The Fridays for Futures movement inspired by the frankly incredible Greta Thunberg has been fun to follow since it started only a year ago. She was a disgusted child who decided to skip school to camp out in front of the Swedish Parliament. The goal was to remind the politicians that they were not doing enough to arrest the climate crises. Her logic was absolutely impeccable:
- The scientific consensus is that unless there are significant changes in how societies operate, we only have twelve years before the CO2 tipping points have been breached and all hell is going to break loose.
- The most commonly reported tipping point was 1.5°C (2.7°F) We are almost there.
- 2018 broke records for high temperatures and widespread forest fires in Sweden. Anyone who wasn't frightened to death by these developments was probably clinically unconscious. It was an amazing demonstration of what environmental collapse could look like.
- Greta did the math. She was 15. 12 years and she would be only 27. This is a very grim future.
- "Why educate yourself to be a useful and productive citizen when the future is so hopeless?" reasoned Greta. Besides, she was extremely studious so missing a little school to make a political point seemed a logical path. Her grades weren't going to suffer.
She has spoken to the European, British, and French Parliaments. She went to Davos to scold the filthy rich for their role in the crimes against the climate. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. And her latest was her decision to address the UN General Assembly which meant a transatlantic trip. Since she doesn't fly, this left her with few options. The one she chose was to sail on an environmentally-friendly racing yacht.
She arrived Wednesday (28 AUG 19) in New York and immediately answered questions at an arranged press conference. She wobbled a bit as her sea legs adjusted to solid ground but mostly gave good answers to questions she probably expected. She was obviously weary, dying to take a shower, and eat food that hadn't been freeze dried.
Sailing the Atlantic is, by its very nature, an adventure. When this one sinks in, she will have probably changed. The boat was crazy fast. They hit over 30 knots in spots. (I have sailed since 1971 and never seen 10 knots.) Even so, it required 15 pretty stressful days to travel the distance you can fly in eight hours. Yes, Greta, aviation deposits large amounts of CO2 at high altitudes. Yes it is probably a good idea to get people to eliminate frivolous air travel—and if guilt trips work, keep preaching. But at the current state of technological development, there is simply NO commercial aviation without burning petroleum.
It is quite possible that an invitation to address the UN was simply something a polite Swede could not turn down (Sweden is a country where they still take the UN very seriously). Even so, Greta is already one of the most famous people on earth. Anyone remotely interested can watch multiple speeches of hers on YouTube. So it is possible that her trip to New York and Chile could be considered frivolous. It is also possible that the political statement she would have made by addressing the UN over the Internet would have done wonders for cutting back on the hundreds of utterly frivolous do-nothing climate change conferences that cause thousands of scientists to fly hundreds of thousands of air miles to exchange papers.
Greta has noticeably matured in only one year. Sooner or later she is going to come to the realization that marches with signs are not going to reduce CO2 emissions. She was caught on camera today looking quite bored at a rally. The sail probably had something to do with that too. In 15 days at sea, she probably noticed that moving around on a rich man's toy was not a solution for trans-continental travel. That yacht is a technological marvel built with scientific rigor and may in fact have a zero-carbon footprint under way—but it will not solve the problems of climate change—not even in a symbolic way.
Greta's most serious problem is encapsulated in a slogan plastered all over her super sailboat and even on her foul-weather gear. It says, "unite behind the science." The flaw in her understanding is quite understandable. The climate scientists are absolutely magnificent in describing the problems—CO2 buildup in the atmosphere and oceans, the speed at which glaciers melt, etc. However, when it comes to actually proposing real solutions to these problems, they are quite unhelpful. For example, James Hansen, the former head of NASA, the man who gave such compelling testimony in 1988 before the Senate warning of the catastrophe which would befall humanity if nothing was done about climate change, has been reduced to lobbying for carbon taxes, lawsuits against the government for inaction, getting arrested for chaining himself to the White House fence, and of course, marches.
Because basic science, while helpful in understanding the problem, is not helpful in the drive for useful solutions because Climate Change is a problem of technology, engineering, industrial design, and the sociology and economic theories that drives these great art forms. Humanity has spent at least 10,000 years organizing societies that run on fire. It's not the production of petroleum or coal that causes Climate Change—it's burning them. We are a species that literally worships fire. Many cultures actually have fire gods—the Greeks have Prometheus, the Romans had Vulcan, those from the Judaeo-Christian traditions tell stories of their God appearing as fire.
Greta, you have done a spectacular job of proving, one more time, the ultimate power of articulating the facts. You leave people breathless because that is the default reaction to the unvarnished truth. Your clear, short, and deeply profound sentences compel people to understand hideously complex ideas.
Because you are so good at what you do, it is highly likely that folks will soon expect a whole lot more by way of how to fix things. Just remember, you have trained a whole host of followers who sincerely believe that the key to progress is better complaining. And you are certainly correct that the adults have been sitting on their thumbs for the past thirty years and must show at least a LITTLE more urgency. But when that host begins to demand that YOU should have the working plans, your life could get a LOT more complex.
The following is a list of issues you might want to brush up on. The day is coming soon when folks will expect you to be the adult in the room.
- Actually lowering the output of CO2 will be very difficult. Worse, the higher the rate of installed infrastructure, the more social impediments (investments in houses, cars, power grids, etc.) there will be to change. This means building a solar infrastructure will be easier in a city like Nairobi than Washington DC because there will be so much less to replace.
- When the "adults" start accusing you of fear-mongering and alarmism, they will end up asking, "How can we pay for this? What you are claiming will cost TOO MUCH MONEY to fix. Virtually every country and person on this planet is hopelessly in debt. Etc. And in some minor way they are right. Converting human society from fire-based to solar-based will be extremely expensive. But that is the good news! If we get serious about solving climate change, we must spend SO much money that we should have at least 50 years of prosperity.
- Actually, pro-growth development monetary policies have been around for a long time- Some argue that the Sumerians invented them. Benjamin Franklin argued for the American Revolution based on them—he argued that playing by the rules of the Bank of England would impoverish Americans. My favorite historian on the money question is a British lawyer who moved to California where she discovered the longest-running debate in North American politics. Her name is Ellen Brown. Bottom line—of all the impediments to solving the climate crises, The supply of money is, by FAR, the easiest to fix.
- As you no doubt discovered on your 15 day sail, such a transportation option will never substitute for air travel. Some solutions for the climate crises ARE effectively impossible. If anyone tells you that all the hardware to build the sustainable society has been invented and just needs funding to accomplish, they are grossly exaggerating. We are thousands of inventions away from building a battery-powered airplane that could fly the Atlantic with a load of passengers.
- There are parts of the solution which have been invented. The Swedes figured out the super-insulated house in the 1980s. The high-quality battery-powered car was on the roads by 2013. Yet only a tiny fraction of the houses worldwide could meet Swedish building codes even today. And electric cars are but a tiny sliver of the worldwide small vehicle fleet. The reasons for this are very interesting. Not doing what we CAN do is where the sociology of change comes in.
This video features a guy named Sandy Munro whose business it is to tear down cars in order to discover how they were made, what was done well, and what could be improved. He explains the sociology of why the legacy automakers not only did not invent the good electric car, they still cannot compete with a novice company that treats the electric car as a computer on wheels. This video is extremely informative and discusses the human foibles that shape our built world.
Good luck Greta! You are quite literally a global treasure.