That’s how Greta Thunberg began her long-awaited speech to the UN General Assembly this morning. “This is all wrong,” she said. “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!”
She’s right, of course. What’s happened at the UN Climate Action Summit today is “all wrong.” We should be hearing updates from the grown-ups. Respected climate scientists, policymakers and economists should have been on that stage.
The status of the crisis, the human causes and the solutions should have been the agenda. Instead, we heard from a nervous 16-year-old, forced to make a speech in front of world leaders in her second language.
I’m ostensibly a grown-up, so let me reflect on how we ended up here. I got swept up in the environmental movement in the early 90s. It was around the time of the famous Time Warner Earth Day Special featuring Bette Midler playing Mother Earth. (It’s as cheesy as it sounds, but it was a big deal at the time.) We focused on more local issues at that time, such as “reduce, reuse, and recycle,’ tree planting and lobbying for safer handling of nuclear waste
I first remember getting tuned into the climate crisis after a long, heated and pointless argument with a climate denier. I wanted to fact check myself afterward, so I started digging into the evidence. The first thing I learned was that climate change isn’t a fad or even a new idea. Svante Arrhenius first discovered the greenhouse gas effect in 1896. He published it in a paper called On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Earth.
Arrhenius’ discovery remained controversial until the mid-1950s when the evidence started to prove his point. In 1960, Charles Keeling established that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere was rising. He won the National Medal of Science for this discovery. Researchers still call graphs showing the rise of C02 in the atmosphere Keeling Curves in his honour.
In 1965, the US Science Advisory Committee warned Lyndon Johnson that “An increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide could act, much like the glass in a greenhouse, to raise the temperature of the lower air.” Three years later, the Stanford Research Institute delivered a report to the American Petroleum Institute. It said, “Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000, and these could bring about climatic changes.”
James Hansen became famous as an “early” predictor of climate change with his 1981 study called Climate impact of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. He warned about effects on climate, such as drought, loss of the Antarctic ice sheet, rising sea levels, and an ice-free Northwest Passage more than 30 years ago.
The World Meteorological Office set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in. 1988. The panel draws on the work of hundreds of experts throughout the world. The IPCC has issued five assessment reports since then. They all confirm that climate change is real, caused by humans and an emergency. Seven independent research studies all show that the expert consensus on the climate crisis has been close to 100% since at least 2004.
Readers might have noticed that the petroleum industry first learned about climate change in 1968. In 2010, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway published a book called Merchants of Doubt. It walks us through the long history of climate denial. We learn that a small clique of contrarian physicists, who were fiercely opposed to government regulation, fought to discredit climate science. Their names were Bill Nierenburg, Fred Seitz and Fred Singer. Merchants of Doubt explains that their four tactics were to “discredit the science, disseminate false information, spread confusion, and promote doubt.”
That’s how we got stuck here. Experts have been warning us about the risk for more than a century. Meanwhile, a handful of stubborn cranks have worked to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt. The determined cranks were better spin doctors than busy scientists. The fossil fuel industry quietly supported the cranks and cashed in on the benefit of the doubt.
In her speech, Greta Thunberg said, “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.”
A radio program from the 1940s called The Shadow used the catchphrase “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” We don’t know anyone’s motives, including those of the players involved in this crisis. We do know that the science is proven. The contrarians seem to be motivated by fears that climate action will destroy our prosperity and our freedoms. They may have meant well, at least in the beginning. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
We seem to be at a tipping point now. Polls show that most people are concerned about the climate. Public awareness of the causes of the controversy remains limited. Thought leaders still have some educating to do.
We also need to find out the root causes behind policymakers dragging their feet. It’s a stain on the global community that we’ve left this work to a 16-year-old.
We always have more learn if we dare to know.
Transcript: Greta Thunberg’s Speech At The UN Climate Action Summit
On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Earth
US SAC Report to Lyndon Johnson
SRI Report to the American Petroleum Institute
Climate impact of increasing atmospheric carbon
Merchants of Doubt