The 17-year-old climate activist gets a lot of criticism online. Which of those critiques hold water?
- On Tuesday, Thunberg gave a speech at an event in Davos, Switzerland.
- She mainly spoke about the failure of world leaders to act on climate change.
- Also speaking at Davos was President Donald Trump, who didn't mention Thunberg by name, but dismissed the "prophets of doom" who are calling for increased climate change policies.
Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish climate activist, spoke on Tuesday at an event hosted by The New York Times and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. As world leaders in business, politics and industry gathered in the small ski town to discuss the future of the global economy, Thunberg gave a speech criticizing these same leaders for failing to act on climate change.
"We demand at this year's World Economic Forum, participants from all companies, banks, institutions and governments: Immediately halt all investments in fossil fuel exploration and extraction," she said. "Immediately end all fossil fuel subsidies. And immediately and completely divest from fossil fuels. We don't want these things done by 2050, 2030, or even 2021. We want this done now."
You can watch her full speech below.
Immediately after her speech went online, commenters on YouTube and Twitter began criticizing Thunberg. That wasn't surprising. Thunberg has been a target of conservative criticism even since making her now-famous "How dare you" speech at a United Nations climate summit in September 2019. President Donald Trump has also joined in, tweeting that the young activist needs to "chill" and go see a "good old fashioned movie with a friend!"
On social media and YouTube, you're likely to run into a few common critiques of Thunberg. Here are three that deserve a closer look.
'Young people aren't really willing to make sacrifices'
There are a few common critiques of Thunberg in this comment: 1) Greta is all idealism without concrete pragmatic solutions; 2) the world needs to keep producing fossil fuel for power; 3) young people aren't willing to make sacrifices to reduce emissions.
The first critique has some truth to it, while the second seems like a "there is no alternative" fallacy. But let's focus on the third argument, which says that young people say they care about curbing climate change, but they aren't actually willing to make the necessary sacrifices. Is that true?
A 2019 survey from The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation provides some clues. The results showed that:
- Almost two-thirds of teens who believe in human-caused climate change (55% of all teens) said they think they can help make a difference when it comes to reducing the effects of climate change.
- 41% say they've taken action to reduce their own carbon footprint.
- About 25% report engaging in some type of political action in the past 3 years to express their views on climate change, including 15% who say they've participated in a school walk-out, 13% who have participated in a protest or rally, and 12% who have contacted a government official.
Greta's voyage across the Atlantic Ocean was hypocritical
To attend a United Nations climate summit in New York City on September 23rd, Thunberg sailed from England to the U.S. on an emissions-free sailboat called Malizia II. Thunberg, who has helped to promote the "flight shaming" movement, was criticized because several crew members scheduled international flights just to facilitate the voyage. The general thrust of arguments like these is that Thunberg is a hypocrite who's unwilling to make the sacrifices she's calling for, or at least that she's naive to think she can operate in the modern world without leaving a carbon footprint.
Are these critics right to call out her supposed hypocrisy? Or is this a type of whataboutism that distracts from the core issue?
Malizia 2 is fitted with solar panels and hydro generators making it one of the very few ships in the world allowin… https://t.co/9AYJHzBkKk— Greta Thunberg (@Greta Thunberg)1566494646.0
I'd argue that it is fair to call out Thunberg — if her lifestyle demonstrably doesn't line up with what she's preaching. After all, Thunberg is not only petitioning governments to do more on climate change, she's also encouraging the shaming of people who book commercial flights. If she's unwilling to make similar sacrifices, she should expected similar shame. What's more, Thunberg's personal environmental footprint is important for another reason, as Nives Dolsak and Aseem Prakash write for Forbes:
"...policy advocacy is effective if one walks the climate talk...The bottom line is that when people take personal responsibility, they begin to have skin in the game. Climate action becomes personal and it makes them more politically assertive in demanding policy changes."
Still, Thunberg's personal environmental footprint says absolutely nothing about the truthfulness of her claims about climate change. Thunberg, for example, could be a truck-driving, flight-booking environmental nightmare who makes it a point to leave the lights on wherever she goes, but that wouldn't change the science on climate change one bit. In short, it's worth considering potential hypocrisy, but it shouldn't distract from the core argument.
Children shouldn't lecture the public about climate change
Should the public be interested in what a teenager has to say about climate change? To answer that, you have to balance two key points. One is that Thunberg is a teenager who's not a scientist and doesn't have anything particularly novel to say about climate change or policies that might mitigate it. Climate science is complex. It takes years of study to understand the intricacies of how the climate works, and though scientists generally agree that human activity is warming the planet, they still have much to learn about the extent to which things like greenhouse gas emissions affect, say, storm patterns in the Caribbean.
Thunberg is not conducting such research. Rather, she takes research from climate scientists (mainly the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and uses her pretty impressive rhetorical abilities to animate the public, especially young people.
"Speaking as a climate change scientist who has been working on this issue for 20 years and saying the same thing for 20 years, she is getting people to listen, which we have failed to do," Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change & Development in Bangladesh, told NBC News. "I thought it was the most powerful speech I've ever seen."
