At just 16 years old, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has made waves all over the world for her plain-spoken, no-holds-barred chastising of world leaders over their inaction on climate change. Thunberg’s signature calm and the profound magnitude of her quietly delivered warnings were on full display this week as she addressed members of the U.K. Parliament after a weeklong series of militant actions by Extinction Rebellion. “Is my microphone on? Can you hear me?” she asked several times, with a palpable anger.
Thunberg called out Britain for claiming that it has lowered its emissions but leaving out of its calculations major sources of carbon emissions. She also blamed lawmakers for championing such new fossil fuels as fracked oil and gas. “This ongoing, irresponsible behavior will no doubt be remembered in history as one of the greatest failures of humankind,” Thunberg said, as Members of Parliament watched and listened in silence. Secretary of State for Environment Michael Gove later said he felt “great admiration, but also responsibility and guilt.” Labour MP Ed Miliband admitted, “You have woken us up.”
"As any organizer knows, disruption is the point—especially when humanity’s future, which is worth far more than any business losses, is at stake."
Thunberg is used to hearing such platitudes and reportedly “listened attentively, applauding only when a member of [the] audience criticized the government for pushing ahead with fracking.” She is correct that politicians have wasted decades of precious time with “beautiful words and promises.” The annual Conference of Parties climate meetings hosted by the United Nations routinely brings together thousands of delegates from hundreds of nations to take action on the climate. But until the 2015 Paris Accord, there was almost nothing to show, almost no progress made year after year. And even in Paris, the climate accord championed by world leaders lacked the necessary strong language urging drastic action and enforceable pledges to reduce or stop emissions. And even that modest agreement was then tossed out by the U.S.—one of the most egregious carbon-emitters in the world.
Nothing matters anymore except for action. That is what thousands of people, young and old, have expressed in London over the past several days. On April 15, members of Extinction Rebellion occupied key landmarks across the city: Parliament Square, Marble Arch, Oxford Circus, Waterloo Bridge and Piccadilly Circus. They articulated a simple set of three demands to the government: declare a climate and ecological emergency, enact policies to become carbon-neutral by 2025, and declare a citizens assembly to deepen democracy, given how spectacularly our existing governments have failed us.
Over eight days of actions, more than 1,000 people were arrested in London as they engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience in the form of sit-ins, road blockages and die-ins—the largest number of arrests resulting from any coordinated set of actions in the city. Activists super-glued themselves to the front of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s home, to the top of a train carriage, and also to a train window. They brought London to a standstill and made clear that climate action is a nonnegotiable demand. One business executive complained to the BBC that his company lost 12 million pounds (roughly $15.5 million) in trade, remarking, “Everyone has a right to peaceful protest. But this is really disruptive.”
As any organizer knows, disruption is the point—especially when humanity’s future, which is worth far more than any business losses, is at stake. And it worked. The Labour Party announced—after more than a week of actions—that it will endorse Extinction Rebellion and move toward declaring a climate emergency. Just as Thunberg managed to shame MPs with her speech, Extinction Rebellion pushed the political needle in the right direction.
While the British media were forced to cover the coalition’s climate actions because of the scale of disruption, American media outlets barely covered the movement. They certainly did not give Extinction Rebellion a coveted front-page spot. There were smaller-scale actions in the U.S. in conjunction with London’s, but they received hardly any coverage either. On April 16, activists launched the “climate games” “hosted” by the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C. In Portland, Ore., 11 activists were arrested for building a garden across the train tracks to protest the expansion of an oil terminal. In Los Angeles, four people glued themselves to the top of the Universal Studios globe, demanding that NBC Universal improve its coverage of climate change.
Where political inaction, particularly at the global and national level, has failed, local victories are quietly offering the only sources of hope. Unrelated to the nonviolent civil disobedience actions Extinction Rebellion launched last week, New York City activists celebrated the passage of a slate of city-wide resolutions labeled #ClimateMobilizationAct. As Patrick Houston, an associate at New York Communities for Change, explained to me in an interview, “We’re calling it a ‘Green New Deal for New York,’ ” because it addresses issues of climate change and racial and economic inequality. Among the resolutions passed is that of commissioning a study on how to transition the city’s power plants from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Another focuses on a plan to fill the city’s rooftops with gardens, along with other green initiatives.
The centerpiece of the bill addresses what Houston calls “New York’s largest source of climate pollution, and that is buildings.” The city’s high-rises will need to retrofit their windows, insulation and other infrastructure to be more energy-efficient. The buildings most affected make up a tiny percentage of all the city’s structures—“the large luxury buildings, like Trump Tower, like Kushner buildings,” Houston explained. He called New York’s #ClimateMobilizationAct “the largest climate pollution cut on the municipal level in the world.”
In other words, if one of the world’s largest cities can address climate pollution in 2019, so can every other city in the U.S. and the world. This week, the city of Los Angeles also voted unanimously to pass its own version of a “Green New Deal.” One report explained that such a plan could “dramatically reduce environmental pollution in some of the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods, and stimulate the creation of green jobs and infrastructure through a $100 million, 10-year program.” Maine is also considering such a plan, as is Minnesota.
There is no time to waste. As Thunberg explained, “The fact that we are speaking of ‘lowering’ instead of ‘stopping’ emissions is perhaps the greatest force behind the continuing business as usual.” She is correct. Every step—even those in the right direction—seems paltry in comparison to the scope of the climate emergency. Each bill passed and every resolution debated speaks of future cuts, more studies, better data and a plan to make a plan to someday—maybe, perhaps—reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That is simply not enough.
“Now we probably don’t even have a future any more,” Thunberg told the British MPs. “Because that future was sold so that a small number of people could make unimaginable amounts of money.” We all need to see the writing on the wall as starkly as the truth-telling teen activist sees it. Her future, and the future of all our children, depends on it.