Greta, the new climate change rhetoric, and the inevitable marketing angle

No doubt you’ve been hearing a lot more about the climate crisis these last few weeks. On the heels of its steep upward trajectory in the national conversation, a bunch of stuff all happened at once. By design.

The UN had a big climate action summit in NYC, happening at the same time as Climate Week in NYC. This was the perfect moment for Greta Thunberg, invited to speak at the UN, to take a solar-powered boat from Europe to NYC to take part.

While she was there she, alongside a bunch of other brave and badass teenage climate activists, led the NYC part of the global climate strike, a weeklong protest that ended up some 7 million strong. It was a perfect storm of climate activism, debate, and all-around attention.

You could say a lot about the attention Greta is getting on all sides, from the inevitable shitty and trollish conservative backlash to the viral shot of her glaring at Trump at the UN to the death metal version of her speech.

But let’s talk about what she actually said.

Here’s a quick nugget from her speech to US Congress:

“Wherever I go I seem to be surrounded by fairytales. Business leaders, elected officials all across the political spectrum spending their time making up and telling bedtime stories that soothe us, that make us go back to sleep.”

And way, way harsher, a few bits from her speech at the UN:

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope? How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”

“There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures today. Because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.”

This is the real shit. “How dare you.” No company or government is doing nearly enough. That’s the truth. It’s there in the science, and the kids know it.

If you look back over the last couple of years at some of the most impactful conversations around climate change, it’s come from a much more raw, unvarnished, almost cold (in tone, not temperature) place. It’s not alarmist, because the truth is cause for alarm.

There was David Wallace-Wells and his cover story for New York Magazine, which got the most online traffic of any story in their website’s history. It laid out the worst case scenarios for global warming, backed by science. It created fierce debate, freaked people the fuck out, expanded into a full-length book, and got him on every podcast from Kara Swisher to Joe Rogan.

There was a steady and still ongoing transition from referring to this issue by the weak-sauce phrase “climate change” to calling it the “climate crisis,” now used widely from The Guardian to the US Congress’ own House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

And back to Greta. With all the attention she and her speeches are getting, now we get the hot takes from the marketing, ad, and PR world, talking about “authenticity.”

As if it’s something that can be bottled up and put into a marketing strategy. From this article in PR Week:

“‘Speaking from an emotionally real place is becoming the No. 1 essential thing to effective comms today.'”

Suuuuure. Let’s emulate the “effective comms” coming from kids who know their futures are stake and are desperately trying to get the adults at the wheel, who unfortunately still have all the power, to actually fucking do something for fuck’s sake.

If you’re a brand, you’re not gonna sell clothes or soft drinks to these kids “speaking from an emotionally real place.” You MIGHT survive the transition to when these kids grow up and take the reigns, IF you actually change everything about your business. They know their shit, and they’re paying way more attention to the details than you think.

I attended a talk hosted by sustainability agency Futerra during climate week, in which they invited some of the key young players of the youth climate movement to talk to their corporate clients and other business people about how they see brands. The kids already buying less stuff. Their relationship to consumerism is changing in ways that there is probably no going back from.

The way they talk about the issues really showed that nobody’s going to pull the wool over their eyes. They deeply understand all the systematic connections between how products are made and how they affect the environment.

I was also impressed by the way the Futerra people ran the talk, and other business leaders who spoke up. These were people who have made it their life’s work to battle climate change from within the business world. Their constant refrain was not “thank you” to the kids for speaking out and creating attention, but rather “I’m sorry” for not doing more and putting them in that situation. They were trying really hard to affect change in their companies, but they all knew it wasn’t enough yet.

With every company, including the fossil fuel companies themselves, touting their sustainability cred, It can be hard to sort the wheat from the chaff and figure out who’s backing up their fancy words.

It seems to me that, if brands want to actually sell their shit to young people now and in the future, then actions are going to speak way louder. An “authentic” tone doesn’t mean shit anymore if it’s not backed up by tangible action. You will be called on your bullshit.

P.S. Here are both of Greta’s recent speeches in full. They’re worth it.

At the UN Climate Action Summit

This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope? How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. 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. How dare you!

For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away, and come here saying that you are doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.

You say you “hear” us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I don’t want to believe that. Because if you fully understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And I refuse to believe that.

The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5C degrees, and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.

Maybe 50% is acceptable to you. But those numbers don’t include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of justice and equity. They also rely on my and my children’s generation sucking hundreds of billions of tonnes of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist. So a 50% risk is simply not acceptable to us — we who have to live with the consequences.

To have a 67% chance of staying below a 1.5C global temperature rise – the best odds given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the world had 420 gigatons of carbon dioxide left to emit back on 1 January 2018. Today that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatons. How dare you pretend that this can be solved with business-as-usual and some technical solutions. With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone in less than eight and a half years.

There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures today. Because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.

You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.

Her address to US Congress

My name is Greta Thunberg, I am 16 years old and I’m from Sweden. I am grateful for being with you here in the USA. A nation that, to many people, is the country of dreams.

I also have a dream: that governments, political parties and corporations grasp the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis and come together despite their differences – as you would in an emergency – and take the measures required to safeguard the conditions for a dignified life for everybody on earth.

Because then – we millions of school striking youth – could go back to school.

I have a dream that the people in power, as well as the media, start treating this crisis like the existential emergency it is. So that I could go home to my sister and my dogs. Because I miss them.

In fact I have many dreams. But this is the year 2019. This is not the time and place for dreams. This is the time to wake up. This is the moment in history when we need to be wide awake.

