Last month, a 16-year-old schoolgirl was invited to speak at the United Nations Climate Action Summit. Her impassioned speech made a bigger impact than any of the world leaders that followed. Her name is Greta Thunberg. She began a youth movement in her native Sweden, encouraging children to ‘school strike for climate,’ on Fridays to draw attention to the climate crisis facing the world.
Just one year later, on Friday, 20 Sept., millions of young people around the world joined her in global climate strike demonstrations. On the George Town waterfront several hundred young Caymanian students wielded placards and megaphones demanding action on climate change.
How can one person, let alone a 16-year-old schoolgirl, have such an impact on youth all over the world in such a short time?
Her message is effective because she is so young. It resonates because she is sincere. It hits home because it is truthful. Her message is very simple. Unless global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are drastically cut, very quickly the world will become life-threatening for tens of millions of people.
At the UN New York HQ, her speech stood out, not just because she was a young schoolgirl, but because in tone and content it jarred with the usual polite rhetoric of such august surroundings. “How dare you,” she chided world leaders. “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. You have stolen my dreams.”
Her message is based on science. Global warming has to be kept to 1.5 C in the next 10 years if we are to avoid the catastrophic consequences, but the trend is not good. Last year global CO2 emissions increased by 2.7%. “Emissions have to start reducing before the end of next year,” she warns, “or we are likely to pass tipping points leading to uncontrolled climate change.”
Urgency is the keynote of everything she says. Older generations seem unable to accept that catastrophic events in the second half of this century represent a crisis today. They will be dead by then. This is why her movement has spread like wildfire amongst young people all over the world. They are the ones who will have to live with the consequences of extreme heat: farmland turned into deserts, millions losing their homes to rising sea levels, forest fires, drought, flooding, and greater frequency and intensity of hurricanes.
She has been a beacon for youth, but a lightning conductor for vitriol from climate change deniers. “The haters are as active as ever, going after my looks, my clothes, my behaviour and my differences,” she says, “anything rather than talk about the climate crisis.” She is accused of being mentally ill and of being manipulated by sinister forces. President Donald Trump sarcastically tweeted, “seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future”.
It will remain to be seen how much success she will have in accelerating change. What is certain is that she has done more to galvanise global action on climate change in one year than any other single person. A leading climate scientist said, “We have been working on this issue for 20 years, and saying the same thing for 20 years, but she is getting people to listen, which we have failed to do.”
Cayman still lags behind many countries in reducing CO2 emissions, although it will be among the worst affected by climate change. In my last column I asked why OfReg is dragging its heels in responding to constructive industry proposals to accelerate the adoption of distributed energy (rooftop and parking lot solar). What is urgently needed is the implementation of the long-awaited government appointment of an energy czar.
The youth of Cayman have been inspired by Greta Thunberg. They have joined her global protest. The success of the Cruise Port Referendum petition in forcing the government to hold a referendum is a reminder of the power of the people. Their voice will get louder.
They will echo Greta Thunberg’s words at the UN last week: “My message is that we will be watching you.”