Can They Read?

Greta Thunberg and her critics

Alisa Singer, Time to Choose. © 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. From the cover of the 2018 IPCC special report.

When the 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg first started campaigning for the climate outside Swedish Parliament in the late summer of 2018, her intention was not to travel around the world delivering urgent addresses about climate change to executives, diplomats, and elected officials. Rather, she wanted to draw attention to the crisis by striking from school on Fridays. The logic of the tactic was devastatingly simple: why should children be in school to learn things—terrifying things about the destruction of our biosphere—that the adults in power refused to learn? “Some say I should be in school,” she wrote in a November, 2018 op-ed that appeared in the Guardian. “But why should any young person be made to study for a future when no one is doing enough to save that future? What is the point of learning facts when the most important facts given by the finest scientists are ignored by our politicians?”

At first Thunberg’s strike was a solitary affair, but news of her salient campaign quickly spread, inspiring other schoolchildren around the world to strike in solidarity, and also disappointment—at the powerful adults who had ignored the alarming science, and the governmental bodies that had promised solutions that seemed always just over the horizon. How puzzling, then, that those same adults would, in short order, begin inviting Thunberg to conferences and political assemblies, asking her to elucidate an admittedly boring document—the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—that many of them, in one form or other, had a hand in commissioning.

In Davos, in January, Thunberg offered up the CliffsNotes in a forceful address that immediately went viral: “According to the IPCC, we are less than twelve years away from not being able to undo our mistakes,” she said. “Solving the climate crisis is the greatest and most complex challenge that Homo sapiens have ever faced. The main solution, however, is so simple that even a small child can understand it: we have to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases.” In February, she addressed the European and Economic Social Committee, this time surrounded by other children who had joined her growing movement to school strike. “We want you to follow the Paris Agreement and the IPCC reports,” she said. “We don’t have any other manifests or demands. You unite behind the science. That is our demand.” In an April address to the European Parliament, she more thoroughly broke out the timeline now at hand: “Around the year 2030, ten years, two hundred and fifty-nine days, and ten hours away from now,” she said, “we will be in a position where we set off an irreversible chain reaction that will most likely lead to the end of our civilization as we know it.” (In an address to the British Parliament a few days later, Thunberg asked, “Is the microphone really on? Did you hear me? Is my English OK? Because I’m beginning to wonder.”) And in her address to the French Parliament in July, Thunberg went so far as to cite specific sections and pages of the document in exasperation at the unwillingness of her interlocutors to simply read. “A lot of people—a lot of politicians, business leaders, journalists—say they don’t ‘agree’ with what we’re saying,” she reported. “They say we children are exaggerating, that we are alarmists. To answer this, I would like to refer to page 108, chapter 2, in the latest IPCC report. There you will find all our ‘opinions’ summarized.”

From the start of her campaign to demand climate action commensurate with the overwhelming scientific evidence, Thunberg has told it like she read it, doggedly referring those she addresses back to the text. Every aspect of her presentation—the unemotional face, the plain braids, the unadorned body—is calibrated to draw attention away from her person and toward the message she delivers. And yet, when contemplating Thunberg, hardly anybody references the text, even if they think that global warming is a grievous threat. Instead, they focus in on her.

The “free thought” website Quillette might be the most indicative example. The publication most closely associated with the so-called Intellectual Dark Web, Quillette frames itself as a part of reason-based Enlightenment project and a voice of the political center. And yet in a series of pieces posted since March, Thunberg has been portrayed as, at best, a useful idiot, and, at worst, an avatar of a dangerously authoritarian environmental left. Whether attacking or simply condescending to Thunberg, the approach is consistently ad hominem.

In a March piece titled “When Children Protest, Adults Should Tell Them the Truth,” freelance writer Kathrine Jebsen Moore argues that, though Thunberg is to be commended for galvanizing a global movement despite “suffering, by her own account, from several mental health issues” (Thunberg has described herself as having Aspberger’s, OCD, and selective mutism), she is too fanatical and pessimistic to be an appropriate leader: “as adults, we should expose her ideas for what they are: undemocratic, fatalistic, and bereft of the hope and optimism needed to effect consequential change.” She observes that “perhaps the most reliable benefit of activism is the feeling of righteousness it offers its participants,” and that “a 16-year-old should not be expected to see all the nuances.” “Thunberg’s speeches and Manichean worldview,” she concludes, “do not offer realistic answers to the problems we face. Even if her most alarming predictions turn out to be true, solutions will have to rely upon innovation and a realistic assessment of what is possible.” There is no mention in the essay of the IPCC reports—no sign that Moore has deeply researched the source texts Thunberg references when articulating “her” alarming predictions.

