I was a anti-nuclear arms proliferation activist from a very young age, 10 or 11, and took it seriously, nearly getting kicked out of school and organizing classmates to attend large demonstrations. I felt like I was tackling an existential risk to the human race and most of the living things on the planet Earth (30+ years later, I think I was right), and that the grownups around me were not taking this seriously, and that this was probably the most urgent thing for me to focus on as a result.
Watching Greta Thunberg, I find myself recalling all the young activists I knew back then, and the extraordinary young people I've met since through my YA novels. She's an extraordinary speaker, of course, and has a crackling personal presence that carries over through the camera as well, but I think that what makes her especially effective is that she is able to combine sweeping philosophical statements with really concrete, well-phrased, crisply defined demands that are audacious, but phrased in such a way as to be undeniable.
Her most recent Davos speech is a great example of this. First, she tells the press and world leaders that they're not taking the climate crisis seriously and makes a very nebulous, but grand, demand of them: "I don't think I have seen one media outlet or person in power communicating this or what it means. I know you don't want to report on this. I know you don't want to talk about this. But I assure you I will continue to repeat these numbers until you do."
This is a really typical youth activist statement: smart, principled, and unreasonable in the way activists need to be if they are to achieve anything. But what really makes it work is the followup: "We demand that at this year's forum, participants from all companies, banks, institutions and governments immediately halt all investments in fossil fuel exploration and extraction, immediately end all fossil fuel subsidies and immediately and completely divest from fossil fuel."
This is the demand that Thunberg and co published in the Guardian. It's also unreasonable (in the sense that it doesn't brook any compromise) and sweeping, but it's also incredibly sharply defined. As a key performance indicator, it's really easy to measure: in a year, someone — maybe Thunberg — can go back to Davos and name the people who acceded to this demand, and also those who didn't.
As some climate march signs I've seen recently go, "We know who destroyed the planet. We know their names. We know their addresses." Thanks to this crisp articulation, we will also know who moved, and refused.
"Pretty much nothing has been done since the global emissions of CO2 has not reduced," Thunberg said. "[I]f you see it from that aspect, what has concretely been done, if you see it from a bigger perspective, basically nothing … it will require much more than this, this is just the very beginning."
Greta Thunberg: 'Nothing has been done' to tackle the climate crisis [Hadas Gold/CNN Business]
(Image: Anderspangpang, CC BY-SA)