Our House Is On Fire; The Message of Greta Thunberg

Alex Whiteman explores the message behind Greta Thunberg's book, 'No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference', and asks whether she deserves the hatred she's received.

For anyone who hasn’t watched the news in the last couple of years, Greta Thunberg is a sixteen-year-old activist who gained insane media attention after striking from school to protest the Riksdag’s climate policies . Since then, she’s travelled across the world campaigning for drastic action regarding climate change, inspiring many kids to fight for climate change, and many celebrities to use their privilege and wealth for the benefit of the environment.

Last year, she released ‘No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference’, a compilation of her speeches encompassing her attitude towards climate change. If you’re interested in her opinions, it’s an interesting little book that will only set you back £3. And once you’re finished, you might begin to see why Thunberg is such controversial a figure.

Before I talk about why we should all listen to Ms Thunberg, it should be made clear that there are legitimate criticisms of her. For example, there have been many young activists before her, largely from non-western countries, who haven’t had anywhere near that level of attention as a result. These include nine-year-old Ridhima Pandey, who filed a lawsuit against the Indian government for their lacklustre approach to the climate crisis, 14-year-old Aditya Mukarji, who campaigned against the use of plastic straws, and Nina Gualinga, an indigenous Ecuadorian activist who’s been active since the age of eight. Many of these young activists have been active for at least as long as Thunberg, yet it wasn’t until she came along that the UN organised the first youth climate summit. While that’s not exactly her fault, and her influence has been incredibly beneficial, it does highlight a problem with who we listen to, especially considering the countries that will be most affected by the changing environment.

But then you have idiots and trolls that vilify Thunberg simply because of her stance and popularity. People HATE Greta Thunberg. Like, really, genuinely despise her. Famously, Piers Morgan has repeatedly mocked her, saying she looks like “Vladimir Putin”, and Jeremy Clarkson has called her “mad…dangerous” and that “she needs to go back to school and shut up”. Remember, these are comments being made by adults towards a sixteen-year-old child.

What’s baffling about this backlash is that she’s not exactly asking for much. Her message is incredibly simple; she’s aware that she’s just a sixteen year old kid, she doesn’t claim to have all the answers, she’s not giving any specific suggestions. All she really wants is for the people with the power to make meaningful change to actually make meaningful change. Nothing more, nothing less.

So then, what is it about Ms Thunberg that’s caused such vitriol to be levied against her?

The key word in all her speeches is the same; “crisis”. For Thunberg, it’s time to stop treating climate change like it’s some far-off concept. Global heating is happening right now, and regardless of your politics or beliefs, calling it anything other than a crisis diminishes the current catastrophe. Thunberg makes it clear that “this is not a political text…this is a cry for help.” We’ve been collectively taking global warming for granted for decades now, a lot of us tend to avoid thinking about it. She recognises that, unfortunately, that way of thinking isn’t getting anything done, and we can’t get away with it for much longer. “We have to speak clearly. Not matter how uncomfortable it may be.” That’s the only way we can get action done quickly.

This, I think, is where the crux of people’s issues are with Ms Thunberg; she’s asking for urgency, and demanding accountability. She sometimes comes across as petulant and spoiled, with “How dare you” becoming something of a catchphrase, referring to how previous generations have ignored warnings about climate change and let it get worse. While this is an incredible abrasive attitude to have, she’s not wrong. We have largely remained oblivious to the fact that, as Thunberg puts it, “our house is on fire”. When your house is on fire, you get to be abrasive. You don’t argue about how long it’ll take to burn down, and what we should do in the meantime. You panic, take your children to safety, work on putting the fire out. That’s the kind of attitude we need to take towards the climate crisis.

There’s another obvious reason she isn’t well liked; she’s a kid. Adults don’t like being told what to do. I imagine many middle-aged people see parallels between Thunberg and their own teenage children, thinking they have the same authority to shut her down as they do with them. One person who would agree with this is, funnily enough, Thunberg herself. She writes “I agree with you, I’m too young to do this. We children shouldn’t have to do this. But since almost no one is doing anything, and our very future is at risk, we feel like we have to continue.” By the time she’s an adult, with the qualifications required to help combat the climate crisis, it’ll be too late. Being so conscious of our limited time, she HAD to take action. To her, the world isn’t doing enough, not paying enough attention, being a little too hopeful that things will be okay. “You can’t sit around waiting for hope to come – you’re acting like spoilt, irresponsible children. You don’t seem to understand that hope is something you have to earn.” Having a child tell you you’re acting like a child can’t feel great, but all the same, she isn’t wrong.

Some people also believe that Thunberg over-simplifies the climate issue; even with all our efforts, change isn’t going to happen overnight, and we need patience before anything major happens. Of course, she’s aware of this. “Yes, the climate crisis is the most complex issue that we’ve ever faced and it’s going to take everything from our part to ‘stop it.’” But in a way, the issue is that simple. If we don’t cut down on our CO2 emissions, the planet will be irreversibly damaged and not-so-distant-future generations are going to feel the brunt of it. It doesn’t matter how complex the science is. Whatever we can do, we need to be doing it, and currently, we’re not. “The solution is black and white: we need to stop the emission of greenhouse gases.”

Thunberg also knows who to blame, and who to target her speech towards. Yes, we all need to be doing our bit for the environment, but no big change is going to come from individuals recycling more. That kind of change is in the hands of governments and corporations, and right now, they aren’t putting enough attention into it. “We need a whole new way of thinking. The political system that you have created is all about competition. You cheat when you can, because all that matters is to win, to get power. That must come to an end.” Policies that would massively influence climate change aren’t being implemented, funding isn’t going where it needs to go, and the media focuses far too much on Brexit and celebrity gossip, and not on the greatest crisis of our time. That needs to change.

Personally, I think Thunberg deserves to be angry. Very soon, the world as we know it is going to irreversibly change unless something is done, and we should have been on it sooner. Why weren’t we? Because we didn’t want to change? Because living economically is hard? “You don’t listen to the science because you are only interested in solutions that will enable you to carry on like before. Like now. And those answers don’t exist anymore. Because you did not act in time.” On top of that, we told our children that things would carry on as normal, gave them hope that we hadn’t earned. “You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to. And the saddest thing is that most children are not even aware of the fate that awaits us. We will not understand until it’s too late.”

The worst part is that many people still choose to ignore the facts. Even after a year and a half of activism and accomplishment, people still aren’t listening. It’s prompted questions from Thunberg; “Is my microphone on? Can you hear me? … Did you hear what I just said? Is my English okay? Is the microphone one? Because I’m beginning to wonder.” What will it take for people to start taking this seriously?
If you won’t listen to me, if you won’t listen to Thunberg, then at least listen to science.

As of summer 2017, “we have at most three years to reverse growth in greenhouse-gas emissions if we’re going to reach the goals set in the Paris agreement”

“Countries like Sweden and the UK need to start reducing emissions by at least 15 per cent every year, to stay below a 2C warming target.”

“Air pollution is hiding the warming, so when we stop burning fossil fuels, we have an extra 0.5 – 1.1C guaranteed.”

“(W)e are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, with about 200 species going extinct every single day.”

Thank you.