The New Wind of Change
Greta Thunberg, the best-known of the young people advocating for science-based climate policies, has been called a “revolutionary” both by admirers and critics. This is because she wants change that is serious and fast.
Can it happen in the world today?
I think the answer is yes. A process of serious political change is not only possible; it has already begun. Global youth-led demonstrations are part of this process, and changing voter behaviour is another part.
We’re in a time when the wind of change is blowing, as Harold Macmillan said about Africa back in 1960.
Climate-conscious people demonstrated in their millions around the world in September 2019, the month Greta went to New York and spoke at the UN Climate Action Summit.
Campaigners planned further global street protests for 2020 but prudently replaced them with online activities because of the pandemic. Today medical science is making progress with the COVID crisis, but the climate crisis is still with us.
Greta Thunberg and other young climate activists have called for a world day of demonstrations on Friday, March 19, and it’s likely to be the first of a series.
The young campaigners are warning that impressive-sounding targets set for 2030 or 2050 are not enough.
As Mitzi Jonelle Tan of the Philippines said in a recent press release:
“If we don’t act now, we won’t even have the chance to deliver on those 2030, 2050 targets. What we need now are annual binding carbon targets and immediate cuts in emissions in all sectors of our economy.”
The rise in climate consciousness is seen not only in street marches but also in election results. Joe Biden’s victory against Donald Trump, in which the environmentalist youth movement Sunrise played its part, was not the only good news last year for climate campaigners.
Last June, the Republic of Ireland became the fifth EU nation where Greens are part of the government; the others being Sweden, Austria, Finland, and Luxembourg. Belgium joined the list in October. In December, Greens won a share in government in another European nation, Montenegro, which is currently negotiating to join the EU.
Greens also gained ground in municipal elections in France in June 2020.
In Germany, opinion polls predict major Green gains in national elections scheduled for September 2021.
Environmentalists are entering governments because increasing numbers of voters want them there. This does not mean that the struggle for science-based climate policy has already been won. But it does suggest that the struggle can be won if the grass-roots movement becomes strong enough.
The new worldwide movement is expressing the grievances of climate-conscious people of all ages, but especially the emerging generation.
Greta Thunberg is one important representative of the new generation. Others include India’s Disha Ravi, Brazil’s João Duccini, Uganda’s Vanessa Nakate, and China’s Ou Hongyi (also called Howie Ou).
Young climate activists are responding sensibly to a challenge which will be with them all their lives. They know there is no instant cure for global warming since we humans don’t have fast ways of removing the greenhouse gases we have already put into the atmosphere. But the choices we make can make the problem more severe or less severe.
Greta’s generation is a constituency that will become larger and more determined as time goes on, and they’ll attract increasing support from older people as well.
Politicians and opinion-leaders of every country and every persuasion will be well-advised to listen to this growing constituency. Those who ignore or underestimate the new movement will do so at their own political peril.
Attempts to repress the young people’s movement have happened in some countries.
India’s climate activist Disha Ravi was recently arrested after backing small farmers in their protests against deregulation of agriculture. She was charged under an old anti-sedition law, dating back to British Empire days, and was released on bail nine days later.
Ou Hongyi is exceptionally outspoken, but she’s not the only Chinese person with an interest in the worldwide climate protests.
Actions and statements of Greta Thunberg have been much discussed in China’s social media.
Representatives of state-approved environmentalist organisations (e.g., Zheng Xiaowen of the China Youth Climate Action Network) have quietly yet publicly expressed their sympathy with the concerns of climate strikers in other countries.
The phrase “wind of change” goes back to 1960, when British PM Harold Macmillan spoke at a parliamentary luncheon in Cape Town in 1960:
It was a time when colonial empires, including the British Empire, were breaking up throughout Africa, as nation after nation (including Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi) waged successful campaigns for independence.
“The wind of change is blowing through this continent and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.”
Harold Macmillan was a British Conservative. The break-up of the Empire cannot have been easy for him to like. But he was also a realist.
In 1990, the German rock band The Scorpions used “Wind of Change” as the title of their song about democratisation in central/eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
History seldom repeats exactly. There are all sorts of differences between the African movements for independence around 1960 and the democracy movements 30 years later.
But there are also common factors.
- Both periods saw new organisations forming, new leaders emerging, and big crowds of people demonstrating in the streets.
- In both periods, serious changes happened faster than usual, in years rather than decades, though not as suddenly as the day in 1789 when citizens of Paris stormed the Bastille.
- In both periods, change spread from country to country by the power of example, eventually transforming a geopolitical region.
I think the whole world is in the early stages of a comparable period right now — a time of change that will not be revolution in the old, insurrectionary sense and will not be a gradual evolution either.
It won’t be a single sudden event. It will be a process of faster-than-usual change, overturning the old normal.
This isn’t a time for Bastille-storming, and it isn’t a time for business as usual.