Quillette European editor Paulina Neuding’s April piece for the publication, “Self-Harm Versus the Greater Good: Greta Thunberg and Child Activism,” is similarly dismissive: “adults have a moral obligation to remain adults in relation to children and not be carried away by emotions, icons, selfies, images of mass protests, or messianic or revolutionary dreams,” she writes. As with Moore’s essay, this piece makes no mention of the IPCC reports or any other scientific source texts—it does not take a proactive position on the implications of the science. Instead, the piece focuses on a different source text: a memoir written by Thunberg’s mother, the opera singer Malena Ernman. In the book, Scenes from the Heart, Ernman recounts her difficulties raising two girls on the autism spectrum, and the relief that Thunberg’s climate activism has brought both Thunberg and the household. Neuding intersperses passages from the memoir with snapshots from Thunberg’s emergence into the public sphere, in effect nullifying Thunberg’s foundational message—that we are, as a society, not being honest about climate change—by quite directly attributing them to Thunberg’s personal anxieties.

In “Teenage Climate-Change Protestors Have No Idea What They’re Protesting,” a fellow teenager, Felix Kirby, asserts that “global-warming research is a hugely complex field, and it’s unlikely that any ordinary person—let alone a minor—would have any real grasp of it.” He says that student protests are often merely social events, and that “if there is a guarantee that you, as a young person, will be stuffed into a public place for a good few hours with a group of your peers, and given social license to vent at great volume, why not just go and cause some trouble?” He complains that school-approved climate protests essentially pass the cost of the missed lesson onto the taxpayer.

The one Quillette piece that evinces a deep understanding of the scientific source texts, “The Environment Is Too Important to Leave to Environmentalists,” by a former co-chair of the UK Green Party, Mallen Baker, avoids the pitfalls of ad hominem while arguing persuasively for a whole slate of evidence-based approaches to climate change mitigation. And yet the entire essay is structured around the straw man of an obtuse environmental left unwilling to pursue strategies like increased efficiency in global supply chains and cooperation with political adversaries. Certainly there is a robust debate to be had with the environmental left about nuclear power and genetically modified foods, but most environmental leftists I know are otherwise perfectly happy to accommodate incremental or technological changes so long as such changes are not then used to argue for what the climate advocate Alex Steffen has eloquently described as “predatory delay”: merely “cosmetic change for the foreseeable future,” a kind of climate bait-and-switch.

None of this is to say the 2018 IPCC special report, “Global Warming of 1.5°C” (a more recent report on climate change and land was published in August) is particularly easy—let alone in any way pleasant—to read. If a conceptual artist were trying to create a textual objective correlative of the intellectual discomfort of thinking about climate change, the 2018 report might be the end result. Its cover image presents a kind of psychedelic graph in which only the axes are visible while the rest of the area has been splotched with muted colors; the aesthetic is decidedly institutional, and as removed from the terrifying physical realities of climate change as anything could be. The first few pages consist of editorial attributions and acknowledgments meant to convey a dispassionate consensus, even going so far as to thank the website designers. Like the soporific forests encountered by characters on a dangerous journey in old German fairytales, the intention seems to be to hinder the hero-reader by simply putting them to sleep.

So far, so predictable. But what does the reader find in the first section, “Summary for Policymakers,” a whittled-down précis that, surely, the enlightened skeptics at Quillette (not to mention global leaders) might have addressed more thoroughly and directly? The first several items are very simple: we have caused approximately 1 degree Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels (“with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C”) with a “high confidence” that, between 2030 and 2052, “global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C if it continues to increase at the current rate,” causing a marked increase in heat waves, droughts, and floods. Should the warming continue unabated, an outcome that becomes more likely the longer we delay, the damage to the planet’s support systems will dramatically increase; coral reefs will die out en masse, many major ecosystems will be destroyed with unknown consequences for animals and humans, and tens and potentially hundreds of millions of people, particularly those living in the tropics and on the coasts, will lose their homes and livelihoods. But there is hope: according to the report’s authors, “reaching and sustaining net zero global anthropogenic CO2 emissions and declining net non-CO2 radiative forcing would halt anthropogenic global warming on multi-decadal time scales.” In other words, as Thunberg has said, our future is still in our hands.

But reaching “net zero global anthropogenic CO2 emissions” is not nearly as easy or surgical as the scientific tone of the report might suggest, and this is where our civic leaders are supposed to come in. On page 14 of their summary, the authors outline the possible pathways to subduing global warming, asserting in paradigmatically bureaucratic language that to limit the overshoot of 1.5°C, global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions would need to decline by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero around 2050. The authors mention an array of physical strategies, from “lowering energy and resource intensity” to increasing the “rate of decarbonization” to expanding the “reliance on carbon dioxide removal,” a novel set of technologies not yet proven at scale. They describe a portfolio of different greenhouse gases (CO2, nitrous oxide, methane, et cetera), each of which could be turned up or down, depending on economic and political priorities. “The rates of system changes associated with limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot have occurred in the past within specific sectors, technologies and spatial contexts,” they write, “but there is no documented historic precedent for their scale.” They present an array of strictly physical choices, but they know all the choices are politically hard.

Thunberg is clearly cognizant the politics are complex. “When I tell politicians to act now,” she said in her speech to the European Parliament, “the most common answer is that they can’t do anything drastic, because that would be too unpopular among the voters. And they are right of course, since most people are not even aware of why those changes are required. That is why I keep telling you to unite behind the science. Make the best available science the heart of politics and democracy.”

