If the climate crusade is exploding, Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg lit the fuse. The Guardian’s Richard Flanagan compared Thunberg’s address at the United Nation’s Climate Action Summit to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, saying “it draws the battle lines between those of us who want action on climate change and those who only mock it.” UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, who shared recently that six months ago, he was “quite pessimistic about everything” now sees a “turning point” in the struggle to tackle the climate crisis, citing the rise of the youth movement. It gives him hope that international goals to ameliorate catastrophic global heating can be met.
Perhaps Sweden’s intergenerational wisdom is a partial catalyst for Thunberg’s stalwart “unite behind the science” message. Sweden’s first Nobel Prize winner in 1903 was chemist Svante Arrhenius who has been called “a pillar of the mega-science that is global warming research.” In the 1890s, Arrhenius became interested in the cause of ice ages. Could it be, he wondered, that vast swings in the levels of atmospheric CO2, lasting tens of millions of years, were the triggers?
Then there was Bert Bolin, Swedish meteorologist and first chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Bolin, who warned in 1959 of a temperature rise this century which could be greater than any in human history, was careful to base all his arguments on sound science. He was instrumental in convincing politicians that the issue was urgent.
When everything is connected, who inspires who inspires who?
Last year will go down as the period when the planet’s atmosphere broke a startling record: 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide. The last time the planet’s air was so rich in CO2 was 3 million years ago, according to a scientific analysis of a deep core of ice cut from central Antarctica in 1987. “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted … CO2 will need to be reduced … to at most 350 ppm,” said Columbia University climate guru James Hansen. We sailed past that target in about 1990, and it will take a gargantuan effort to turn back the clock. Perhaps what Thunberg is saying is, if we are going to advance understanding and action, we must all be willing to face the hard truths and work on reconciliation. Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, another influential youth climate activist, argues that “the biggest challenge we face is shifting human consciousness, not saving the planet. The planet doesn’t need saving. We do.”
In the United States, the ubiquitous cotton trade in the 19th century was virtually replaced by oil in the 20th. Because cotton fields only yield so much crop before the soil becomes depleted, American capitalism exerted its will on the earth, spoiling the environment for profit. New York Times’ 1619 Project contributing author Matthew Desmond writes, “floods became bigger and more common. The lack of biodiversity exhausted the soil and, to quote the historian Walter Johnson, ‘rendered one of the richest agricultural regions of the earth dependent on upriver trade for food.’”
It’s no wonder the United States would spend the last century focusing on oil exploration and development and its staggering profitability. Move over Russia and Saudi Arabia; as of 2018, America is the world’s largest oil producer.
But time is a commodity of which we can’t buy more.
In a recent survey, I asked local businesses to share their involvement in the climate strike and anecdotes on sustainability. One responded, “If we are to see meaningful change with regard to climate change, it needs to focus on the large-scale, global actors and we need to be prepared to shoulder the increase in costs for all goods that will be a result. In my view, our society is not prepared to bear the burden of the actual cost to affect change.”
And while I certainly agree, considering that the United States has weakened climate change agreements as the price for its participation and then refused to be bound by them anyway, I would still argue that our main enemy now is not party politics or economic sustainability. Our main enemy is indifference. Resignation. Complacency. For Thunberg? The enemy today is physics.
“We must realize that we don’t have all the solutions yet,” Thunberg says. “But we must do the impossible. We must try. Because giving up can never be an option.”