According to a fairly recent scientific study, what you see first when you look at the famous image above, can often depend on as simple a factor as how old you are. The younger you are, the more likely you are to see the young woman first – and the older you are, not only are you more likely to view the old woman first, but you are likely to guess her age as older, too.
In the same way that people see contrasting images depending on their own perspectives, so, too, do people react differently to Greta Thunberg, depending on their own perspectives and priorities. To those who feel that climate change is an urgent issue that has not been getting the attention it deserves, Greta is a fearless crusader for their cause, the voice of a generation and a shining example to her peers. Yet to others, she is a victim – a 16 year-old with Aspergers whose anxiety and single-issue obsession are being exploited by adults, including her own parents, to further an agenda that has more to do with overthrowing capitalism than saving the planet.
Yet the one thing that both groups appear to agree on is that she shames us. Whether one chooses to blame the politicians whose lack of decisive action on climate change has forced children to “take time out of their childhood” to teach adults about the crisis, or the activists who have deliberately chosen a child to be the spokesperson for their arguments in the full knowledge that nobody would dare subject her to the level of scrutiny they would an adult – either way, the sight of a clearly distressed 16 year-old addressing world leaders and speaking about the terror she feels for her future, should be a source of great shame to every one of us. Whatever one may or may not think of what she is saying, what kind of world are we creating for our younger generation, when parents, teachers and political leaders are clearly willing to abdicate all responsibility for shielding children from fears about their future, and instead allow those fears to flourish, and be broadcast worldwide to even more frightened and impressionable children?
How many people, I wonder, have actually listened, properly, to what she is saying? Beyond the brief viral clips on the news and on social media, how many people have actually taken the time to consider whether she truly does understand the science that she keeps urging us to unite behind?
I have to admit that until a few days ago, I hadn’t done so. The speed with which she has reached the forefront of public attention, and my preoccupation with Brexit and other matters, have left me scrabbling to catch up, and eventually I had to force myself to block out some time and actually watch some of the videos that friends were sharing on social media, and look up a few of her other speeches on YouTube.
And I’m afraid my response was a mixture of “WTF?” and “What a load of utter nonsense!” Now, before you all dismiss me as a climate change denier – because in our current polarised society you either “unite behind the science” or you are a denier, with absolutely no nuance in between – I completely accept that climate change is real, and that if we wish to halt or even reduce global warming we absolutely need to make a number of radical changes to our way of living. But it is possible to completely accept the reality of climate change, and still acknowledge that Greta herself is, for the most part, spouting a load of non-specific, meaningless, alarmist drivel that has very little basis in any kind of reality, scientific or otherwise.
My first case-in-point is the short video, featuring Greta alongside Guardian journalist George Monbiot. Greta begins by telling us that we are “living in the beginning of a mass extinction”. Now that sounds pretty scary, doesn’t it? She hands over to her friend George, who tells us “there is a magic machine that sucks carbon out of the air”. He goes on to explain that he’s talking about trees – and I have to wonder, who is this video aimed at? Children, surely? And pretty young children at that. No video aimed at adults should ever be explaining climate change in such simplistic, childish terms. Yet if this video is, indeed, aimed at children, why do they then choose to tell those children that “up to 200 species are going extinct every single day….most of our wild animals have gone”?
This is appalling misinformation. The statement that “up to 200 species a day are going extinct” is, firstly, meaningless unless you define what you mean by a species, as well as how many species there are to begin with. A quick Google search revealed that the “up to 200 species a day” claim likely refers to the fact that when an animal such as the white rhino becomes extinct, all the organisms and bacteria that depend for that animal on their survival, are also considered to be extinct.
For actual numbers of known species that have gone extinct, however, it is harder to find a definitive source. I found this article which lists “multiple lizard species and a bat” for 2017, and three different types of birds for 2018. That is a considerably long way off the 200 species a day that Greta seems to believe we are losing. And if we really are going to talk about “200 species a day” to include all organisms and bacteria, then shouldn’t we be acknowledging that there are plenty of species whose extinction would actually be greatly beneficial – such as the mosquitos that carry viruses such as Zika and malaria, Guinea worm, tapeworm and ticks, to list just a few.
