Inside Story

“Our house is burning”

A young prophet of apocalypse invigorates Europe’s climate debate

David Hayes 24 May 2019 2998 words

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks to BBC television journalist, Nick Robinson outside the Houses of Parliament in London on 23 April 2019. Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Greta Thunberg won’t be hitting Canberra any time soon. Beijing and Washington too are off limits. The sixteen-year-old environmental prophet, whose weekly sit-downs outside Sweden’s parliament since last August have inspired a transnational “school strike for climate,” shuns air travel. That, and becoming vegan are modest steps in the change she is sure the world must make to avert ecological breakdown. Her family has taken her lead, at some cost to the career of her mother, an opera singer who — somehow, inevitably — once represented Sweden in the Eurovision song contest.

Yet judging by her March–April procession through Berlin, Strasbourg, Rome and London — all journeys made by rail — Thunberg also needs to go (or at least talk) to those capitals and their hinterlands if her message that “our house is burning” is to take effective hold. This is but one paradox in a meteoric rise that seems already to hold both room for lasting good and risk of early burn-out.

Thunberg’s simple protest beside the Riksdag, drawing peers and publicity as the “Fridays for Future” accumulated, quite soon took her to the larger stages of Katowice’s COP24 and Davos, a would-be prop for anxious summiteers. Thence to encounters with Pope Francis, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and other dignitaries — though not Theresa May, whose plea of a full diary was met with a scornful empty chair. With no time to waste, Thunberg aims at the top and isn’t easily fobbed.

Here too her attitude is consistent with the belief that the highest stakes, the very sustainability of a habitable Earth, now require an unfailing sense of urgency. This driven, self-possessed, whip-smart young person acts as if her very being contains the despoliations inflicted each day on air, soil, seas and nature. Her Asperger’s syndrome, and the outsiderish sense it fostered, was an enabler of her insight, she says. “It makes me different, and being different is a gift, I would say. It also makes me see things from outside the box. I don’t easily fall for lies, I can see through things.”

The same guilelessness was plain in a February interview with Leslie Hook, the Financial Times’s environment and clean energy correspondent, who in quoting her riposte at a Davos gathering — “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic” — reflected: “Thunberg doesn’t believe in offering cheery prescriptions for change. The world she sees is a dark one, and she wants other people to feel the same way.”

If media coverage in Sweden initially amplified her propaganda of the deed, it was her emotional truth that cut through to the public. “Why should I be studying for a future that soon will be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future?” she asked at a TED talk in Helsinki. Such lucid sentiments evidently reached the inner ear of many young people around the world, who made their own personal sense of Thunberg’s anguish and longing. An amorphous movement was born or, more strictly, as a student strike had marked the opening of Paris’s COP21 in 2015, revived.

The movement reached Britain in mid February via walkouts from school in London and other cities, with teachers’ blessing in many cases. A month later their numbers and reach were far larger. By then the Scottish Highlands campaigning of Holly Gillibrand, a thirteen-year-old from Fort William, had earned local stardust and a seat beside Thunberg at the politicians’ table. But the children’s crusade was but one game in town. Its mid-April protests coincided with those of Extinction Rebellion, or XR, a politically itinerant band of creative professionals trained, since its formation in April 2018, in the agile use of direct action to flummox authority.

Held on a bank holiday weekend to maximise numbers and impact — and given a serendipitous boost by Thunberg’s London visit — XR’s followers clogged main city arteries in a mini carnival whose vibe was more Glastonbury than end of the world. At Westminster, a naked dozen superglued themselves to the security glass of the House of Commons’s public gallery. Whether these tactics best served XR’s manifesto — “We are rebelling against the government for its crimes against humanity… [because] we are so very nearly out of time” — was unclear.

Well aired amid the passing annoyance and bemusement was actor Emma Thompson’s flight from Los Angeles to join the throng, brandishing a clenched-fist salute and a “There is no planet B” top, thus inverting one of Thunberg’s pithy one-liners: “You are never too small to make a difference.” For all that, the double dose of catastrophism won some favour in polls: clear majorities agreed on climate change’s peril and human responsibility for it, and as many as 26 per cent supported XR’s aims and tactics.

