Greta Thunberg and her young warriors

As Greta Thunberg emerges into adulthood, her indelible legacy will be the global “school strike for climate” movement

It was a meeting heavy with meaning: a fresh-faced 17-year-old Swedish schoolgirl, instigator of a global youth climate movement, sitting down with an acclaimed veteran of nature film-making who turned 95 on Saturday.

Early last year, Greta Thunberg met face-to-face with David Attenborough in London. The BBC filmed the meeting, screened in a documentary series on Thunberg which ended on ABC-TV last night (available on iView – Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World).

Attenborough’s modest response didn’t do justice to his 70-year effort to bring the world of nature into the homes of millions – including Thunberg’s. “I’ve been bleating about it [climate change] for a long time,” he said, “but the big changes came when you spoke.” 

But he’s right. Starting three years ago when she was just 15, sitting in silence on that Stockholm pavement with her sign declaring a “school strike for climate”, Thunberg has got people engaged in numbers that ageing climate activists could only dream of. Now she is no longer silent, and her calls for action have caught the rapt attention of millions. 

But this is not a one-way street. Thunberg herself is learning about the world, in particular about the complexities of transitioning to a post-carbon world. The most moving moment of her documentary was a meeting she had with former Polish coal miners in Silesia, where coal has been mined for over 800 years. 

She expected a hostile reception. What she got instead was a warm greeting and a moving recounting of the miners’ feelings of grief and anxiety over their mine’s closure. When they heard it was happening, said one, the men “had tears in their eyes, and fear about how to cope with it all, and what’s going to come next”.

Then the conversation took a surprising turn. “We are open… to the transformation of the mining industry,” said one of the miners, “so long as we are being taken seriously.” One of the older men thanked Thunberg for her speech to the Madrid climate conference a month earlier: “I think it will bring results, and for sure things will change here.”

There was grace on both sides of this exchange. The coal miners harboured no grudges against someone who had advocated against their lifelong vocation. On the other hand, we saw the girl becoming a woman, working her way through the vast implications and complex intricacies of the climate challenge.

Oblivious to decision-makers’ excuses, Thunberg continues to push one simple message: listen to the science. She knows, as do David Attenborough and Poland’s unemployed coal miners, that the carbon juggernaut will only be stopped when governments everywhere heed that advice and act accordingly. 

That is not happening. The International Energy Agency projected last month that, despite the global pandemic, higher coal demand would leave emissions in 2021 at their highest point in over a decade.

That information is the ultimate slap-down of government claims to be making a difference. It is also profoundly depressing. We had reason to hope that the one silver lining of the pandemic might be the beginning of an emissions downturn. No such luck.

Thunberg has shown an astonishing command of language and logic, but her most important attributes in catching the world’s attention were the focus that comes with being autistic and – most important – her youth. As she leaves her childhood behind, she is coming to appreciate better the obstacles that the adult world has put in the way of climate progress.

Australian children have played a big part in the Thunberg youth phenomenon. In an online interview six months ago Thunberg identified a key ingredient in her struggle to win global attention. The impact of nationwide streets protests by Australian school students in November 2018, she said, was “massive”. “It got out in the media, and young people saw that and said I want to do the same thing.”

On Friday week, our students will again take to the streets to denounce government inaction, giving voice to what we have all known in our hearts but been too afraid to utter. Yet again, our children are standing up to be heard, condemning federal and state governments for their continuing refusal to see our future through their eyes.

There are still adults in the room, and they matter as never before. On Friday week, genuine Australian grown-ups, as opposed to the imposters posing as decision-makers, need to stand with our school students and make themselves heard. Then to go on doing it, indefinitely.

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