and politely said, perhaps we should rethink this. He was ignored. Fossil fuel use skyrocketed since then, along with, of course, greenhouse gas emissions.
By the 1970s, we pretty much had confirmation of what Arrhenius had been saying from satellite data. A bunch of scientists put up their hands and politely said, perhaps we should rethink this fossil fuel thing. They were mostly ignored. Fossil fuel use skyrocketed since then.
In the late 1980s, the UN IPCC was formed. A couple of years later it issued its first assessment report on the impacts of climate change. The huge body of scientists said, politely, hey everyone, this is really going to suck horribly unless we rethink this entire fossil fuel thing. They were mostly ignored and greenhouse gas emissions have skyrocketed since then.
In the late 1990s, the Kyoto Protocol was signed. It said, hey, everyone, this fossil fuel thing we’ve been pointing out for about a hundred years is really getting out of hand, so we should probably address it with some urgency. The Protocol was mostly ignored and greenhouse gas emissions have skyrocketed since then.
In 2006, a former Vice President and Presidential candidate of the US, Al Gore, produced a documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, on the subject. He calmly walked through all the available data with good visualizations. He talked about the likely impacts without raising fear or hate, just data and impacts. And the impacts were really, really bad for people, the economy and the environment. Change was obviously way overdue. A lot of people on the right decided that this was a good time to stop ignoring the subject, and instead start hating Al Gore and denigrating the subject. Greenhouse gas emissions have skyrocketed since then.
In 2015, world leaders convened in Paris for COP21. They all agreed to keep warming under 2 degrees Celsius, with an aspirational target of 1.5 degrees. The US walked away from that with the election of Donald Trump, and US emissions went up 3.4% in 2018. Global emissions have just gone up since 2015, and the global targets various countries have actually non-bindingly committed to won’t come close to keeping us under 2 degrees, never mind the only really bad 1.5 degrees. We’re currently on track for the incredibly bad 3 degrees.
So here we are. Globally, greenhouse gas emissions have been going up rapidly for 120 years since the first scientist put up their hand and said, we should probably rethink this fossil fuels thing.
And now, in 2019, a 16-year-old girl is calling us all out for our refusal to act with any sense of urgency. She’s telling us how much this is hurting her emotionally and that we should be ashamed of ourselves. She’s using accurate but emotionally charged language to make us care enough to reduce the massive impacts to the futures of people her age and generations to come.
She’s expressing intense fear about what she will have to live with for the next 60 to 80 years, and understandably so. Anyone who spends any time looking at the reality of the situation goes through at minimum periods of depression about the wasted opportunities and the increasingly remote possibility of limiting damage to manageable levels. We restrain ourselves regularly from screaming at the top of our lungs to anyone who will listen that we aren’t doing enough and it’s a fucking crime, because we know that we will reduce our impact if we do.
But she’s a 16-year-old girl. When you listen to her speak, if you aren’t an amoral asshole, as so many aging, male conservative commenters seem to be right now, you feel empathy for her distress. You want to listen to her words because she’s a child in pain. You want to help. You want to do something.
And that seems to be working for at least some people who have been ignoring reality, attacking the messengers and preventing action. That’s positive. We had over 4 million people marching in the streets of 2,500 towns and cities globally on September 20th, 3 days before Greta’s impassioned cry for urgency. It was mostly people Greta’s age, but a lot of parents and adults were there to support them. It’s those kids’ future we are screwing up.
So you’ll forgive Greta and us if we are trying, desperately, to cut through the fog of disinformation, and if we get angry at the continued actions of the fossil fuel industry and their lackeys. And you’ll accept that when we are deeply upset about the pro bonehead idiots who spew their regurgitated pap, we have been listening to their effluent for decades and seeing the result of that steady erosion of stewardship.
As the UN IPCC 1.5 degree report clearly showed, we have until about 2030 to radically reduce our emissions, and even half a degree more is a lot worse for pretty much everyone in the world who isn’t insulated by vast wealth.
I’m more optimistic than Thunberg. But I do try to keep my emotions more in check. I’m disgusted by climate change deniers. I’m angry at fossil fuel companies who are greenwashing their products with carbon capture, and the enablers who let them. I’m frustrated by Canadians who appear to be much more likely to hand the October election to the climate change increasing party instead of the one that brought in the carbon tax, because of stupid and thoughtless actions on the part of the Prime Minister in the past, actions which he’s gainsaid with decades of action for inclusion and a sincere apology.
After all, we’ve had 120 years of scientists and experts telling us calmly that climate change was occurring and that it would be bad, and 70 years of global peace since WWII to do a lot about it. But instead, we massively increased greenhouse gas emissions.