Thoughts on Greta
Update January 28, 2021
Greta made a short video, addressing the World Economic Forum, which you can find here.
Basically, she continues her urgent call for action, continuing to note that everyone is in denial and that no one is taking any effective action - which she feels is tragic.
She recommends only one specific action, and that is that every nation should establish an "annual binding carbon budget based on the best available science."
Takeaways from the address:
She wants to "remind you of the emergency we are in."
"The climate and ecological crisis can unfortunately no longer be solved within today's systems."
Actions being taken now are creating targets "that equal surrender."
"A great start would be a commitment to lower emissions by 70, 68 or even 55%."
She wants the world to treat an emergency as an emergency.
February 6, 2020
Greta Thunberg burst on the scene as a climate activist, giving speeches at various locations in the Western world, including at the United Nations and at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. She has received awards and accolades, from the cover of Time magazine to a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.
But what has she actually said, and how does it stand up when compared with the facts and data? And what has she not said that probably should have been said – what important facts and data have been omitted from her speeches?
I am going to focus on the facts and data.
Although it is extraordinary that a 17-year old would attract attention and praise and be perceived as wise and insightful, that is not the issue here. She may, indeed, be wise and insightful or she may have an interesting point of view worth considering.
After looking at her biographical details, I have no doubt about her sincerity. However, people are sometimes sincere about false or misguided beliefs.
I would like to look at Greta’s views through the lens of her speeches at Davos in 2020 and at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City in 2019, and then quickly explore other speeches.
In summary, what I found was that she is scolding, indignant and impatient. Her speeches include few if any calls to specific action. As an oversimplification, almost all she is doing is raising the alarm. And she is raising a significant amount of alarm.
Which is not a bad thing, but interestingly short on calls to specific action.
UN Climate Action Summit
(A video and transcript of her speech can be found here.)
Her tone is much the same as that of an Old Testament prophet. Shame and scolding. She set the tone of her speech by saying:
My message is that we'll be watching you.
This is all wrong. I shouldn't be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!
You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!
That’s pretty dramatic language. I will ignore all of that and address the specific action discussed in the speech.
Her only reference to specific action in the speech was, “The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5 degrees [Celsius], and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.”
Essentially everything associated with global warming is disputed by somebody, and often within the scientific community, itself. There is no “settled science” in global warming. (For an accessible review of the state of play from both sides, you can read my free, extensively-researched book on the subject, The Only Ten Things You Need To Know About Global Warming, here.) The primary sources of my comments in this article will be mainstream views, with contrasting views where appropriate.
Global warming is a complex and messy subject, however, in order to communicate key ideas, complex concepts have to be simplified. Climate scientists decided to define a 2⁰ Celsius (3.6⁰ Fahrenheit) increase in temperature from pre-industrial levels as the point at which the effects of global warming will begin to increase at an increasing rate. This is not precise, nor is it a point of devastation or extinction. Global warming, according to the mainstream encapsulated in the periodic reports by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, http://www.ipcc.ch ), will occur over multiple decades.
2⁰ C provides a number around which conversations may take place and actions can be measured.
Given the inaccuracies in climate models, it may not be even approximately accurate, but that is a discussion for another day. While it is clear that climate models, while being impressive, are not sufficiently accurate for policy making and disagree with each other, for the purposes of this article, I will assume they are accurate and speak with one voice.
So, the broad discussion about a maximum, below which temperature increases should be held, centered around how to keep warming below 2⁰ C. This level was not to be exceeded, in spite of the fact that temperatures have already increased by approximately 1⁰ C, and past emissions of greenhouse gasses mean that future increases are already, irrevocably, in the pipeline. And, emissions are increasing every year.
Climate activists, particularly in conjunction with the recent Paris Agreement on climate change, proposed moving the target maximum to an increase of 1.5⁰ C (2.7⁰ F) instead of 2⁰ C in order to increase the urgency of taking action and because of concern that 2⁰ C may be too much change.
Greta is in this camp.
I am not sure where Greta’s 50% reduction in emissions in 10 years comes from. Many activists and scientists have proposed many milestones that should be achieved in order to effectively control global warming. Many in the mainstream focus on an 80-90% reduction in emissions over some period of time, from 10-50 years.
The 50% reduction in 10 years, while extremely aggressive, is less aggressive than a target she proposed in a speech quoted below that would effectively result in an 80% reduction in 10 years.
It is my view, after extensive research, and as detailed in my book and assuming the mainstream is correct, the 2⁰ C limit will inevitably be reached and exceeded. There is no practical set of solutions that will prevent it. This is not a consensus opinion, however, there is broad agreement within the climate science community. (Saying so out loud is difficult due to the politically-correct censure that would follow. However, if you read the hedging in public statements, you gain a view of actual opinions. For example, “While achievable, it will be extremely challenging,” or “Quite optimistic.”)