But even if Thunberg is getting people to care about an important issue, that doesn't necessarily mean she's doing it in a productive way. (For example, Thunberg has said, and reiterated at Davos, that she wants people to "panic" about climate change.) What's more, it's possible that she is over-relying on the projections of the IPCC, which doesn't have a perfect track record.
Still, there's another angle to the "she's only a child" critique — one that has to do with the main stakeholders of the future of climate change. If mainstream predictions are correct, Thunberg and those her age are likely to suffer far more from the downstream consequences of climate change, compared to the industry leaders and policymakers working in 2020. Given that young people will inherit the world and societal structures that today's policymakers build, it seems unfair to say that their opinions — even if underdeveloped, or based on emotion — count for nothing.
By not taking emergency action to combat climate change, we're gambling dangerously with the future.
- The climate crisis concretely means facing many implicit hard-love tests.
- Who, or what, do you love (or hold sacred)? Really love. Love enough to sacrifice to protect? Or do you choose to protect your children, or your cherished way of life, only if it's cheap and easy, and if it doesn't interfere too much with your lifestyle?
- "The bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty."
If you knew a flight had a coin-flip chance that it would crash, would you put your kids on it? An analogy to flight risk grants a better grasp of what the climate crisis concretely means. And it highlights an implicit hard-love test that many of us would rather not face.
By not taking emergency action on the climate crisis, you basically "gamble your children's future on the flip of a coin," as Greta Thunberg says.
The "united science" (as Thunberg calls the international consensus described in IPCC reports) has focused on slightly better odds — for a 67% chance of avoiding climate-crash "Hothouse Earth" conditions we must keep total future emissions below ~360 gigatons. That's a tiny remaining carbon budget, which at our current (still-growing and record rate) of ~42 GT per year will be gone in ~8 years (the 50:50 numbers are ~10-12 years).
All the climate numbers you'll see mean the same thing — we must cut emissions fast. And this can only be done by large changes to the way we live. And those changes have to be fast, and starting from the top. As Thunberg says, the richer you are, and "the bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty."
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Countering these doomy-gloomy facts, many optimists will say they've heard we're making great progress with electric cars, and clean energy (cheaper than coal), and plant-based meat alternatives, etc.
But here's the concrete reality — global gas-guzzling SUV growth will wipe out all electric vehicle gains (e.g., for every electric vehicle in the UK, 37 SUVs are sold). Whatever the clean-energy cheerleaders say, only ~18% of new investment goes to clean energy, and 82% is still going into dirty projects (clean = $332 billion of total $1.8 Trillion). And U.S. meat eating grew to a record 220 lbs each this year. We have a long way to go.
There are a lot of details and numbers we could quibble over, but given what scientists know about the risk of vast irreversible climate disruptions "to err on the side of danger is not a responsible option" (so wrote Professor Tim Lenton in Nature, recently).
Behind all the complexities there's a clear truth: The basic "equation is simple: fewer emissions equal a more hospitable climate."
That brings us to the hard love-test questions: Who, or what, do you love (or hold sacred)? Really love. Love enough to "sacrifice" to protect? To expend resources to protect?
Or do you choose to protect what you say you love only if it's cheap and easy, and if it doesn't interfere with your lifestyle? What is it worth to you to help your children, or your cherished way of life, to survive (and thrive)?
The consequences of our climate-cooking habits will burden all future humans.
- Do we have a duty to be "good ancestors"?
- Creating a legacy of a climate-worsened world is like shooting your kids in the foot.
- Who are you free to harm? If not any one else, then surely not everyone else? Third-hand carbon counts as an ambient harm that will burden all future humans.
If you knew parts of our way of life would harm (your) kids, would you work to change them? As Greta Thunberg has forcefully made clear, we know exactly that, and must now act on that knowledge.
A "do no harm" norm sits at the heart of how we live. Your right to be free stops at where it causes harm to others (here's John Stuart Mill's statement of that principle). So if we know we are not free to harm anyone else, how can it be ok to harm everyone else (even if diffusely and indirectly)?
The climate-cooking consequences of many everyday activities (especially of high-consumption lifestyles) will harm today's kids and all future humans. They will have to live under the atmospheric carbon-burden we're creating. These third-hand carbon harms are assured by the physics of the facts of climate change (and you can't negotiate with physics).
Does that seem right or fair to you?
That very issue is being tested in an ongoing court case "Juliana vs U.S." Twenty-one kids are suing to demand "the government step[s] up to protect today's children, and future generations, from the worst effects of climate change." So they're not deprived of their "rights to life, liberty… [and the] unalienable climate system that nature endows." The government lawyers claim "there is no fundamental constitutional right to a 'stable climate system.'"
Forget the legal details, what does your heart tell you is the right thing to do? Put another way, in light of the new material and moral realities we face, are we living up to the great task and responsibility "of being good ancestors"?
Didn't many of our ancestors work to give us a shot at a decent life? Shouldn't we do the same?