Amongst the many important developments that happened at the COP26 conference, one went mostly unremarked. It was that the main headlines that defined the event were not generated by a speech by Greta Thunberg. Indeed, what happened with Greta is that this year saw her come of age. She is now officially old enough to be wrong.
It was whispered gently, respectfully, but whispered it was. Sky News
carried a piece headlined “In some ways Greta Thunberg is wrong to call the summit a ‘failure’ and ‘PR event’”. Across the ocean, the Chicago Tribune
was more matter-of-fact: “Greta Thunberg sees failure at climate change summit. She’s wrong.”
When she was first put up onto a platform to admonish the assembled adults with precociously blunt criticisms, she was 15. For the next couple of years, an adult community of presidents and prime ministers, business leaders and campaigners, placed this child on a pedestal as an icon of the age. If the polar bear was the visual symbol of climate change for the last decade, then the uncompromising Greta was that for this one.
She had one essential wisdom, which was suited to the moment. She looked past all the detail of the actions being taken to the end result, and drew attention to the gulf between them on behalf of her generation. For that, she was idolised and made into a celebrity, with world leaders queuing up for self-serving selfies.
It is a remarkable and probably terrible thing to do to a human being. I hope she doesn’t end up suffering for it. None of the people who did it to her will take responsibility if she does.
This year it changed. She was not invited to speak on the official platform of COP26. Every other event had its Greta moment when, whatever progress had or hadn’t been made, she would tell them that it wasn’t enough and effortlessly take the headlines in so doing. This year she learned the place for the determined outsider to the process – literally outside, reduced to delighting a non-serious crowd by using swear-words.
Once someone has achieved adulthood, you start taking their words seriously. And, at that point, the thousands who toil mightily to come up with the solutions, to negotiate the difficult compromises, to influence messy political realities – they stop finding it charming to be told that what they are doing amounts to “nothing”.
And quite right too. We have before us a large, practical problem. If we can’t start dealing with it like grown-ups, it will be a shocking abnegation of responsibility.
One former Canadian minister tweeted: “Imagine if 16-year-olds could vote about the future they want. They'll be 45 in 2050 when we need to be net zero. I'll be 80. I want to hear their voices now about what we need to do to get there. They'll live far longer with the consequences of our action or inaction.”
There is a difference between highlighting young people as those who will bear the consequences of our mistakes, and telling them that they need to come up with the solutions. It’s like saying that, since they will be walking over bridges many years after we’ve died, they should be put in charge of the civil engineering companies. This sort of rubbish is what passes for wisdom in unserious times.
The trouble is that it has consequences. The campaigners’ “nobody is doing anything” message that the media has amplified via the words of Greta, is not only plain wrong, it has fed a widespread sense of hopelessness.
Eco-anxiety has been strongly increasing worldwide. A 2020 survey of child psychiatrists in England showed that more than half (57%) are seeing children and young people deeply distressed about their future because of the environment. An international survey similarly suggested that such anxiety was “profoundly affecting huge numbers of these young people around the world”.
Campaigners will say this is the consequence of the reality of climate change. But, of course it isn’t – it’s a consequence of how discussion about the issue is being framed in public, day after day. Not as a difficult problem to be solved, but a major cataclysm about which people are “doing nothing”.
The Extinction Rebellion campaigner Rupert Read has a video on YouTube
still – over a year since he was admonished by climate scientists for its false claims – where he talks to children and tells them that climate change means that the question is no longer “what you will do when you grow up, but instead what you will do if
you grow up”.
His associate Roger Hallam goes further. In a video
titled “advice to young people as they face annihilation” that has had over 100,000 views, he tells young people that “the science says” that billions will die, societies will break down, and that will involve mobs invading their home and “poking out your eyes with a sharp stick”. Seriously.
That is the message at its most stark and scientifically illiterate. But it is only a reinforcement of the tone of discourse every day. The fact that the media will amplify reports exploring worst case scenarios without proper context. That presidents and prime ministers will parrot genuinely alarmist messaging, apparently without understanding of the impact they are having in so doing.
It is time for us to do better by our young people.
Businesses, the pragmatic agents that are currently doing the most to innovate solutions, and to reimagine their value chains into net zero shape, need to understand their role in selling to young people a vision of themselves as future problem solvers, not helpless victims. They need to do this because it’s what we need, as a society, it’s what they need as businesses hungry for talent, and it’s what young people need – a sense of value and purpose.
Governments are failing to do it. In the UK we have a government that is committed to net zero by 2050, but is completely incapable of articulating a vision for it.
The media is failing to do it. Their business model, which depends on the most clicks to support advertising, is incentivised to amplify extreme worst cases and the words of the clueless.
Campaigners such as Extinction Rebellion are stuck in the doomist mindset. The nuanced reality doesn’t support their drive to recruit young people prepared to risk their life chances by going to prison for the cause.
Businesses are the ones that have the power to create a vision of a more positive and optimistic future where problems are faced up to, and young people can learn the skills, the change management wisdom and the practices that they will need to become the adults in the room of tomorrow.
Hopefully they will do a better job than the ones today who think they should be deferring to 15-year-olds.