Youth Have Seen Enough
Youth Have Seen EnoughThe world’s youth have finally seen and heard enough from the deplorable political process, from compromised delegates, corrupted political appointees, and criminal corporations who sabotage these critical international discussions. The truth of our ecological crisis is not difficult to see. Fragile ecosystems are unraveling all around us. We have been warned by scientists for two centuries: by the 1972 “Limits to Growth” study, William Catton’s 1980 book “Overshoot,” by reliable scientists, and by millions of ecology activists. We were warned by the 2009, Nature article, “Planetary Boundaries” showing that humanity has breached seven critical tipping points; and by the 2012, Nature article, “Approaching a State Shift in Earth’s Biosphere,” by 22 international scientists warning of an “irreversible” planetary-scale transition, “unknown in human experience.” And yet, politicians and delegates travel around the world, stay in luxury hotels, and dither about our children’s future, as carbon emissions rise, species blink from existence, rivers run dry, and ancient forests burn. It is no wonder, and a welcome sight, that the world’s youth have seen enough and are not impressed.
COP 24 - PolandOn 12, December 2018, at the COP 24 UN climate conference in Katowice, Poland, Swedish student Greta Thunberg finally said what the politicized delegates have failed to say. Thunberg is a direct descendant of Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, who predicted global heating from carbon emissions in 1896. During this year’s heat wave and wildfires in Sweden, Thunberg gained world attention by staging a school strike outside the Swedish Riksdag, holding a sign that read, “Skolstrejk för klimatet” (school strike for climate). She demanded that the Swedish government reduce carbon emissions. Her actions inspired student strikes in over 270 cities around the world.
Thunberg Chastised Delegates & Member Nations
Speaking on behalf of Climate Justice Now, Thunberg chastised the delegates and member nations for failing to take action appropriate to the climate crisis: “Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We can’t solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground.”
Thunberg pointed out that “if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself,” and she spoke directly to the errors and injustice of our economic system. “Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.”
She exposed the errors of convenient but false solutions that have displaced the genuine solutions to climate change and ecological collapse. “You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular,” she said. “You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake.”
Why Thunberg is correctThunberg is correct about years, decades, of pep-talks and positive ideas that have failed to reduce carbon emissions. Scientists have known about the threat of global heating since Thunberg’s ancestor, Arrhenius calculated the impact in the nineteenth century. The modern world has been meeting about the crisis for almost forty years, since the first World Climate Conference in Geneva in 1979. Since then, human carbon emissions have doubled from about 5 gigatonnes of carbon per year (GtC/yr) to 2018’s record-breaking 10.88 GtC/yr. Meanwhile, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has grown by 22%, from 337 parts per million (ppm) in 1979 to over 412 ppm today. These results represent an enormous failure on the part of world governments.
Pull the BreakFinally, Thunberg is correct that the only paths out of our predicament require that we “change the system itself.” Global heating, biodiversity loss, environmental toxins, nutrient cycle disruption, and all other ecological challenges arise as symptoms of a single, larger biophysical reality. Humanity is in a state of ecological overshoot. There is no way to grow out of overshoot. All genuine solutions to overshoot require that the species contract, not grow. As Thunberg says, it is time to face these facts, to slow down, and to “pull the emergency brake” on economic growth.
This is the reality that the climate conference delegates are too scared to voice. Our status quo economic system — industrial capitalism — requires growth to survive. Without endless economic growth, the $250 trillion global debt to bankers and investors cannot be paid. As Thunberg says, “Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people .. can live in luxury.” The biosphere is being sacrificed so bankers can receive their interest payments, to keep stock prices up, and to avoid facing reality.
The current system is biased for the rich to get richer, as multitudes suffer, as the ecosystem collapses, and as other species disappear. Economist Jeremy Grantham concurs in “The Race for our Lives,” when he states that “capitalism and mainstream economics simply cannot deal with these problems.” Corporate sabotage of the climate talks is not new. In the 1920s and 30s, Standard Oil, General Motors, and Firestone Tires acquired and sabotaged public transportation throughout North America for the purpose of replacing efficient public transport with gas-guzzling cars. Today in Nigeria, Ecuador, Canada, in the Arctic, around the world, and at these UN conferences, oil companies are still sabotaging the public interest for profits.
It gives us some measure of hope that young leaders appear to be among the few who have the courage and insight to speak the truth. Greta Thunberg closed her short talk by announcing, “We have not come here to beg world leaders to care… We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not.”
Her speech stands as one of the most hopeful moments for ecological realism in recent years.
References and Links:
Greta Thunberg’s COP24 speech, 12, December 2018, Lifegate.
“Young Activists offer their climate demands at COP24,” Kate Wheeling, Pacific Standard, 5 Dec. 2018.
Johan Rockström, et. al., Planetary Boundaries, “A safe operating space for humanity,”Nature, 2009.
Anthony D. Barnosky, et. al., “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere,” Nature, v. 486, June 7, 2012.
“Why Growth Can’t Be Green,” Jason Hickel, Sept. 12, 2018, Foreign Policy
“Green economies around the World? Implications of resource use for development and the environment,” Dittrich, M., Giljum, S., Lutter, S., Polzin, C. ifeu, Institut für Energie- und Umweltforschung, Heidelberg, 2012.
“Decoupling energy use and economic growth: Counter evidence from structural effects and embodied energy in trade,” Vincent Moreau, Applied Energy, 1 April 2018.
“Resource use expected to double by 2050,” UNEP, United Nations Environment Programme, 2017. 2012 .. 70 billion metric tons / year, 2050 .. 180 billion metric tons / year, sustainable level of resource use .. ~ 50 b metric tons / yr, boundary breached in 2000.
“No way out? The double-bind in seeking global prosperity alongside mitigated climate change,” T. J. Garrett, Earth Systems Dynamics, Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Utah, 2012.
“Global Material Flows and Resource Productivity; Schandel, H., et al.; UNEP/IRP(2016).
“The Race for our Lives,” Jeremy Grantham, GMO Quarterly, 2013.
Earth Overshoot Day: “Humans have depleted the Earth’s natural resources with five months still to go in 2018”, Michael Coren, Global Footprint Network, August 1, 2018. Global Footprint Data: GFN data
“US Coal Forum Greeted With Jeers At COP 24 Conference,” Steve Hanley, Clean Technica 11 Dec. 2018.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rex’s column reflects on the roots of activism, environmentalism, and Greenpeace’s past, present, and future. The opinions here are his own.