Don’t you just hate it when teenagers insist that they know the answers to all the world’s problems, but we oldies are too stupid to see that they are right?
They say things like this: ‘The scientific evidence is that if we have not taken dramatic action within the next decade, we could face irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies.’ (‘Irreversible damage?’ ‘Collapse of our societies’? C’mon …)
Or this: ‘If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change.’ (‘Runaway climate change’? What’s that, for goodness sake?)
Typical teenage over-simplification. A failure to understand the complexities and uncertainties of climate science. And a millennial vision of an apocalypse that has more in common with cultish fanaticism than rational discourse among sensible adults.
Ah. Sorry. I may have misled you. Those quotes aren’t, in fact, from the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg but from the sage and living saint Sir David Attenborough, who’ll be marking his ninety-third birthday in a couple of weeks’ time, and the secretary-general of the United Nations, António Guterres, who will be seventy next week. Sprightly though they both undoubtedly are, neither could reasonably be labelled a teenager.
(By the way, if you haven’t yet watched Attenborough’s recent TV documentary Climate Change – The Facts, please do. You can find it by clicking here. But I should warn you: it is truly terrifying.)
My point is simply this: yes, Greta Thunberg is only a teenager, but her warnings about the urgency of the climate change crisis are precisely mirrored by what scientists have been saying for ages. Her youth, her pigtails, and her Asperger’s, which results in her speaking with unusual clarity and force, mean that she can capture the headlines and the front-page photos in a way that not even David Attenborough can match.
Take her much-misunderstood demand that governments should commit to zero carbon emissions within the next twenty years. In a speech to MPs this week, she said: ‘Our emissions have to stop if we are to stay below 1.5-2 degrees Celsius of warming. The “lowering of emissions” is of course necessary, but it is only the beginning of a fast process that must lead to a stop within a couple of decades or less.’
How absurd, say her critics, by whom I mean those who will not or cannot understand. How can anyone seriously believe that within two decades, the whole of humanity can simply stop using fossil fuels? Planes, cars, ships, power generation, industry?
After all, according to a report this week in the Financial Times, greenhouse gas emissions from planes more than doubled between 1990 and 2016, and if Heathrow gets its third runway, its capacity will rise from 480,000 to 740,000 flights per year by the mid-2020s. But perhaps Greta Thunberg’s critics and the cynics should try listening more carefully to what she actually said, because her next sentence was ‘By “stop”, I mean net zero.’
But of course that’s not what we are doing. Instead of planting more trees to act as the earth’s lungs, we’re chopping them down. According to a new analysis by the World Resources Institute, demand for beef (produced from cattle that are fed on soya, which is grown on land which has been deforested), palm oil (produced from trees grown on vast plantations where once tropical forests stood), and chocolate (produced from cocoa grown on land once occupied by forests in, for example, Ghana and Ivory Coast) means forests are still disappearing at a terrifying rate.
It’s nearly eight years now since I reported from the Amazon, at a time when the then Brazilian government was grappling with the dilemma of how to protect the environment while continuing to expand the economy. (My TV report from July 2011 is here.) But now, after the election of the populist, anti-environmentalist president Jair Bolsonaro, there’s no longer any doubt: agri-business interests have won, and the environmentalists have lost.
It’s hard, but not impossible, to find heroes in this dismal tale of impending doom. Greta Thunberg is one of them, for having forced the issue into the political arena. So too are the thousands of Extinction Rebellion protesters, who with immense good humour, discipline and imagination, have risked arrest to draw attention to the seriousness of the crisis.
I also think a round of applause is due to the former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, who over the past two years has contributed a total of $10 million to the United Nations Climate Change secretariat to cover the gap left by the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2016 Paris climate change agreement.
Yes, I know his personal wealth is estimated at $60 billion, so he can certainly afford it. Even so, I applaud the gesture. On its own, of course, it won’t save the planet. But it might just help.