The founder of Sweden’s Skolstrejk för klimatet (School Strike for the Climate), 15-year-old Greta Thunberg, is rapidly emerging as one of the most memorable faces and voices of this year’s United Nations climate conference, just months after launching a protest against her government’s lax response to the climate crisis.
Thunberg, who said she was inspired by student protests after the Parkland gun massacre in the United States, has now become an inspiration in her own right. “Thunberg has left school every Friday to sit outside the Swedish parliament building in Stockholm, conducting a sometimes solitary protest against her government’s slow movement on climate change,” Grist reports, in a post republished by National Observer. She’s since spoken at a giant rally in Finland, inspired other students to take action from Canada to Australia, addressed UN Secretary General António Guterres, taken part in a World Bank panel, and received a standing ovation at the Action Hub, one of the informal meeting venues at COP 24.
“I expected it to be more action and less talking—it’s mostly just small-talking,” Thunberg said of the COP. “This is an amazing opportunity. But if it continues the way it is now, we are never going to achieve anything.”
And she gave voice to one of the biggest challenges in addressing climate change—whether the venue is a convention centre in Katowice or a protest spot outside the Swedish parliament. “A politician’s job is not to save the world, or have radical climate politics; a politician’s job is to win elections and get votes,” she said. “And today, you don’t win elections and get votes by telling the truth about the environment and climate.”
In her three-minute speech to Guterres, Thunberg chose to speak over the UN Secretary General’s head to her wider audience.
“For 25 years, countless of people have stood in front of the United Nations climate conferences, asking our nation’s leaders to stop the emissions,” she said. “But, clearly, this has not worked, since the emissions just continue to rise.
“So I will not ask them anything.
“Instead, I will ask the media to start treating the crisis as a crisis.
“Instead, I will ask the people around the world to realize that our political leaders have failed us.
“Because we are facing an existential threat, and there is no time to continue down this road of madness.”
Thunberg challenged developed countries to lead on climate change by cutting their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 15% per year. “Rich countries like mine need to get down to zero emissions within six to 12 years,” she said. “Because how can we expect countries like India, Colombia, or Nigeria to care about the climate crisis if we, who already have everything, don’t care even a second about our actual commitments to the Paris Agreement?”
She added: “Some people say that I should be in school instead. Some people say that I should study to become a climate scientist so that I can ‘solve the climate crisis’. But the climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions. And why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly mean nothing to our society?”
Thunberg’s message resonated across Canada, where students in nine cities left classes on Friday, December 7 to join the strike. “Climate change is a crisis, and every day I ask myself how can I just be going about my everyday life when this crisis is coming that’s going to impact my future and generations to follow,” said Vancouver organizer Rebecca Hamilton, a grade 11 student at Lord Byng Secondary School.
The 50 students who showed up at the Vancouver rally marched to the constituency office of B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman, contending that the emission reduction targets in the province’s newly-released climate plan don’t go far enough.
Those targets “aren’t science based and won’t keep us below 1.5°C temperature rise,” Hamilton said. “And so we want to ask George Heyman about these issues because we know that he really believes in strong climate action.”
Late last month, thousands of Australian students joined the School Strike 4 Climate Action after Prime Minister Scott Morrison panned the idea. “Each day I send my kids to school, and I know other members’ kids should also go to school, but we do not support our schools being turned into parliaments,” he said. “What we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools.”
“It was shocking see our prime minister condemning students as young as eight, who are sacrificing a day of schooling to stand up for a safe climate future,” responded Australian Youth Climate Coalition spokesperson Laura Sykes. “When young people try to have a voice in politics, Scott Morrison is shutting them down, yet he’s happy to listen to the coal lobby and big corporations who continue to profit from making climate change worse.”
“Why should we go to school if you won’t listen to the educated?” read one sign shared by Environment Victoria on Twitter.
Morrison’s reaction didn’t stop UN Climate Action from publishing a link to the protest page along with its coverage of the strike.