Readers of TMT will be aware that we have written and re-published a number of articles on the topic of Global Warming – or Climate Change as we should really say, given that parts of the Earth might well get cooler and wetter in the process (for example, if the Gulf Stream stops flowing as a result of melting ice then the British Isles could become more like Scandinavia than Italy). So, when Tom Leger contacted the TMT editorial team with a less than euphoric article about Greta Thunberg’s odyssey, we took a deep breathe – and then agreed to publish it. Here it is.
By Tom Leger
Climate Change is without doubt a complex topic. Even today there are many who dispute the notion that the world is getting warmer as a result of man’s actions, from presidents to vicars, fishermen to farmers. Their outright refusal to acknowledge the facts is often based on a deep-rooted fear that solutions being discussed might involve unavoidable, fundamental, and worrying changes to lifestyles, sometimes leading to a loss of jobs and livelihoods.
How often do we hear of a pressure group rising from the abyss to resist changes to legislation that might reduce employment in this or that sector? The fishing industry, like the old coal industry, is often heard warning of job losses and the effects further cuts to quotas will have upon whole communities around the coast. They lament the fact that EU controls are a case of “small-map, big hands”, where small-scale, local fishing activity is swept up in legislation aimed at curbing the excesses of large industrial-fishing operations.
No-one doubts the sincerity of those objecting to cuts in fishing, just as no-one doubts the concerns of struggling famers faced with tightening regulations on the use of pesticides or weed-killers. But it is up to the rest of us to point out that, when the future of the planet is at stake, the prospects of losing even quite large numbers of jobs has to be an acceptable price in the long term. We really have no choice.
However, we do have to try to be sensitive to those who are going to be most affected. Which brings us back to Miss Thunberg.
As she left on her recent trip to the US, she said this of climate change sceptics: “There’ll always be people who don’t understand or accept the science. I’ll ignore them…” Sadly, Miss Thunberg, while you might choose to adopt this somewhat simplistic approach, there are many people (typically the adults you disparage with such venom), who have to take a rather more sophisticated view of the problem.
Thunberg comes from Sweden, a country that has a very high standard of living, including a social welfare system that is amongst the best in the world. She is 16, but has been campaigning for a number of years, having being allowed to leave school on many occasions to do so. In Sweden she was noted for distributing leaflets which stated: “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.”
Who exactly are those adults? Is it everyone aged 18 or more, or is she referring to the 40+ types? Does she mean you and me? Or is she aiming at those in political power; the Trumps, Putins or King Salmans of this world? Or is she targeting the managers of global businesses including, of course, the energy sector?
You might have seen that she recently travelled to the States in a “zero carbon” yacht. Much noise was generated about it being a wind-powered craft, with electrical turbines and solar panels. All sounds great – but was that not an advanced, high-tech, fibre-glass racing yacht? And is it not true that fibreglass is actually GRP – Glass Reinforced Plastic, and the rigging, spars and sails are made of “artificial” or man-made materials; epoxy-bonded carbon-fibre, polyesters and nylons etc? And weren’t those waterproof safety-clothes, harness and life jackets that they wore also made of man-made, plastic-based fibres. And were they not taking advantage of the latest safety devise such as GPS navigation, communications – and of course their links to the Internet, of which Thunberg makes so much use? And was it not reported that, behind the scenes, the actual crew of this racing yacht flew to New York to bring it back to Europe after the Thunberg publicity train had no further use for it?
Perhaps the whole exercise would have been a bit more convincing had she sailed in a wooden boat fitted with natural fibre sails, and with minimal comms equipment, wearing only clothes made of natural fibres. And of course, she should not have been talking to the internet. Then she would have been demonstrating to her followers that this is what she is effectively proposing as a solution to our problems: a step back in time and the standard of living, including many aspects of health and safety.
Indeed, it might be worth Miss Thunberg pausing to consider the energy-use of her generation as compared with that of the “adult” generation she likes to disparage. Consider how we managed without mobile phones, laptops and tablets when we were teenagers or younger. How often did we listen to music, or watch streaming TV? Did we take thousands of photos and upload them to the “Cloud”? Or sit on endless phone calls or in “chat rooms” with our chums? Did we have the luxury of sending hundreds of often inane texts each day?
The answer is that we did almost none of the above because those things did not exist when we were her age. When I grew up, for example, most “workers” did not own a car – or even a motorbike; the bike, bus and “shank’s pony” were the order of the day.
So, Lesson One is that she should perhaps start by telling her followers to get off those energy sipping devices – and do so herself. But of course that would be the end of her campaign (and is one reason many dictatorial regimes cut off access to the internet when mass-action threatens them).
Lesson Two would be for her to acknowledge that, as a citizen of Sweden, she has been, and is today, the beneficiary of almost everything technology has to offer; everything, indeed, that the much-vilified generation of adults has been working so hard to develop over the last fifty or so years.
Lesson Three would be for her to understand that simplistic calls for us to call a halt to all use of energy and materials that might affect global warming is likely to aggravate rather than encourage. She recently disparaged the Canadian Federal Government for its decision to take over funding of the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline project. According to Thunberg, who was especially critical of Prime Minister Trudeau: “The fossil fuels must stay in the ground. Forget ‘climate neutral’ and clever accounting.”
But did she know anything about the back-story of the threat by the western Canadian states to secede from the Canadian Federation? Alberta, one of those states, is not called the Texas of Canada for nothing: and once it is free of any Federal brakes on planning and energy development, what other awful desecrations of Canada’s threatened environment might come over the horizon?