As to how many species there are currently – there appears to be no known figure, but one estimate is that there are about 8.7 million species, of which about 86% of species on earth, and 91% of species in the ocean, still await description, and new species are constantly being discovered and described.
As for the claim that “Most of our wild animals have gone” – this is utterly risible, with seemingly no basis in fact, and Monbiot and the producers of the video should be ashamed of themselves for peddling such falsehoods to impressionable children – not to mention more than a few impressionable adults who are happily sharing the video on social media.
The video ends with an action plan – Protect (vital nature resources). Restore (damaged ecosystems). Fund (projects that protect nature). And on this I absolutely can get on board – but shouldn’t we also be looking to protect our children, restore their faith in humanity and fund proper climate science education for both adults and children, sticking to the facts rather than relying on alarmist lies to scare children witless?
Greta’s most recent speech, at the Climate Action Summit in New York, is astounding. Her passion is undeniable – whether you believe she is overacting, or rightly furious, or simply not very well, her ability to speak clearly and confidently in front of such a large audience, while evidently under a great deal of emotional stress, is to be applauded. Having engaged in both public speaking and debating as a teenager, I remember all too vividly the terror of standing up and speaking in front of a large audience of my peers and their parents, and my frequent inability to prevent my voice from shaking. Greta appears on the brink of losing her composure but ploughs on regardless – it truly is an impressive performance.
But what is she actually saying? If you peel back the various accusations of “How dare you?” and the accusations that we have stolen her dreams and her childhood, and that the failure to act on climate change is evil, the main substance of her argument is that “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 fairytales of eternal economic growth”
Now here’s the problem. Yes, people are suffering and dying as a result of extreme weather and geological events – but reducing or even completely halting global temperature rises will not prevent such events from occurring. It is utterly ridiculous to believe that by reducing global warming to the 1.5 degree rise above pre-industrial levels that is recommended by the IPCC report to which Greta repeatedly refers, we can prevent any further suffering and death as a result of extreme weather events – yet this does appear to be what Greta believes.
But let’s take a look at the final part of her pronouncement – that “all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth”. This theme of politicians favouring economic growth over action on climate change, is a constant throughout her speeches. At an earlier speech to the European Economic and Social Committee she made the following argument:
“Once you have done your homework you realise that we need new politics. We need new economics where everything is based on an extremely limited and rapidly declining carbon budget. But that is not enough. The political system you have created is all about competition. You cheat when you can because all that matters is to win, to get power. That must come to an end. We must stop competing with each other. We must co-operate, and work together”
Now these sentiments are all very worthy but has she actually thought about the reality of what she is proposing? The idea that nations can simply stop competing is completely at odds with the idea that wealthy nations such as the United States and Great Britain can lead the way in cutting their carbon emissions and expect developing nations such as China and India to follow suit. The reality, as Donald Trump recognises and which caused him to pull out of the Paris Agreement, is that the economic damage that will be done to developed economies by following the protocols of the Agreement, will immediately be exploited by those less-developed economies, with the ultimate benefit to the environment being zero, or even negative. Only a child, with a child’s limited understanding of the way the world works, could believe that nations could simply agree to stop competing over increasingly limited resources.
The reality is that a great deal has already been done, and continues to be done, by developed nations to reduce their carbon emissions. And yes, of course there is plenty more that still can be done, but the only way that developing nations in particular will ever be persuaded to reduce their emissions will be if it can be done in a way that does not damage their economies and prevent their continued growth. Simply expecting developed nations to commit economic suicide in the expectation that developing nations will follow suit, is a childish fantasy – and it is time for the adults in the room to behave like adults, stop indulging that fantasy and get on with discussing solutions that actually do stand a chance of working. And it’s time for Greta and all the other schoolchildren who look up to her, to go back to school and finish their education, so that when in 10 years’ time the world doesn’t end as they currently believe it will, they have at least some hope of finding a job.