Last Friday I was inspired and shamed in equal measure by attending the huge ‘School Strike for Climate’ in Oslo. “You’ll die of old age, but I’ll die of climate change” accused one placard. “System change, not climate change” read many more. Thousands of children thronged, chanting into the square outside Parliament to try and make their parents’ generation, of which I am a member in denial, wake up and stop destroying the eco-system that enables humanity to thrive on the only planet we have access to.
Earlier, I had watched for the fifth or sixth time the extraordinary TED Talk of Greta Thunberg, the 16 year-old Swedish girl whose lone protest catalysed this School Climate Strike movement that is now sweeping the globe. I continue to be awe-struck by her extreme clarity of thought, precision of language, and the gulf between the way she talks about global heating and the discourse of my daily life as a climate change professional.
Indeed, an insidiously effective fossil fuel lobby has largely cowed the adult world into avoiding talking about the increasingly occurring horrors that will only continue to exacerbate if we do not stop pumping greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. Fear deters people from taking action, we were told, and so we present our arguments for climate mitigation (itself a deliberately anodyne word) in reasonable terms of “opportunity”, “hope”, and “win-win solutions”.
Judged by the only result that matters – levels of greenhouse gas emissions – this approach has been a failure. Global emissions have risen 60% since the first inter-governmental climate treaty was signed in Kyoto in 1999. Even since the re-set Paris Agreement of 2015 emissions have carried on going up. And it’s not that we are just running down the last stocks of fossil fuels before we switch to renewable energy – billions of dollars continue to be “invested” in discovering new oil and gas reserves, building additional coal-fired power stations, and subsidising the use of petrol and diesel in vehicles.
It is true that there has been significant progress too. Thanks to last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report we have scientific clarity that our goal has to be to constrain global average temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees above the pre-industrial average. That killed one of the climate deniers arguments that climate targets were “political”. Investment in renewable energy continues to grow and electricity is now as cheap to produce from clean, rather than dirty power, in pretty much every country in the world.
But it has not been enough. Tackling climate change is ultimately bounded by the laws of maths, physics and chemistry and, unfortunately, the good stuff is still not significant enough to outweigh the bad stuff. Emissions keep rising when they need to be falling.
Quite rightly, this situation perplexed the logically minded Greta Thunberg, who describes herself as being on the autistic spectrum, and sees the world in black and white: “I remember thinking that it was strange that humans, who are an animal species among others, should be capable of changing the Earth’s climate, because if it were true we wouldn’t be talking about anything else. Every time I turned on the television that is all the news would be about.”
In her TED talk Greta Thunberg reveals how as her conviction that she needed to overcome selective mutism and speak out, adults keep telling her she would be better of studying, rather than protesting, if she really wants to do something about global heating. “But what is the point of studying for a future that won’t happen”, she asks, or of spending years training to be a scientist when we already know that pumping fossil fuels into the atmosphere causes climate change and we already have the technology to stop it?
Listening to Greta, who has been alive for almost exactly one third of my lifetime, it is notable that she has a very different sense of the twenty-first century to the adult world in which I exist. Climate change aside, huge strides in health care and growing up in one of the world’s wealthiest nations mean that Greta could be pretty confident about living to 100 or more. She has a right to expect to still be pretty active in 2100, by which time the world could have experienced 3 or 4 degrees of global heating if we continue on a polluting business-as-usual path, making civilised human existence impossible on much of the currently inhabited landmass.
A young Parisian climate striker I met a few weeks ago made a similar point, but more emphatically. When journalists and teachers question what right I have to lecture them about climate change, being just a teenager, with no professional qualifications and only limited life experience, he simply says that “the only mandate I need is that I was born in the twenty-first century”.
I don’t think they kids are going to give up now they have got started calling out the climate crisis. Certainly, Greta and her growing band of self-organised young allies seem to have a pretty good grasp of who is responsible for what for them is an existential problem. They have worked out that off-the-record temperature rises aren’t something that has slowly crept up on us and that we have been powerless to prevent. On the contrary, half of all the greenhouse gases pushed into the atmosphere in the entire 200,000+ years of human existence have been emitted since I left high school. Eighty-five per cent of emissions have been caused since my parents were born. Fifty per cent of all emissions are generated by the lifestyles of just 10 per cent of the global population.
Having discovered that the adults, through a combination of wilful ignorance, greed and prevarication have allowed a climate crisis to develop that could quite plausibly now destroy the future for Greta and all her school-friends, Greta resolved to tell the world the truth herself. In so doing, like the little boy who shouted out that the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes, she has created the space for all of us to have an honest conversation about climate change.
That is partly why attending Friday’s demonstration in Oslo made be feel so inspired. As with any issue, the biggest obstacle to solving it is admitting there is a problem in the first place. Over a million kids, so far, refusing to go to school because they have spotted that they aren’t being taught the most important lessons is a pretty big wake-up call.
The other reason for my renewed climate optimism is that I attended the climate strike with the Governing Mayor of Oslo. Raymond Johansen is a down to earth politician who has made tackling climate change and environmental pollution the central focus of his administration. Last week he applauded school-children for protesting, while the Norwegian government advised parents to stop them attending. Unsurprisingly, the climate minister was booed when he took to the stage, whereas Mayor Johansen, who came along just to hear what his younger citizens had to say, was warmly welcomed as we moved through the crowd.
The mayor, representing the Labour Party, is also delivering real action in partnership with his Green Party city-government allies, particularly Deputy Mayor Lan-Marie Berg. Oslo’s emissions fell by 9% last year, about the pace that the western world in general needs to achieve, and continuing a multi-year trajectory. They are competing with another Norwegian city, Bergen, for the title of the (non-Chinese) electric vehicle capital (Chinese cities like Shenzhen are out front thanks to a huge drive towards electric buses and taxis). This is part of a systematic sustainable mobility strategy that is delivering rising public transport usage – all of which will be powered by renewable energy by the end of 2020, alongside policies to encourage cycling and walking. Oslo’s regulations ensure its buildings meet some of the most rigorous low emission standards in the world and the mayor is now turning his gaze to pioneering clean construction standards.
Oslo’s story, while at the high end of what is being delivered at a city level, is far from unique. While inter-governmental climate action has been largely stymied by Donald Trump, tremendous leadership has been shown by mayors, particularly within the group of big-city mayors, C40, for whom I am privileged to work, alongside governors, some business leaders, alongside inspiring examples everywhere of citizen-led decarbonisation.
There are, therefore, plenty of reasons to remain hopeful. But as Greta points out “the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere.” That’s why returning from Oslo my initial sense of shame for having let down my young nieces and their peers by being part of the generation that failed to stop global warming before it became a climate crisis, is now replaced with a renewed sense of purpose. I think I am going to go on a climate strike every Friday.