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Greta’s Gap Year: A Catalyst for Change?

It has become quite self-evident to say that solving climate change requires a united effort from all stakeholders around the world. But what is the role of the climate activist in this complex landscape, and to what extent do they truly catalyse change?

When the term “climate activist” is mentioned, the first person that comes to your mind might be a teenage girl from Stockholm. On 24 August 2020, after a year of campaigning, Greta Thunberg ended her sabbatical year, and returned to school in Sweden. The 17-year-old climate activist may not have been in the spotlight a great deal the past few months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but by now, most people are probably aware of her and what she stands for.

Throughout the past year, Greta has kept herself busy as a climate activist. She rose to global prominence when she addressed world leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City on 23 September 2019. In her searing speech, she admonished world leaders for their “fairy tales of eternal economic growth” in the midst of the impending climate catastrophe.

“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,” she chided.

The online reactions came swiftly, with some applauding her for her unabashed bravery, and others responding with ad hominem attacks. Politicians were not pleased either: Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro responded by calling her a “brat”, while Vladimir Putin dismissed her for being “poorly informed”. The criticism, however, did not faze Greta, who carried on with her activism in full force. In the same month, she went on to lead a series of climate strikes across Montreal, Canada, which gathered an estimated 315,000 to 500,000 people.

Greta also spoke at the UN Climate Change Conference (also known as COP25) in Spain in December 2019. The conference was initially meant to take place in Santiago, Chile, and Greta had planned to travel overland to arrive there. However, a last-minute change in location of the conference due to political unrest in Chile meant that her travel plans had to change as well. Refusing to travel by plane, she took to social media and sought for help, eventually sailing across the Atlantic on a catamaran owned by an Australian couple. She carried this momentum into the new decade, addressing world leaders once again at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland in January. Even the COVID-19 pandemic did not stop her from organising a series of “digital strikes”, where she invited social media users to post pictures of themselves with protest signs.

The question now, as Greta returns to school, is whether she has been successful in changing the way nations, businesses, and individuals view and respond to the climate crisis over the past 12 months. Quite clearly, her work has made significant ripples. The growing public awareness of climate change – evinced by how Google searches for the phrase ‘climate action’ and ‘climate emergency’ increased twenty-fold in 2019 – can likely be attributed to her, thanks to her ascent to global stardom after the UN Climate Action Summit in New York. And while some politicians have dismissed her entirely, others have acknowledged the pertinence of Greta’s viewpoints. German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that her government was driven to act faster on climate change due to young activists like Greta, while Joe Biden, the 2020 US Democratic presidential nominee, told US President Trump to “learn a few things from Greta on what it means to be a leader”.

On the level of national and regional policies, however, Greta’s efforts have not led to much significant change. Despite (or perhaps because of) her harsh rebuke at the New York summit, some world leaders at the WEF in Davos earlier this year remained unconvinced. Coming out of the forum, Greta commented that world leaders “completely ignored” her demands for an immediate end to the fossil fuel economy, and that climate change was still not being treated like the crisis that it is. In addition, Trump still intends to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement, which will terminate US$3 billion of funding for climate change research and compromise on the world’s ability to reach the Agreement’s goals.

It is probably unfair to blame Greta for the limited extent of change on the policy front: after all, she has had merely a few months to campaign on the global stage during her gap year, before the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world and occupied most of the media’s attention. (It should be mentioned, however, that Greta has been actively campaigning even before 2019. For instance, she criticized world leaders at the COP24 in 2018 for not being “mature enough to tell it like it is”. Prior to her gap year, she had also been staging weekly protests outside the Swedish parliament.) Furthermore, considering that it took decades of scientific research to convince the world of the seriousness of climate change, it is a tall order for a 17-year-old teenager to change the trajectory of the world within 12 months. We should also remember that the end of Greta’s sabbatical does not mark the end of her activism, for she is likely to continue fighting.

Notably, when Greta first rose to global prominence last year, some pointed out that she is far from the first youth climate activist, and therefore should not be the only one whom we pay attention to. Indeed, social media users responded to Greta’s meteoric rise by sharing information about other less prominent – but equally respectable – youth activists, particularly those from the global South and/or those of non-white ethnicities. There is, for instance, Helena Gualinga, an 18-year-old indigenous environmental activist from Ecuador, who shared her concern about oil extraction from indigenous land in Ecuador at the COP25 in Spain. Such examples should not, of course, be viewed as an attempt to undermine Greta’s achievements, but as an invitation to expand the space for climate change discourse to include a greater diversity of voices, particularly because the effects of climate change are expected to be the most severe in the developing world.

As Greta now heads back to school, in a world completely different from the one we knew just a year ago, many are hoping for a green recovery from the pandemic, to pave the way for long-term sustainable growth. Of course, it is entirely possible that world leaders will simply stick to their old playbooks, focusing on economic recovery with renewed passion at the expense of environmental sustainability. Just don’t expect Greta Thunberg to take that lying down.

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