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The Greta Thunberg effect

2 October 2019 7:15 PM
If a 16-year-old can understand climate change, why do so many still fight it?

Greta Thunberg, the environmental activist would not think she is doing anything that anyone else could have done. Yet in less than 12 months from her first climate strike in front of the Swedish Parliament, she has inspired millions of others to join her and been invited to speak at the UN and World Economic Forum.

This is a short background on how this happened and what Thunberg ultimately wants us all to do about it.

Thunberg has an opera-singing mother Malenda Ernman and an actor and writer father Svante Thunberg, she has a 14-year-old sister Beata Ernman Thunberg who even at 14 is a published singer and features in a book about bullying.

Greta first learned about climate change at school at age 8. At age 11 she was diagnosed with depression after not eating or talking. She was also diagnosed with Asperger's, OCD and selective mutism. One of the factors that appear to have aggravated her condition was how much the reality of climate change would have on her.

In telling her parents about the issue, they agreed to help her make changes. The family stopped eating meat and her mother undertook to no longer travel by plane.

Greta wrote an essay about climate change as part of a competition for a newspaper and was selected as the best entry. She was approached by another climate activist about what young people could do and suggest a school strike similar to the one by US children following a mass shooting at their school.

Initially, not many others were willing to join her for her “climate strike” but rather than go to school on Friday 20 August 2018, she took her sign and picketed outside the Swedish Parliament. She handed out fliers and posted to social media.

She is known for her plain talking and if there was any question about that you need only read the original tweet when she started the protest.

We children usually do not do what you tell us to do, we do what you do. And since you adults shit in my future, so do I. I strike for the climate until the election day.

Greta Thunberg, Twitter 20 August 2018

She continued to do so each school day until election day on the 9th of September 2018.

A year later and she has spoken to government bodies, business bodies and the United Nations twice.

She struck a chord with other children who would join her or picketed outside their parliaments.

A week of climate strikes was called for 20 to 27 September 2019 ahead of a UN Climate Conference. It is estimated that as many as 4 million attended the thousands of organised protests in 150 countries, making what is arguably the largest protests about the climate ever.

Getting to New York required her to sail across the Atlantic to avoid flying and the flygskam “flying shame” which is a movement to have people not use airlines because of their carbon footprint. In Sweden, passenger numbers have reduced by 5% in the last year.

Thunberg will visit and speak at a variety of gatherings as she makes her way to the UN COP 25 meeting in Santiago, Chile in December.

You might think all is well for the movement and Thunberg, but she has her critics who can’t seem to understand that a child could take their future so seriously. The conditions that gave her depression may also be the conditions to allow her to speak with such conviction and not seek hope or accolades but action.

The frankness of her speeches has seen a lot more attention given to what she has to say, this is called the Greta effect.

For more on Greta and her family read this comprehensive piece by Tabitha Whiting

Climate change is complex

One reason Thunberg believes more is not being done is that many still do not understand just how serious the condition is. In an attempt to address a misconception about greenhouse gases I will try to illustrate why seemingly small changes can lead to major changes.

The Earth’s atmosphere consists of greenhouse and non-greenhouse gases. Most of the atmosphere consists of non-greenhouse gases namely Nitrogen 78,09%, Oxygen 20,95%, Argon 0,93% and greenhouse gases namely Carbon Dioxide 0.04% and then much smaller amounts of methane, chlorofluorocarbons and Sulphur compounds. These are considered to be the dry atmosphere but there is one more substance that ranges between 0 and 3% of the atmosphere and is the molecule responsible for giving the sky its colour - water vapour and it is also a greenhouse gas.

While carbon dioxide (CO2) is the gas that is rising fastest and methane and the sulphur compound sulphur hexafluoride are more potent in their impact, it is the volume of water vapour in the air that makes it the one to have the greatest effect on global warming.

Given how much of the Earth is water, there is little option to try to reduce the water vapour in the air. The issue is that the small increase in CO2 can produce an increase in air temperature which would allow more water to be converted into water vapour and that increase which would be a much greater volume than the CO2, it would also have a much greater impact on the warming effect. This could set up a feedback loop leading to a runaway warming. Typically though the warm water-bearing air rises and cools, as it does it forms clouds (which are good for reducing the greenhouse effect) and finally falling back to Earth as rain. It is believed that the warmer air over the Atlantic allows for larger hurricanes which result in more damage.

The important thing which we have known as fact since the 1970s and was first theorised by a Swede in 1896 is that greenhouse gases affect the global temperature. Should that temperature exceeds 1,5 degrees global average above the pre-industrial levels we will have to contend with a significant change to climates around the world. The debate is only about how bad it will be, but that is like arguing about whether it would be worse to crash a car at 100km/h versus 120 km/h - in either event, it will be a very bad crash, the debate that should be happening is how to crash at a much slower speed. I don’t say we should talk about avoiding the crash because that no longer appears to be an outcome we can avoid.

What we can do is to stop the increase in CO2 emissions, but it will not be easy. For those that are already using lots of fossil fuels for their energy needs, they will not want to give it up and for those that are demanding access to energy like electricity, it is most likely that it will be generated by fossil fuels.

Democratic governments will want to have their populations keep voting for them, while big business would want to create an environment that allows them to continue to grow. I can’t see how there can be continued growth in the short term if we are going to be able to limit climate change and I can’t see governments doing things that will harm their economy in the short term unless their voters demand it. Voters that don’t know how bad it will be will not vote for a government that undertakes to make things worse to solve a bigger problem. So now we are relying on a 16-year-old to get us to see we are heading for a crash and that unless we pull the emergency brake, the only thing we will be able to do is to report on how bad the crash turns out to be.

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2 October 2019 7:15 PM

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