Greta Thunberg speaks to EU Parliament. / Frederick Florin (AFP via Getty Images)
You’ve heard it before: dramatic action is needed to slow the effects of climate change; carbon dioxide emissions are still rising; how can we expect our children to fix the damage we’ve done? Each year, on Earth Day, many social media posts demand that we treat every day like Earth Day (and I have been no exception.) The only issue that arises with messaging like this that invokes a sense of urgency concerns when it is not met with action. As a result of this passive awareness, we find ourselves in a kind of purgatory: we feel punished for our inaction, yet we don’t think we can do anymore to help a planet beyond repair.
Until recently, I couldn’t understand why social media activism, the main propagator of this simultaneous panic and surrender, mildly disturbed me, especially when addressing climate change. It can’t be bad that people are spreading awareness, right? Wrong. The reasons for my mixed feelings emerged when a video began to circulate online showing the impact of plastic straw pollution through the removal of one lodged in a sea turtle’s bleeding nostril. Watching as ‘save the sea turtles’ become a superficial mantra used almost sarcastically by some of my peers and online, I realized that my reservations are rooted in social media’s replacement for initiatives that would cause a lasting impact both personally and environmentally. Instead of collecting plastic ourselves or donating to organizations that would concretely take action to reduce plastic waste in oceans, we are simply passing along the responsibility to other users. While our intentions are good, our sharing through social media is grossly impersonal and yields results that not only fail to address the big picture issue at stake, but also create a false sense of accomplishment amongst users who repost. I am not seeking to simply criticize the well-meaning individuals who do partake in this form of activism, as I have participated in it myself, but rather to invite reflection on the inefficiency of this means of expressing our attitudes toward injustices.
As an important example, recently, in a viral video, the PG-13 popular science television host Bill Nye, with a rare use of curse words, demanded that adults “grow the [expletive] up.” Standing next to a globe set aflame, he fumed, “I didn’t mind explaining photosynthesis to you when you were twelve, but you’re adults now and this is an actual crisis.” To me, the virality of this video, spreading notably with the 24-hour Instagram feature ‘stories‘ (ironically among youth mostly, not adults), represents the epitome of the purgatory. The video very effectively sparked fear, especially with its vulgarity, but it didn’t bring any new incentive to take action.
Enter: Greta Thunberg. This Nobel Peace Prize-nominated sixteen-year-old climate change activist, like Bill Nye, heightens our anxiety over the future of our planet. And she is direct about it; one speech at the EU Parliament in Strasbourg opened with “I want you to panic.” Furthermore, she compares the Earth to a “house on fire,” a remarkably similar image to Bill Nye’s ignition of the globe. However, the crucial difference between her and other viral environmental figures lies her ability to initiate a response through her rhetoric and her own actions. A skilled orator, Thunberg brings a surprisingly fresh perspective to an issue we thought had already been argued from every possible angle. She does not shy away from addressing politicians who believe panic is futile or from comparing the speed at which the wealthy poured donations to rebuild Notre Dame with their wavering commitment to the more pressing environmental issue. And she delivers her speeches to audiences who matter: the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, the EU parliament as well as to us common folk through TED talks and spontaneous social media posts.
As a result of her blunt and symbol-laden oration, Greta Thunberg continues to inspire climate strikes around the world, led mainly by youth who miss school on “Fridays for Future” to protest in up to 1,600 cities. She also leads by example; Thunberg is in her element when protesting in her home country in front of Swedish parliament, where she has initiated strikes since the age of 15. In Canada, students protest monthly in front of provincial government buildings, such as Queen’s Park in Toronto. In conjunction with Thunberg’s confrontation of diplomats and politicians, her strikes have led to a series of responses coined as ‘The Greta Thunberg Effect.‘ For example, in European elections in May, climate change played a more important role, described in article from The Telegraph as, “The message [was] clear: the Greens [had] arrived.” In February, EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker pledged to allocate billions toward fighting climate change.
Above, students protesting in Queen’s Park. In Canada, strikes occur in cities monthly. / Photo: Aliénor Rougeot
Thunberg has received substantial criticism for her ‘climate change catastrophism,’ notably from conservatives, who argue the discomfort she evokes is unnecessary. It may be true that their arguments are just: the rising CO2 levels are not the worst the Earth has ever seen in its history and climate change is not an “existential crisis” putting us in danger globally right at this very moment. However, it is undeniable, given the body of scientific evidence available, that our industrial and lifestyle practices will catch up to us, even if that is past 2030, the date Thunberg dubs as the point of no return. And the sooner we invest more seriously in preventing it, the better. Believing that climate change is an important issue, but resolving to deal with at a later date is a fundamentally flawed understanding that even students prone to procrastination, like myself, cannot comprehend. To some, the discomfort she evokes may be verging on excess, but at least it is the persistent kind that is founded in action, not a trend on social media, that is moving youth and politicians alike.
In a moment that most starkly contrasts Thunberg’s persistent activism with transient social media activism, Greta, speaking to British MPs in Westminster, forced her audience to lean in and listen. She began in a hushed voice, asking “Is my English OK? Is the microphone on? Because I’m beginning to wonder. During the last six months I have travelled around Europe for hundreds of hours in trains, electric cars and buses, repeating these life-changing words over and over again. But no one seems to be talking about it, and nothing has changed.”