Greta Thunberg is impressive. At 17 years of age, she has made an indelible mark on the world.
In only a year, the teenager has gone from lone figure sat outside the Swedish Parliament to galvanising millions of people around the world to stand up against climate change. The combined forces of her School Strikes for Climate and the rise of Extinction Rebellion have captured the world’s attention.
But while these protest seem to have focused attention and spurred some action — there’s is a crucial element missing from the movement.
In his 25th September op-ed, Times columnist David Aaronovich began to explore this issue. He praised Thunberg’s honesty, integrity and her achievements. He also took on her detractors for their lack thereof. But this passage in the article is instructive:
“As the American writer Franklin Foer said this week, her speeches are like Obama’s speeches turned inside out: they contain no lyrical passages and they are couched in accusatory language. There’s no ‘yes we can!’, it’s all ‘just look what you did!’ As a psychoanalyst friend said to me, it’s exactly how therapists are taught not to speak.”
He goes on: yes, some people get off on hellfire, but it can frighten more people than it energises. Political leaders, like Macron, trying to do something about the issue faces major upheavals like the gillet jaune. And the force with which she conveys her messages, can cause some people to believe that she — and the rest of the climate movement — is exaggerating.
This ‘head in the sand’ turn to skepticism has always been a problem for the climate movement. It is one of those issues that is SO big, and seemingly SO unsolvable that people switch off from it. Climate change, described in its entirety, makes people feel powerless. So despite the fact that we have known about the impacts of climate change for decades, newspaper headlines, IPCCC reports and doom mongering speeches make the majority want to turn the page, close the tab or switch off the TV.
How to make change on these big issues is something I’ve been interested in for a while. In 2017 I launched a pamphlet for the Fabian Society about delivering the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)in the UK. In it, I argued that the sheer scale of the goals and their ambition were a hindrance to their implementation, but that there were a number of lessons we could draw on from other movements to improve communication, galvanise communities and create government action. This included from the climate movement.
What I believed the climate movement had always been so good at doing was providing common entry points, localising their message, making it relevant to the communities and empowering communities to take action. These campaigns have been able to link the impacts of global and local decisions — highlighting and finding an expression for a shared sense of injustice.
And here is where the crux of the issue lies.
Creating change and building political will requires a set of number of things:
- A common problem, about which we have the facts and around which we can mobilise. Greta provides this in oodles for the climate movement. Her approach, however distasteful to some, does help. She is raising awareness and galvanising people.
- A mobilisation of concerned people to draw attention to this issue, demonstrate what change looks like and put pressure on decision makers. The Climate Strikes and XR, in this case.
- And hope. We need positive messages that lift up above, that paint a common picture of the future that everyone can buy into, contribute to and help them understand what they stand to gain by any sacrifices they may have to make.
No movement survives without hope. And these three things together create the political will and wider support for change.
The current climate debate is hopelessly negative.
Yes, XR and Thunberg herself have set out policy prescription and are calling for zero carbon targets. What they want is clear.
Yes, we do need to heed the science and pay attention to the things we can see happening in front of our very eyes. Climate protestors are right to raise awareness about the bleak future we may face without urgent action.
But, that is not enough. The climate movement is up against a substantial lobby that seek to reinforce this message of doom and gloom.
In his latest article for Project Syndicate, Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton, wrote about the need for civil disobedience in the climate movement. But he concluded: “We need more innovative ideas about how best to convey the urgency of the situation and the need for a sharp change of course.”
For me, this is where hope comes in.