A Parent Responds to Greta Thunberg

The young climate change activist says someday children may ask, “Why didn’t you do anything while there was still time to act?” The question haunts me.

Tynette Deveaux
Jul 28, 2019 · 4 min read
Greta Thunberg, photo by Anders Hellberg

In a TED talk last November, the sixteen-year old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg wondered whether the children and grandchildren of the future will ask, “Why didn’t you do anything while there was still time to act?”

It’s a question that’s haunted me, even before I knew Greta had posed it to the world.

I woke up late to the climate crisis. I first remember feeling it in my bones during the summer of 2016 as temperatures in my city became unbearably hot. Back then there wasn’t much talk in the media about how heat waves and other extreme weather events were linked to climate change, so it was still possible to keep my head semi-submerged in ignorance and denial. But that ended in October of last year when the IPCC report came out stating we had only twelve years left to make the necessary changes to prevent global warming from going above 1.5 degrees celsius, beyond which we would see catastrophic results. Finally, a line had been drawn.

Now if you happen to be a parent, chances are when you heard the news, like me, you quickly did the math to figure out how old your child would be in 2030. Maybe you also wondered about your grandchildren, or whether your child would have children in light of the foreboding future. But what did you do then? If you’re like most people, you probably didn’t do much.

Climate scientists have been discouraged for some time that the public doesn’t seem to be getting the message that this crisis is real and we need to act now. Even more distressing, though, is that our young people are feeling defeated by our apathy. The other day I spoke with a Millennial who has been committed to climate- and social-justice issues for years, even adopting a vegetarian diet at a young age, and I could hear the hopelessness in his voice.

So back to Greta’s question. How will you respond when asked, “Why didn’t you do anything while there was still time to act?” Will you say, “I didn’t really know things were that bad”? If you do, you’ll be lying. Unless you live at the bottom of a well, there’s no way to deny the climate crisis anymore.

Perhaps you’ll defend yourself by saying, “I didn’t know what to do.” It’s an interesting but hollow defense. If you don’t believe me, imagine your teenager or another young person coming up with that excuse after participating in a party with underage drinking and drugs that turned deadly. I’m sure you’ll have a few choice words regarding what they could have done.

The excuse I seem to encounter the most these days is that the problem is already too big to tackle. I call this defense What can’t little ol’ me do? Sometimes it’s accompanied by other things we tell ourselves to minimize our responsibility and power: The government, big companies, and my neighbours aren’t doing anything so why should I?

The next time you feel that question surfacing, imagine standing before a young person — perhaps your own child or maybe Greta — and saying it out loud. Could you say it to them without breaking their hearts? Without breaking your own heart?

Enough with the hurtful excuses.

Maybe you’re ready to do something in response to the crisis but you just don’t know how. I get it; it’s hard. And it can feel overwhelming. Like most overwhelming things, you have to start somewhere — maybe it’s somewhere small, where you feel you can have an impact, or maybe you’re compelled to take a large, bold step in order to feel you’ve made a difference. It doesn’t really matter so long as you’re doing something continuously. Walking requires more than one step; if you’re going to get somewhere, you have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Addressing a challenge like global warming is no different.

By now some of you are thinking, Yeah, but what difference will it really make? So here’s the thing: scientists are telling us the situation is dire but it’s not too late if we pull together and make the necessary changes and sacrifices now. Not everybody will or can get on board. Those of us who live in relative comfort afforded by our privileged positions in society will need to do more than others. But it’s clear that we can make a difference and that many people have already been making a difference while some of us have been sleepwalking through climate change.

Will it be enough? Will it be in time? We can’t know for sure, but does it really matter? Would you tell a child you’re not going to try to save their future because it might not work out and then you’d have wasted your time?

Someday, when my child or grandchild asks me, “Where were you when there was still time to act?” I hope to be able to say, “I was right there, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with others who cared deeply about your future and the world we would leave behind. We did everything we could because you deserve that and more.”

Tynette Deveaux

Written by

Editor, writer, and mother who wants action on climate change.

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