Did Miss Thunberg know of the long-term campaign by the indigenous peoples against such developments? The Tulalip, Lummi, Swinomish and Suquamish tribes or nations are very dependent upon the ecosystems of the Salish Sea, the area that would be most affected by the development of the oil terminal to receive the oil from the pipeline. Some now feel that the Thunberg intervention has distracted people away from the established efforts to save their world, and in doing so might cause many onlookers to write it off as another “Greta scare story”.
Mr Putin, while not exactly on TMT’s favourite’s list, made some interesting and repeatable comments about Miss Thunberg’s recent speech to the UN. Acknowledging that it is “right and very good” that the young are interested in the “acute problems of the modern world including ecology”, Putin first condemned the use of young people if it is to further the interests of adult groups of any sort. Setting that aside as “speculation” on his part, he does, however, go on to make a crucial point:
“People in Africa and in many Asian countries want to be as wealthy as people in Sweden. How can it be done? By making them use solar energy, which is plentiful in Africa?
Has anyone explained the cost of it? But is it an accessible technology for developing economies and countries? Hardly accessible.
But people there want to live like in Sweden and nothing can stop them. Go and explain that they must live in poverty for 20 – 30 more years, as well as their children. Explain that to them.
Overall, of course, we cannot but support the ideas of developing renewable energy sources. We just need to be realistic.”
And this is the fundamentally problem with Greta Thunberg’s campaign. It simply does not take account of the question of how we change the world in a way that will not be resisted by all the affected stakeholders. Look at the resistance in this country to the notion of increasing airline ticket-prices: the protests are all about how unfair it will be to the less-well off, regardless of the ultimate need to stop people from thinking they can hop on a plane anytime they want to go on another holiday. How do you tell someone they cannot go and buy whatever they want if they have money in their pocket.
But how, as Mr Putin asked, do you explain to literally billions of people in Africa, Asia or indeed South America, that they cannot have things like fridges, decent transport, access to the internet, modern medical treatment – and so on? Of those four examples, perhaps the most problematic is that of the internet for it provides a door to the larger world, vital to the hopes of so many in deprived or oppressed areas of the world. How do you explain to someone who is struggling to put food on the table on a daily basis that they have to give up their hopes for their own, or their children’s, futures?
And, by way of this potted-tour of the problems facing would-be technophobes seeking to put a halt to all further exploitation of the world’s resources, we return to the people for whom Miss Thunberg reserves her grimmest comments (and faces), the so-called leaders of the world. How do they retain their hold on power if they cannot offer their respective supporters a chance to improve their lot.
Imagine the effects on any UK political party of they were to campaign on a basis of cutting flights to Ibiza, limiting internet time, limiting the use of private transport, restricting the use of energy such as electricity, removing much of modern health and safety in work-places, cutting back the use of antibiotics, imposing heavy taxes on cheap clothing and cosmetics, and banning the sale of fast-foods as well as rationing the amount of meat each person could eat. It’s rather hard to see them getting into power.
So where do we go from here? Well, we rely upon sensible people trying to carry as many stakeholders with them as they attempt to start the process of adjusting society to the new realities, trying to make sure that no single sector feels too unfairly treated. And that also means trying to achieve consensus across nations: why, for example, should the UK be covering the country in wind-turbines if China is still building coal-fired power stations on a weekly basis? But why should the UK export its eco-conscience to China by using turbines that rely upon rare-earth magnets that entail the devastating use of concentrated acids being poured over vast areas of the Chinese countryside? Who decides on the balancing act that is going to make all of this work?
Miss Thunberg has certainly made more people aware of the problem – no-one can deny that; indeed she should be applauded for having done so. However, in in the process she has created the impression that the solution is simple and that it is only the vested interests of the rich and powerful that are getting in the way. Sadly that is not true- but try telling that to the millions of young who are now ardent “Thunbergers” and believe that the “system” needs to be overturned.
They, together with the likes of Miss Thunberg (or her backers, manipulators, or whatever) should take note of those old sayings about the “laws of unintended consequences” and “being careful what you ask for”. Human society is almost as complex as the eco-system in many ways and it might not take much to set groups at each other’s throats in a battle for ever diminishing resources as the lights are turned off as a consequence of her ideas.
As a postscript, it has to be pointed out that TMT, as an institution, is very much on the side of those trying to”save the planet”. In spite of suggestions that our individual contributions are likely to be almost negligible in the big scheme of things, we have to start trying harder. Not least so that we can honestly say to countries and people less fortunate than ourselves that we are also doing our bit.
We have to make immediate decisions about whether we can justify all those weekend-breaks to Spain or the Maldives. We need to learn to stop buying cheap clothes for one-time use only. Make-up, plastic wrapped sweets, cakes and crisps should become things to be avoided. Don’t stream videos or music all day long. Don’t upload thousands of photos to the Cloud; close down apps on your phone to save battery power and recharging demands. Turn off lights when not needed. Use public transport. Don’t buy avocados (each one consumes 250 litres of water when growing).
And we need to enlist the great religions of the world to endorse the need to have fewer children – perhaps the most critical of all changes we will have to put in place.
Just do as much as we can today and help to start to turn this planet, our home, around. Then we can tell others what we have done and learn to be quietly very proud of these small acts of selfless farsightedness.