For the past thirty years, humanity has been asleep, dreaming of recycling programs. We might call it climate narcolepsy. And yet what are global leaders for, if not to stay awake, even in the dead of night, even when presented with the most sedative of documents? Thunberg’s critics, including another Quillette writer and associate editor, Toby Young, fault her for saying we have done basically nothing about climate change because of course we have done something—we have changed so many light bulbs, we have had so many solar dreams. But in absolute terms Greta Thunberg has it right. Over the last thirty years, we have doubled our historical fossil fuel emissions, despite the steady publication of increasingly alarming IPCC reports. You don’t have to be an activist, or think in black or white, as Thunberg often says she does, to believe this makes of the claim we have done “something” about climate change in a very basic sense a lie.

When Greta Thunberg arrived on the scene, I was tired of the political dissembling. And, even if I didn’t agree with her on every point, I knew she had the science right. Yes, she made sweeping pronouncements and felt absolutely comfortable impugning the whole system. She advocated mass civil disobedience and sometimes aligned with controversial groups like Climate Justice Now! and Extinction Rebellion. But, as she liked to say, she had “done her homework”—she had read the reports the adults in power refused to read. And contrary to what some of her critics imply, there was no way she was anyone’s ideological puppet. If anything Scenes from the Heart, her mother’s memoir (the substance of which I know of only through Quillette’s synopsis) paints both Greta and her sister Beata as intransigently self-possessed, unwilling to eat what their parents tell them to, unwilling to walk or talk the way their parents tell them to.

“At current emissions levels, [our] remaining [carbon] budget is gone within roughly eight-and-a-half years,” she said in July to the French Parliament. “These numbers are as real as it gets, though a great number of scientists suggest that they are too generous, these are the ones that have been accepted by all nations through the IPCC. And not once—not one single time—have I heard any politician, journalist or business leader even mention these numbers. It is almost like you don’t even know they exist—as if you haven’t even read the latest IPCC report on which the future of our civilization is depending.”

On Wednesday, August 28, Thunberg disembarked from an emissions-free racing yacht, a move widely criticized and mocked by the very same faction of people who dismiss Al Gore for flying in private planes and follow Bill McKibben around to film him using plastic bags to carry home his groceries. Thunberg had come at the invitation of yet one more powerful political body, the United Nations, where she will again be lending her superior reading skills, first to the Youth Climate Summit on September 21 and then to the main meeting on September 23. Before that, on September 20, she will lead a global climate strike. She spent two weeks on the state-of-the-art vessel, the Malizia II, “a sixty-foot open-cockpit monohull,” as the New York Times described it, documenting her trip, the mechanics on the ship, and the volatile states of the acidic, warming ocean. “Unite Behind the Science” read both the mainsail and the logo on her suit. “Unite Behind the Science”: this is her singular demand.

Climate change activists, particularly of the Green New Deal variety, like to compare what we need to do at this juncture to the World War II mobilization. It’s a dramatic comparison, bringing to mind images of Rosie the Riveter flexing her muscles and brawny men in green hardhats with loaded guns. It calls up stories of violence and national grit, and fighting boldly for an undetermined future. Politicians and operatives like Sebastian Gorka, Wyoming senator John Barrasso, and even Donald Trump himself have seized on this comparison, complaining that activists are calling for what amounts to a caricature of mass sacrifice. Just as civilians reduced their use of fuels, metals, and all manner of other material resources during World War II, their version of the story goes, we now must sacrifice the staples of our way of life: our hamburgers, our airplanes, our cheap heating.

But in my view, the World War II comparison calls up something very different—a world of sovereign isolation in which a clique of wartime villains could run roughshod over large portions of the globe while a democracy like the US could stand by. It calls up a time in history when boats full of Jewish refugees could arrive on our shores and be turned away, in no small part because Americans had trouble believing the alarming reports of concentration camps appearing in their papers. America’s hesitation to join the war effort was in part a crisis of belief, but also of old politics. Cooperation seemed a sucker’s game; other countries and their citizens could do the dirty work of fighting. But aggressive enemies who brazenly disregarded sovereign borders and treaties forced us to unite. They gave the lie to isolation and made it clear that we were going to have to learn a different politics—one not necessarily of idealism or utopia as our particular brand of national nostalgia might frame it, but of shrewd cooperation and at an ambitious global scale.

When Greta Thunberg demands that we—politicians, businesspeople, media elites—“unite behind the science,” I do not hear a message of pessimism, inflexibility, or doom. I do not hear demagoguery. Rather, I hear a demand that those in power to refer back to the text and then engage in a new politics, one suitable to the critical dilemmas of this century. To say we must bend “the emissions curve steep downward” is not the same thing as saying fighting climate change is hopeless. To say our politics have failed or that the media has failed or that activism itself has failed—all things Thunberg has said—is not to say they will always fail or that they have to fail. To call out a lie is not to say that everything will always be a lie. It is possible to have hope without lying to ourselves about the fundamental truth. But first we must be capable of reading.

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