A tale of two speeches

Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist, and PM Scott Morrison both spoke at the UN last week. Their speeches are chalk and cheese.

Greta Thunberg at the UN Climate Action Summit. Scott Morrison addressed the General Assembly two days later.

Could a slip of a girl from Stockholm have lifted the climate debate into a place where good things could happen? Our prime minister’s response would suggest not, but you never know.

With the full weight of science behind her, schoolgirl Greta Thunberg has directed the world’s most powerful adults to do what they should have been doing for decades: simply get their heads around what science says about climate change and then get to work to fix things.

In doing so, Thunberg and her young acolytes around the globe have cut through the mess of half-truths (that is, half-lies) that are the stuff of politics and diplomacy. Her words reflect badly on leaders and adult frailties generally. But all of us grownups must wear them, because they’re true.

A couple of days ahead of the huge global rallies inspired by her solitary “school strike for the climate” (first taken up collectively by young Australians last November), Thunberg was asked to testify before a US House of Representatives committee.

She told them that instead of seeking her view they should unite behind the science and then take action. They should first consult last year’s UN report on 1.5C of warming. She’s done that, but evidence would suggest many of them haven’t. Who’s the educated one here?

At UN headquarters in New York last week her audience included the heavy lifters of the community of nations: world leaders who pledged to do more to lower emissions. But she spared no-one.

“How dare you!” she told her elders, her voice trembling with anger. “How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight. …You are not mature enough to tell it like it is.” If leaders continued to “choose to fail”, young people “will never forgive you.”

This is not what we are used to. Much more familiar is what Scott Morrison had to say in the same venue three days later: “Australia is… taking real action on climate change, and we’re getting results.” In a speech five times longer than Thunberg’s, the PM also had these things to say:

“Having met – and we will exceed – our Kyoto targets, Australia will also meet our Paris commitments as well, and we stand by them…This is a credible, fair, responsible and achievable contribution to global climate change action.”

“At the centre of our domestic efforts is a $3½ billion climate solutions plan that I successfully took as prime minister to our recent national election, supporting practical projects like capturing methane from waste, revegetation of degraded land and soil carbon.”

“We welcome the contributions and leadership from business and the private sector to address these challenges, including… industry-led mechanisms for investing in new recycling technologies and mitigating plastic waste.”

“Our Great Barrier Reef remains one of the world’s most pristine areas of natural beauty. Feel free to visit. Our reef is vibrant, and resilient, and protected under the world’s most comprehensive reef management plan.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, these are all discredited half-truths. The “climate solutions plan”, using public money to buy abatement from business, is crude and ineffectual. Australia exceeds targets by using mechanisms that others have disavowed; our emissions have been rising for years. And private investment is not an alternative to strong public policy.

Finally, the Great Barrier Reef is not pristine, but has been damaged by pollution and, crucially, by a warming and increasingly acidic ocean. The reef’s Marine Park Authority recently found its future outlook to be very poor. And the day after the PM spoke, the IPCC described the state of oceans generally as “catastrophic”.

One other line of argument by the PM deserves special mention. He said he welcomed the passion of Australian children concerned about their future. “My impulse is always to seek to respond positively, and to encourage them; to provide context, perspective, and particularly… hope.”

He went on: “We must guard against others who would seek to compound, or worse, baselessly exploit, their anxieties for other agendas… Above all, we must… let our kids be kids, let our teenagers be teenagers, while we… deliver the practical solutions for them and their future.”

The power of Thunberg’s words could not have been completely lost on him. But saying that young people should be doing kids’ stuff while proper grownups dole out the hope, or that they’re being exploited by those with “other agendas”, is clear evidence that he hasn’t taken in what she’s saying.

Thunberg focuses on the political dimension because in this climate emergency that is where our greatest weakness lies, a weakness on clear view in the prime minister’s shallow, self-promotional UN speech. Which poses the obvious question: who was the adult in that room?

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Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN is on YouTube. This is the full text, beginning with her response to a question about a message to world leaders:

My message is that we’ll be watching you.

This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up 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 fairy tales 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’re 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 do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.

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

Fifty per cent may be acceptable to you. But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of equity and climate justice. They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist.

So a 50 per cent risk is simply not acceptable to us, we who have to live with the consequences.

To have a 67 per cent chance of staying below a 1.5 degrees global temperature rise – the best odds given by the IPCC – the world had 420 gigatonnes of CO2 left to emit back on January 1, 2018. Today that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatonnes.

How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just “business as usual” and some technical solutions! With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than 8½ years.

There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here 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. Thank you.

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