And yes, we need dreams, we can not live without dreams. But there’s a time and place for everything. And dreams can not stand in the way of telling it like it is.

And yet, wherever I go I seem to be surrounded by fairytales. Business leaders, elected officials all across the political spectrum spending their time making up and telling bedtime stories that soothe us, that make us go back to sleep.

These are “feel-good” stories about how we are going to fix everything. How wonderful everything is going to be when we have “solved” everything. But the problem we are facing is not that we lack the ability to dream, or to imagine a better world. The problem now is that we need to wake up. It’s time to face the reality, the facts, the science.

And the science doesn’t mainly speak of “great opportunities to create the society we always wanted”. It tells of unspoken human sufferings, which will get worse and worse the longer we delay action – unless we start to act now. And yes, of course a sustainable transformed world will include lots of new benefits. But you have to understand. This is not primarily an opportunity to create new green jobs, new businesses or green economic growth. This is above all an emergency, and not just any emergency. This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced.

And we need to treat it accordingly so that people can understand and grasp the urgency. Because you can not solve a crisis without treating it as one. Stop telling people that everything will be fine when in fact, as it looks now, it won’t be very fine. This is not something you can package and sell or ”like” on social media.

Stop pretending that you, your business idea, your political party or plan will solve everything. We must realise that we don’t have all the solutions yet. Far from it. Unless those solutions mean that we simply stop doing certain things.

Changing one disastrous energy source for a slightly less disastrous one is not progress. Exporting our emissions overseas is not reducing our emission. Creative accounting will not help us. In fact, it’s the very heart of the problem.

Some of you may have heard that we have 12 years as from 1 January 2018 to cut our emissions of carbon dioxide in half. But I guess that hardly any of you have heard that there is a 50 per cent chance of staying below a 1.5 degree Celsius of global temperature rise above pre-industrial levels. Fifty per cent chance.

And these current, best available scientific calculations do not include non linear tipping points as well as most unforeseen feedback loops like the extremely powerful methane gas escaping from rapidly thawing arctic permafrost. Or already locked in warming hidden by toxic air pollution. Or the aspect of equity; climate justice.

So a 50 per cent chance – a statistical flip of a coin – will most definitely not be enough. That would be impossible to morally defend. Would anyone of you step onto a plane if you knew it had more than a 50 per cent chance of crashing? More to the point: would you put your children on that flight?

And why is it so important to stay below the 1.5 degree limit? Because that is what the united science calls for, to avoid destabilising the climate, so that we stay clear of setting off an irreversible chain reaction beyond human control. Even at 1 degree of warming we are seeing an unacceptable loss of life and livelihoods.

So where do we begin? Well I would suggest that we start looking at chapter 2, on page 108 in the IPCC report that came out last year. Right there it says that if we are to have a 67 per cent chance of limiting the global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, we had, on 1 January 2018, about 420 Gtonnes of CO2 left to emit in that carbon dioxide budget. And of course that number is much lower today. As we emit about 42 Gtonnes of CO2 every year, if you include land use.

With today’s emissions levels, that remaining budget is gone within less than 8 and a half years. These numbers are not my opinions. They aren’t anyone’s opinions or political views. This is the current best available science. Though a great number of scientists suggest even these figures are too moderate, these are the ones that have been accepted by all nations through the IPCC.

And please note that these figures are global and therefore do not say anything about the aspect of equity, clearly stated throughout the Paris Agreement, which is absolutely necessary to make it work on a global scale. That means that richer countries need to do their fair share and get down to zero emissions much faster, so that people in poorer countries can heighten their standard of living, by building some of the infrastructure that we have already built. Such as roads, hospitals, schools, clean drinking water and electricity.

The USA is the biggest carbon polluter in history. It is also the world’s number one producer of oil. And yet, you are also the only nation in the world that has signalled your strong intention to leave the Paris Agreement. Because quote “it was a bad deal for the USA”.

Four-hundred and twenty Gt of CO2 left to emit on 1 January 2018 to have a 67 per cent chance of staying below a 1.5 degrees of global temperature rise. Now that figure is already down to less than 360 Gt.

These numbers are very uncomfortable. But people have the right to know. And the vast majority of us have no idea these numbers even exist. In fact not even the journalists that I meet seem to know that they even exist. Not to mention the politicians. And yet they all seem so certain that their political plan will solve the entire crisis.

But how can we solve a problem that we don’t even fully understand? How can we leave out the full picture and the current best available science?

I believe there is a huge danger in doing so. And no matter how political the background to this crisis may be, we must not allow this to continue to be a partisan political question. The climate and ecological crisis is beyond party politics. And our main enemy right now is not our political opponents. Our main enemy now is physics. And we can not make “deals” with physics.

Everybody says that making sacrifices for the survival of the biosphere – and to secure the living conditions for future and present generations – is an impossible thing to do.

Americans have indeed made great sacrifices to overcome terrible odds before.

Think of the brave soldiers that rushed ashore in that first wave on Omaha Beach on D Day. Think of Martin Luther King and the 600 other civil rights leaders who risked everything to march from Selma to Montgomery. Think of President John F. Kennedy announcing in 1962 that America would “choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”

Perhaps it is impossible. But looking at those numbers – looking at the current best available science signed by every nation – then I think that is precisely what we are up against.

But you must not spend all of your time dreaming, or see this as some political fight to win.

And you must not gamble your children’s future on the flip of a coin.

Instead, you must unite behind the science.

You must take action.

You must do the impossible.

Because giving up can never ever be an option.