The approach that Greta disparages as being insufficient, a reduction in emissions of 50% in 10 years, would lead to economic devastation and innumerable deaths. There is simply not a green energy solution achievable in a century, much less a decade, sufficient to support existing levels of economic activity.
So, what is Greta up to here?
My short answer is that I have no idea. I cannot see into her mind or into her emotions.
She describes herself as “diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, OCD and selective mutism … For those of us on the spectrum, almost everything is black and white.” This is not to disparage her in any way, but to perhaps provide some background to her passionate stance.
I believe she is sincere and on a crusade or jihad.
Activists are all in and are not generally insistent on balance or nuance.
Regardless, she probably feels the need for a dramatic call to action to get what she sees as an apathetic world to take immediate, drastic action against an existential threat.
However, it is interesting that, while defining what was inadequate, she did not define what actions would be appropriate or effective.
World Economic Forum at Davos
(A video and transcript of her comments can be found here)
Her tone was much more measured than at the UN. Her comments were framed around disparaging current actions and current attitudes toward global warming as being insufficient. She detailed a list of demands for all “companies, banks, institutions and governments” participating in the Forum to
Immediately halt all investments in fossil fuel exploration and extraction.
Immediately end all fossil fuel subsidies.
And immediately and completely divest from fossil fuels.
"We don’t want these things done by 2050, 2030 or even 2021. We want this done now."
Those were the only specific action items in the speech.
These recommendations comprise a simple, albeit difficult, set of actions, which will have the effect of increasing prices of energy from fossil fuels. This in turn would reduce energy consumption and make green energy more price competitive.
It would be only a first step, and while significant in effect, only a minor step in the overall scheme of addressing global warming.
However, in my opinion, given mainstream assumptions, it is a necessary set of actions.
I reviewed the other speeches I could find on the internet (https://www.fridaysforfuture.org/greta-speeches). They seem to follow the trends of the two speeches, above: short, indignant and alarming, with little in the way of specific calls to action.
Following are excerpts from other speeches which attempt to capture their tone, and any calls to action.
To UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in Katowice
A call to action:
Rich countries like Sweden need to start reducing emissions by at least 15% every year to reach the 2 degree warming target. You would think the media and everyone (sic) of our leaders would be talking about nothing else – but no one ever even mentions it.
As I mentioned, above, different experts recommend different targets. This one is very aggressive, compared to most, amounting to an 80% reduction in 10 years.
It is interesting that in this speech in 2018, she was still focused on 2⁰ C.
National Assembly in Paris
Mostly a scolding and consciousness-raising exercise with no specific call to action, but a definite and urgent raising of alarm.
The following quotes summarize the talk:
This is what it's all about, this is all that we are saying. But I will also tell you this: -You cannot solve the crisis without treating it as a crisis, without seeing the full picture. You cannot leave the responsibility to individuals, politicians, the market or other parts of the world to take. This has to include everything and everyone.
Once you realize how painfully small the size of our remaining carbon dioxide budget is, once you realize how fast it is disappearing, once you realize that basically nothing is being done about it and once you realize that almost no one is even aware of the fact that carbon dioxide budgets even exists, then tell me what exactly do you do? And how do we do it without sounding alarmist? That is the question we must ask ourselves, and the people in power.
The science is clear and all we children are doing is communicating and acting on that united science. Now political leaders in some countries are starting to talk. They are starting to declare climate emergencies and announcing dates for so-called climate neutrality. And declaring a climate emergency is good. But only setting up these vague, distant dates and saying things which give the impression of that things are being done and that action is on the way, will most likely do more harm than good. Because of the changes required are still nowhere in sight. Not in France, not in the EU, nowhere. And I believe that the biggest danger is not our inaction. The real danger is when companies and politicians are making it look like real action is happening, when in fact almost nothing is being done, apart from clever accounting and creative PR.
European Union Parliament in Strasbourg
Not much new, although a more comprehensive speech than some of the others. Again, no specifics, but definite alarm.
A couple of quotes:
And I want you to panic. I want you to act as if the house was on fire. I have said those words before, and a lot of people have explained why that is a bad idea. A great number of politicians have told me that panic never leads to anything good, and I agree. To panic unless you have to, is a terrible idea. But when your house is on fire and you want to keep your house from burning to the ground, then that does require some level of panic.
I ask you to please wake up and make the changes required possible. To do your best is no longer good enough. We must all do the seemingly impossible. And it's okay if you refuse to listen to me. I am, after all, just a 16-year-old schoolgirl from Sweden. But you cannot ignore the scientists, or the science, or the millions of school-striking children who are school-striking for the right to a future. I beg you: please do not fail on this.
In summary, from my reading of her speeches, it appears that Greta is sincere, passionate and believes that global warming is an immediate, existential threat. She does not understand why everyone is not doing whatever they can to eliminate that threat.
She raises alarm but has few specific recommendations. Her call is both urgent and general.
It is odd that she has been given the mantle of global warming leader. That probably says more about us than about her.
But there we are.