OPN 190804 Greta Thunberg-1564915787186
Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg attends "Fridays for Future" protest, claiming for urgent measures to combat climate change, in Berlin, Germany, on July 19, 2019. Image Credit: Reuters

  • Europeans act like Americans, holding tight to their driving and consuming habits.
  • The spectre of imminent self-extinction is better to rally the public behind actions like banning cars from city centres.
  • Patience may be democracy’s cardinal virtue. Climate change is a serious issue.
  • 'Fridays for Future' protests turned Greta Thunberg into the first world political leader born this century.

Climate activists in Western Europe had already been radicalising for some time when record heat engulfed the Continent last month. Highs reached 42.7 degrees Celsius in Paris two Thursdays ago. Yet many environmentalists have come to believe that extreme weather alone will never spur Europeans to give up fossil fuels. Nor will talking about it. Provocations and disruption are needed.

The problem is not that Europeans think like Americans, 13 per cent of whom say human activity is “not responsible at all” for global warming. Europeans are less cynical about official accounts of climate change that come from the United Nations and various universities. The problem, rather, is that Europeans act like Americans, holding tight to their driving and consuming habits.

Climate activists have therefore changed their emphasis. No more eliciting pieties by explaining what happens when carbon dioxide rises past 400 parts per million. Better to use the spectre of imminent self-extinction to rally the public behind actions like banning cars from city centres and halting new oil exploration.

The climate crisis already has been solved...We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change.

- Greta Thunberg, 16-year-old Swedish climate activist

This new focus may have the virtue of conveying urgency. But it is going to bring the climate protesters into conflict with democracy, whether they realise it or not.

The symbol of this transformation is the Swedish high school student Greta Thunberg, who describes herself to her 800,000-plus Twitter followers as a “16-year-old climate activist with Asperger.” Late last summer she began skipping school on Fridays and travelling to Sweden’s parliament, the Riksdag, where she handed out flyers informing adults, in crude language, that she was doing this because they were ruining her future.

Fridays for Future campaign

Classmates joined her. Students in other European capitals imitated her. “Fridays for Future,” as the protests came to be called, turned Thunberg into the first world political leader born this century. They have been hailed by Green parties across the continent, many of which won impressive victories in May’s European elections.

Thunberg believes people should act, not argue. That, perhaps, is why she is planning to travel to next month’s United Nations global warming summit in New York by sailboat, not aeroplane. It is not that Thunberg does not care about climate data; indeed, she cites the annual reports of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as if they were gospel. It is just that she is done debating.

Her politics rests on two things. First is simplification. “The climate crisis already has been solved,” she said at a TED Talk in Stockholm this year. “We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change.” Second is sowing panic, as she explained at the World Social Forum in Davos last winter.

Normally Thunberg would be unqualified to debate in a democratic forum. Since a 16-year-old is not a legally responsible adult, she cannot be robustly criticised and, even leaving aside her self-description as autistic, Thunberg is a complicated adolescent. Intellectually, she is precocious and subtle. She reasons like a well-read but dogmatic student radical in her 20s. Physically, she is diminutive and fresh-faced, comes off as younger than her years, and frequently refers to herself as a “child” — about the last thing the average 16-year-old would ever do.

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Kids her age have not seen much of life. Her worldview might be unrealistic, her priorities out of balance. But in our time, and in her cause, that seems to be a plus. People have had enough of balance and perspective. They want single-minded devotion to the task at hand.

This Thunberg provides. That climate change be understood as an “emergency” is her first objective. Increasingly, authorities share it. The week of the heatwave, according to The Economist, the Met Office, the British meteorological agency, was trying to speed up its “attribution studies” so that it can link incidents of extreme weather to global warming before the public’s attention drifts. This is a political, not a meteorological, goal. There are also calls to politicise language. In May, The Guardian announced it would use the term “climate crisis” rather than “climate change” in its articles, and “global heating” rather than “global warming.”

Alliances between institutional authorities and activists like Thunberg often backfire. With questions of global warming, the problems of credibility are already large, even without fresh incitements to politicisation. Sometime after the age of 16, most people learn that not even the members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are above self-interest and human error.

It is also hard to say what a real, non-utopian low-carbon politics would look like, once the public got involved in legislating and regulating. Contrary to the assumptions of many of Thunberg’s admirers, it might resemble contemporary populist agendas more than the world imagined by the United Nations’ modellers and the governance experts of Davos. Protectionism could be in: If you establish a system of carbon pricing, countries that don’t practise it are “dumping,” and their imports must be excluded. Immigration could be out: It is difficult to see how any kind of long-term mass immigration is consistent with a desire to lower Europe’s carbon output.

Agitators want action, not distraction

And that is before we even broach the question of what kind of civilisation we want, and at what level of technological complexity. On a planet of eight billion people, it is not just destination weddings that require considerable expenditure of energy. So does food. So does clean drinking water. So does communication.

Increasingly, climate agitators want action, not distraction. That often requires demonising anyone who stands in the way. In July the climate editor of the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad complained that Paris’ declaration of a “climate state of emergency” on July 9 had not been accompanied by a ban on automobile traffic in Paris or by a dimming of the lights on the Eiffel Tower. In Germany the word Flugscham is one of the last year’s more interesting coinages. It means not fear of flying but shame of flying, and of the pollution it brings about. The German economist Niko Paech urges shaming people for booking cruises and driving SUVs, too.

Behind the new boldness of climate activists is the assumption that ordinary Europeans’ good intentions are sincere and their inaction is hypocritical. It could be the other way around. Whatever the case, Europeans’ slowness to act on the climate cannot simply be dismissed as “denial.” Those who read the United Nations reports and tut-tut but fail to take to the streets might be less resolute — but they might simply disagree, or have other priorities.

Democracy often calls for waiting and seeing. Patience may be democracy’s cardinal virtue. Climate change is a serious issue. But to say, “We can’t wait,” is to invite a problem just as grave.

Christopher Caldwell is the author of the forthcoming book The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties and a contributing opinion writer.