“The kids of the Greta generation really can shake governments to make them tackle climate change”, said professor Jared Diamond during an interview with Italian newspaper la Repubblica.
The Pulitzer-winning author of the anthropological masterpiece Guns, Germs and Steel admitted he had recently placed climate change concern atop his personal list of most dangerous global crisis, just above nuclear holocaust and depletion of natural resources.
This happened because he likened the protests for climate change action to those against the Vietnam War in the 1970s United States. “History, even recent, teaches us that young people can shake governments.”
Like many others, Diamond has been taking stock of the recent global protest demonstrations, falling under the umbrella movement dubbed “Fridays for Future”.
It all began with a 16-year-old, Greta Thunberg, and her solitary protest in front of the Swedish parliament building last August. Back then she was 15 and had nothing more than a hand-painted sign that read “School strike for the climate” and her own stubbornness.
Greta now enjoys the backing of millions around the globe. She was invited to speak in front of the UN Climate Conference in December, and from that pedestal she lectured the adults in front of her on responsibility. If you haven’t seen the video, you should – it’s a punch in the gut.
Since then, Greta has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and has been campaigning relentlessly for climate justice. As it turns out, she has been the spark that ignited one of the vastest protests in modern times.
On March 15th, an estimated 1.6 million protesters peacefully took to the streets in more than 125 countries. Their demands varied according to their own local realities, but there was one common denominator: they all called for policymakers to act against climate change.
The science (and politics) behind it
Greta Thunberg addressed the world at the UN Climate Conference held in Katowice, Poland, in December 2018. The (successful) aim of the Katowice conference was to agree on a “roadmap” to implement the decision of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Officials from nearly 200 countries vowed to introduce legislation to cut the production of greenhouse gases, the main cause of global warming according to the vast majority of the scientific community.
The final aim is to halt global warming “well below” 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as that figure has already been indicated by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) as the threshold beyond which the damage inflicted to the planet would be beyond repair.
At the Katowice conference IPCC released a special report assessing the impact of an average temperature increase of 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The study is the latest in a series of bleak scientific reports calling for collective, drastic action against climate change.
According to the report, human activities have already heated up the planet by approximately 1° above pre-industrial levels, and global warming is “likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate”.
The effects of global warming are already observable. The clearest telltale signs include a growing number of extreme weather events (hurricanes, droughts, floods), disappearing Arctic ice and glaciers, and the progressive disappearance of entire ecosystems (such as the Australian Great Barrier Reef).
Scientists, however, are concerned that the planet is heating up faster than previously expected – and that governments are reacting too slowly.
That’s why this is such a pivotal moment: the steps taken in the next few years will determine how much and how fast the planet will heat up in the next century and beyond.
Progress in these key areas will impact not only the health and safety of future generations, but also the ecosystems’ ability (and ours) to react to the changes that will affect us all.
Depletion of resources and the worsening of livelihood standards are directly correlated to climate change, meaning that we are already suffering the consequences of global warming, and that it will get worse over time.
Where we stand now
Most of the world’s countries have ratified the Katowice “roadmap” to some extent, and few of the countries involved have already taken significant steps to cut greenhouse gas emission. However, there are notable absentees in the list.
Below is a world map. The size of the countries’ bubbles represents their greenhouse gas emission, and their colour indicates whether they have ratified the Katowice agreements (data: World Resource Institute, 2014).
Wealthier countries are obviously better equipped to shift toward renewable energy sources, whereas poorer countries are not only less equipped, but generally most likely to be directly affected by climate change.
The 1.5°C threshold was called by countries that regard a 2°C limit as “suicide”. The Maldives, for instance, could be underwater well before that limit is reached.
In short, it is technically possible to curb emissions and respect the suggested threshold. However, the likelihood of this happening, for the time being, is extremely low: fostering a collective political will and taking swift, drastic action requires not only a good degree of clairvoyance, but the courage to change deeply entrenched habits and ways of life.
Hopefully, the Greta generation will do exactly that. But it’s best to act now.