Greta Thunberg's stinging challenge to world leaders is not just a rhetorical device, it is a genuine question that needs answering
Greta Thunberg's excoriating address to the UN's assorted world leaders makes for extremely uncomfortable viewing. Her voice breaking, her face on the verge of angry tears, it is almost too much to watch. But watch it you must.
"Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up - change is coming if you like it or not."— UNICEF (@UNICEF) September 23, 2019
Spine-tingling speech from @gretathunberg at today's #UNGA #ClimateAction Summit.pic.twitter.com/ZmTrWdTzLJ
Almost as soon as it was delivered the speech had the feel of an historically resonant document. A time capsule for future academics to let them know that as the web of market failures and political inadequacy drove global emissions ever upwards there were voices screaming 'stop'.
It was also master class in oratory. The clipped sentences, the unyielding adherence to first principles, the laser-like focus on the audience's failures, the repetition of that defining challenge - how dare you? - all combining to leave world leaders speechless and squirming in their chairs. One of the many things that make Thunberg so special is the simple fact that she is better at political communication than most politicians.
There is also something uniquely unnerving about Thunberg's challenge that lies in her combination of familiarity and extraordinary talent. As I Tweeted earlier this afternoon, Thunberg's visceral anger and frustration is so recognisable - from completely different contexts - to anyone who knows, or indeed has been, a teenager. The righteous drama of her assertion that she "should be back in school on the other side of the ocean". The grandiloquent accusation that "you have stolen my childhood with your dreams and empty words". We all recognise such language from teenagers everywhere.
There is something particularly powerful and uncomfortable about this excoriating speech, which I think stems from the way it obliterates the usual defences against being called out by someone much younger than yourself. https://t.co/fi6IehGpyR— James Murray (@James_BG) September 23, 2019
Even my four year old does it when his response to being told off is an anger so pure and accusatory it is genuinely unnerving. "Why are you being mean to me?" he asks. It still stops me in my tracks every time.
The parental defence against this is always - and I mean *always* - "it's for your own good". "I'm stopping you doing what you want because I am the adult and I am acting in your long term interests." It is this rationale that makes the angry child's accusations of betrayal and frustration bearable.
But with Thunberg that defence has no power. "How dare you?" she asks. "We will never forgive you," she rages. It is the same old teenage accusation, but this time there is no defence. None. Just the terrible reminder we have failed the people we were meant to keep safe.
And so there is nothing but that question: "How dare you?" Well, how? It is not just a rhetorical device, but a legitimate and critically important question that has to be answered if globally effective climate action is to be engineered.
The answer lies in that well-mapped morass of complex market failures, chronic short termism, an inability to accurately process risk management and inter-locking cost-benefit equations, vested interests and stranded assets, ideological inertia at the expense of co-operation and pragmatism, and, on rare but important occasions, a near sociopathic indifference to the needs and interests of others.
The only thing that might just begin to assuage the guilt Thunberg so effectively ignites is the knowledge that work to navigate this existential challenge is advancing faster than at any point in history. The fusillade of net zero announcements from both corporates and governments unveiled over the past two days has been without precedent. These are serious multi-billion dollar commitments, backed by serious political capital and made feasible by rapidly advancing clean technologies and a better understanding of the economics of climate action than ever before.
As I argued last week, as millions of people took to the streets to protest bolder climate action, pressure on corporate and political leaders is bearing in from four sides: technological cost reductions, escalating physical climate impacts, established policy mechanisms, and intensifying public demands. Leaders are finally responding with net zero based climate strategies that are a long way from maturity, but are at least approaching a commensurate response to the scale of the challenge. The foundations built by green businesses over the past two decades are being built on - at last.
The betrayal of Thunberg's generation remains a source of eternal shame, but it is not yet complete. There is time to turn it around. The clock is ticking, but forgiveness can still be secured. As Thunberg herself concluded, "a change is coming whether you like it or not".
A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing email, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.
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