Outside the box: Greta Thunberg is applauded by (from left) environment secretary Michael Gove, Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, former Labour leader Ed Miliband and Green Party leader Caroline Lucas during a forum in the Houses of Parliament in London on 23 April. Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

There was plentiful disdain in the press, of XR as bourgeois-bohemian-tree-huggers and of Thunberg as an oddball in murky league with Europe’s grandees and luvvies. But many columnists, including centre-right ones, were notably positive about both. The FT’s Camilla Cavendish, now at Harvard after heading David Cameron’s policy unit, sensed among the protesters “the kind of courteous regret that is deadly serious,” and defended XR from the charge of privilege. After all, “it is the middle classes who must alter our lifestyles if change is to come,” while “this group’s leaders have the right credentials: Gail Bradbrook has a PhD in molecular biophysics, and Farhana Yamin, arrested after gluing herself to the pavement outside Shell’s HQ, was a lawyer for UN climate negotiations.”

Thunberg’s own schedule included meetings with needy Westminster figures, whose awkward lionisation met the antidote of her reproachful stillness. The politicians — Green, Labour, Liberal and Scottish nationalist, including the Commons speaker and the Conservative environment minister Michael Gove (“We have not done nearly enough. Greta, you have been heard”) — blathered away before posing for group photos. This riveting politics of the spectacle knocked the tedious strippers into a cocked hat.

Such encounters, and London’s festive days as a whole, illuminated rival approaches to climate politics. The conventional one sees a crisis with multiple stakeholders and many divergent short-term interests, requiring patient brokering of least-worst agreements whose tacit maximal aim is to fail better. Thunberg and XR see an existential threat mandating action equal to its unprecedented character — meaning wholesale transformation, not just retail trade-offs, guided by planetary needs rather than national interests.

In practice the contrast blurs when technocrats gesture to vision and radicals to pragmatism, as in XR’s proposal of net-zero emissions in Britain by 2025 or Thunberg’s saying the European Union “needs minimum 80 per cent reduction by 2030, and that includes aviation and shipping.” In Strasbourg, she even reflected that she has “learned how things work, how complicated everything is.”

Moreover, even these radicals’ actions and claims are made in the wake of pragmatist achievement (however limited) by “their own” governments. Thunberg’s self-propelled campaign, which Stockholm University’s Karin Bäckstrand credits with lifting climate change from “priority number eight” for Swedes, began three weeks before a general election amid a northern summer of heatwaves, drought and forest fires. Stefan Lövfen’s centre-left government had passed a Climate Act in January 2018 mandating pursuit of carbon neutrality by 2045, meaning an 85 per cent cut in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 (including offsets). Its successor, a more centrist coalition — with Lövfen and Isabella Lövin, the law’s architect, still in post — upholds Sweden’s image as one of the European Union’s climate pioneers.

The Swedish plan draws on Britain’s own Climate Change Act of 2008, whose target of an 80 per cent fall in CO2 emissions over the 1990–2050 period will now, after an advisory panel’s report published on 2 May, be extended to net-zero. Progress is steady: UK emissions on the producing side are 43 per cent less than in 1990, though the figure tumbles if shares of shipping and air transport are included. Periods without any coal-sourced electricity are becoming commonplace, an outcome charted by John Quiggin in Inside Story: a new milestone is the first coal-free week since 1882.

Meanwhile, the problems are growing, although Britain’s flash floods, heatwaves and coastal erosion pale before Australia’s MurrayDarling dystopia and much else. The energy sector is a mix of incoherence and, over nuclear and fracking especially, paralysis. Transport, health, agriculture and housing sectors are wheezing, with environmental impacts adding to their ills. And Britain’s burden on others, as Thunberg and XR argue, includes the accumulated legacy of early industrialism and today’s top-heavy global footprint. In London, the young Swede denounced Britain’s “very creative carbon accounting” and “ongoing irresponsible behaviour [which] will no doubt be remembered in history as one of the greatest failures of humankind.”

