Greta Thunberg recently addressed a meeting of the United Nations on the subject of climate change. At least I presume it was on the subject of climate change, I don't have the full transcript in front of me and naturally the media focused on those bits where she was essentially tearing the assembled representatives a new one. Various conservative pundits have lined up to criticise her but I can't help feeling there's a certain amount of jealousy involved there. Having the opportunity to front the UN and lambast it for inadequacy, failure and general uselessness must be pretty close to their wet dream. It's quite the achievement for Greta as well, previously a teenage girl had to get shot in the face before she got an opportunity like that.
Greta's activism and particularly her speech have had two very predictable results. She has been canonised as a saint by those who support her and vilified by those opposed, so far so normal. There are a couple of points that I would make. Whatever Greta Thunberg may achieve in the way of climate change abatement she hasn't done it yet. Nor has what she has done so far got her any appreciable distance towards that goal. Her challenge now is not to berate a roomful of largely irrelevant deadbeats but to persuade seven thousand million people that things have got to change.
Because this is how things change. Individuals may lead movements but the movement has to be there for them to lead. The population at large decides and governments and corporations will go along with it the first to protect their jobs and the second to protect their profits. It will take a while and is largely incremental. There won't be a light bulb moment but if all goes well Greta will wake up one day to find the world has fundamentally changed while still feeling thoroughly familiar. To do this people need to be informed and they need to be concerned. What they don't need is to be terrified. Terrified people do not make good decisions. You don't terrify people so that they make good decisions, you terrify them so they will obey your orders no matter what the quality of the decision.
It seems to be axiomatic in climate activist circles that the only thing that can save us is massive government intervention and sacrifice on the part of the general population. Wrong and wrong. The only thing massive government intervention has ever successfully produced is an equally massive body count. Government action will be needed of course, but to codify what the people have already decided and, where necessary, to punish the outliers who transgress. Still less is sacrifice a useful tool. Sacrifice implies that we have done something wrong and must be punished.
We haven't done anything wrong. We have built a staggeringly successful civilisation that has lifted a portion of the world's population (including me) to unheard of levels of health and comfort while simultaneously holding up a signpost to guide those who haven't yet got there. Along the way there were some unintended consequences one of which is what concerns Greta Thunberg (and many others of course). There are almost certainly other consequences that we won't even notice for another century or so. However when we address those consequences we will do it with a spectacular array of scientific and technical tools to assist us. The creations of this self same civilisation. The hour may be late but I wouldn't bet against us.
One of the frequent jibes made against climate activists by their (usually right wing) opponents is that they are essentially using the issue as a false flag operation to propagate a leftist political agenda. Which is rather like the pot calling the kettle black (please note however that both pot and kettle are black). I don't actually believe this charge but what I do believe is that when people consider a problem they immediately fall back a on solution that conforms with what they would want done anyway (as I did above). Hence calls for massive government intervention and sacrifice.
Incidentally when I say we shouldn't sacrifice I don't mean we shouldn't change. We will have to come up with different, better, more sustainable ways of doing things to keep our society and improve our comfort levels without inadvertently cooking the planet. The challenge for those who wish to lead us towards this goal is to find those ways and convince us of both their necessity and convenience.
For Greta Thunberg the work has just begun. She's done the fun part of the job but the hard work is still ahead. She is passionate, dedicated and, according to reports, quite ferociously intelligent. Good, she'll need all of that. She will also need to learn how to speak to people more important than the representatives at the UN (pretty much anyone comes to mind). She'll need to teach and set an example, guide and persuade. It will be difficult, it will take time and if she's successful its quite possible nobody will notice at least not until somebody looks back from a hundred years into the future and realises that we didn't die after all. The speech to the UN was dramatic but telling a bunch of grown ups that they've ruined her life doesn't make her a saviour. It just makes her a teenager.