Rishi Sunak will be attending Cop27 after all. After being widely criticised for planning to skip the UN climate conference this month, the British Prime Minister performed a U-turn. But for the climate activist Greta Thunberg, politicians who attend such events out of self-interest are little help; if they were truly committed to the environment they would resign in protest at the world’s failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the necessary speed to stop catastrophic global warming.
On Sunday evening (30 October) at the launch of her new book, Thunberg, 19, revealed that she herself will not be attending Cop27, which starts on 6 November in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. She said there were many reasons for her decision but did not go into detail, mentioning only a desire to “give space” to activists from nations on the front line of climate change.
Her comments revealed a deep scepticism about the negotiations as a whole. “Cops are now mainly being used as an opportunity for those in power to get attention,” she said at the closing event of the London Literature Festival, held at the Southbank Centre. “As it is now, Cops are not really going to lead to any major changes – unless, of course, we use them as an opportunity to mobilise, which we must try to do, and make people realise what a colossal scam this is.”
This echoes what Thunberg wrote in her recent guest edit of the New Statesman. She eviscerated the world’s political leaders for “actively delaying change and distracting the electorate” and told the singer-songwriter Björk Guðmundsdóttir that “we can have as many Cops as we want to, but as long as nothing changes it won’t make a difference”. In an interview with the New Statesman on Sunday she added that the UK’s historically high emissions leave the nation with a particular “duty to lead on the climate crisis”.
Unless politicians are prepared to upset the status quo that has led them to power, Thunberg argues, the necessary changes will not come. This system-change approach to the climate challenge is encapsulated in phrases that have become slogans of the Fridays for Future movement, which Thunberg started, such as “there is no climate justice without social justice”.
This perspective also informs her new collection of essays, by various authors, which brings together the many dimensions of the climate threat into one urgent manual. The book’s title, The Climate Book, is as straight-speaking as Thunberg, and she did not pull any punches in her address this weekend. Political leaders have “completely failed”, she said, and as “gatekeepers of the status quo” the mainstream media is little better. “We are not even aware we are not aware [of the emergency],” she warned.
Such blunt criticism of those in power does not sit easily with many. Even some would-be supporters feel Thunberg’s criticisms of the Cop process go too far. But caricatures of her as a haughty, chiding doomster dissolve when watching or listening to her at length. On Sunday Thunberg, dressed simply in jeans and a sequined red T-shirt, came across as a highly eloquent, passionate advocate for the living planet who likes to go to bed early and is as quick to laugh at herself as she is to call out injustice. “I wanted something educational, which is a bit ironic since my thing is school strikes,” she quipped of her new book.
And while I imagine she’d be the first to wish it otherwise, she has science on her side. The planet is on the brink of breaching multiple “tipping points” beyond which damage will cascade, and according to the latest UN climate report there is “no credible” plan for emissions reduction that would keep temperature rises below the vital point of 1.5°C.
In the face of this bleak outlook, Thunberg counsels grit and renewed pressure on political leaders. “We will never stop fighting for the living world and it will never be too late to save as much as we possibly can,” she said. “Young people are stepping up and showing world leaders messed with the wrong generation.”