Still, Sweden and Britain’s climate record shows everyday politics making a difference. Too little too late, Thunberg and XR retort — and a failed politics too. Thus Thunberg told EU parliamentarians, or MEPs, that since “everyone and everything has to change” it seems pointless to “waste precious time arguing about what and who needs to change first.” Time magazine’s portrait of the grand tour reports her “brief smile” at mention of Barack Obama’s tweeted praise, before the language of ultimacy kicks in: “I believe that once we start behaving as if we were in an existential crisis, then we can avoid a climate and ecological breakdown. But the opportunity to do so will not last for long. We have to start today.”

For its part, XR’s urban swarm is an effort to turn Thunberg’s “as if” to purpose, and it has a manifesto: Common Sense for the 21st Century, a thoughtful booklet by the group’s co-leader Roger Hallam, aimed at inciting “high participation civil disobedience concentrated upon a single event: a rebellion.” The mechanics include “symbolic disruption” to “create a national conversation” and “bring the regime to the table,” and a national citizens’ assembly, chosen by sortition, which will eventually reduce the Commons to an advisory role. Despite the 1917-ish echoes, Hallam’s model of non-violent civil revolution is conceived as “an act of universal service and duty” in the “civic and republican tradition.”

Hallams work-in-progress — a rare blend of movement strategy, framing and ethics — is grounded in the world of English radicalism, as its Tom Paine title declares. That points up another paradox in the radicals’ case: that all climate politics (as opposed to diplomacy) are local. With favourable conditions, which usually means winning elections or at least arguments, the nation-state allows real progress. But the best of it will always be parochial as Earth’s emergency grows. More than most, Thunberg and XR are living in this truth.

The outlook, from Brazil’s Amazon to the Antarctic, is grim. CO2 emissions are still on an upward curve as the Paris agreement measures go awry. The International Energy Agency’s latest status report finds energy emissions grew by 1.7 per cent in 2018 to a historic 33.1 billion tonnes, thanks to Asia’s coal and the United States’s air-conditioning boom. Over 80 per cent of global energy production remains fossil-based.

Every year in which global emissions are not reduced, writes Oxford University’s Myles Allen, equates to another forty billion tonnes of CO2 being pumped out yearly for “today’s teenagers to clean back out of the atmosphere in order to preserve warm water corals or Arctic ice.”

The Arctic is but one of the world’s “potential tipping cascades” mapped by the Hothouse Earth report, a collaboration of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or PNAS. This forecasts temperature rises over double the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s precarity levels, even were its core targets to be met. Cambridge University’s Peter Wadhams, former director of the Scott Polar Research Institute, chides the IPCC in his book A Farewell to Ice for, as he sees it, hedging the “Arctic death spiral” (Mark Serrezes phrase). Wadhams, noting that in his half century of research the area of summer Arctic sea ice has reduced by more than half, says that “rapid and drastic” change there amounts to “a spiritual impoverishment of the Earth as well as a practical catastrophe for mankind.”

Both sources are cited by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the Telegraph’s compelling Cassandra, who references another PNAS study from 2018: a paper on the geohistorical analogues of near-future climates, by the paleoecologist Kevin D. Burke and five colleagues. “As the world warms due to rising greenhouse gas concentrations,” they write, “the Earth system moves toward climate states without societal precedent, challenging adaptation.” John “Jack” Williams, one of the co-authors, says, “We are moving toward very dramatic changes over an extremely rapid time frame, reversing a planetary cooling trend [tracing back at least fifty million years] in a matter of centuries.”

The unprecedented warming trend is confirmed in studies published in early 2019 from, among others, the World Meteorological Organization, the UK Met Office, and NASA/NOAA. The UN’s assessment of retreating global biodiversity, from corals to insects, came in May as bleak reinforcement. In Evans-Pritchard’s words, addressed not least to sceptics among his newspaper’s own readership, “Frightening reports are constant fare for those paying attention.”

The weight of evidence could justify almost any response: crisis diplomacy, intensified protest, clean-one’s-house regional or neighbourhood plans, personal regimes — as well as Greta Thunberg’s gut-wrenched mix of despair and defiance.

But technological and economic currents are also opening new horizons of possibility, albeit with concerns over pace, scale, finance, and (as with lithium-ion batteries) green tech’s own blowback costs. Wind and solar power, battery capacity (with electric-hybrid aviation one prize), plus carbon-neutral electricity and hydrogen to fuel transport and heating, are key innovation areas. So too is carbon capture, including ambitious plans to capture atmospheric CO2 via dual-purpose (energy and storage) bioenergy.

Renewables’ falling long-term costs and greater efficiency are central to the transformation under way, according to analysis on Carbon Tracker, IRENA and Energy Watch. Fossil fuel’s burnout could accelerate sooner than all but optimists now envisage. In another data-rich article on this race against time, Evans-Pritchard turns into Pangloss: “It is easy to succumb to paralysing pessimism. Yet the technology exists to crack the problem… We are reaching the inflection point where market forces may suddenly start to drive fossil fuels out of the energy system.”

The implication is that climate apocalypse will always be with us (alongside other, nuclear or pandemic, kinds). There is no guarantee of escape, for that is in our capacity only if the latter is put immediately to good use. The Hothouse Earth paper has a checklist:

Collective human action is required to steer the Earth System away from a potential threshold and stabilize it in a habitable interglacial-like state. Such action entails stewardship of the entire Earth System — biosphere, climate, and societies — and could include decarbonization of the global economy, enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, behavioral changes, technological innovations, new governance arrangements, and transformed social values.

For all this to come together, the world must “unite behind the science — make the best available science the heart of politics and democracy,” as Thunberg instructed Europe’s MEPs. In turn, that needs working ingredients now in deficit across a boiling planet: world security, core freedoms, legal order, social and informational trust. The reverse engineering involved — echoing Roger Hallam’s method of “first [working] out what success looks like and then work back to how it would be created” — looks even more forbidding than the XR strategy of “thousands of people breaking the law to create a transformation of political structures.”

Evans-Pritchard, who says XR is “right to raise the climate alarm in apocalyptic terms,” has faith in “cutting-edge technology and the creative élan of market forces” to do the job. These would depend on the same framework of law and freedom, unless environmental gains are so rapid as to release new, liberatory dynamics in other areas.

But the mood has shifted this year in Britain and Europe. Those reports, and timely broadcasts such as David Attenborough’s Netflix documentary Our Planet, capped by Thunberg and XR’s irruption, handed radicals a precious hat-trick of science, moral force and cultural momentum. Technocratic politics is taking ever more account of the new clamour, and conceding at the edges: British and Irish parliaments’ declaration of a climate emergency, France’s consultative citizens’ assembly. Elements of a lost political centre, craving a semblance of authenticity and the elusive youth vote, are only too glad to mingle with XR’s well-groomed principals, and proliferating media outlets to feature them.

The next big day of school strikes is 24 May, coinciding with elections to the European parliament, where Greta’s crusade is a boon for green parties. Its carousel aspect is also in full swing: press interviews, conference panels, festival invites, magazine features, celebrity encomiums, honorary degrees. A book of her speeches is out in days. Time’s profile makes “the teenager on strike for the planet” foremost among its “next generation leaders,” soliciting an all-purpose tweet from foreign minister Margot Wallström, a star in her own right: “Proud to be Swedish.”

The “invisible girl” felt the Earth’s pain as adults could not, and sent an SOS for them to act on. Instead of looking in the same direction, will they gaze at her finger, and turn the distress call into a feedback loop? Europe alone can’t answer. A breakout east and west, if a way can be found, would allow Greta Thunberg’s fierce urgency of now its true test. •