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Why we need Greta Thunberg more than ever

There is still too much misinformation and greenwash surrounding claims of climate action.

By India Bourke

“Blah, blah, blah,” was the devastating put-down deployed by Greta Thunberg from the beginning to the end of the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow. “‘Small steps in the right direction’, ‘making some progress’ or ‘winning slowly’ equals loosing [sic],” the world’s most famous climate activist tweeted halfway through the talks.

So how should Cop26 be judged? Even if the final deal is not in line with climate science, naming and shaming “fossil fuels” in an official agreement for the first time is progress all the same, say many. As is the fact countries must now annually account for their decarbonisation plans and prove they are cutting emissions. 

Others, however, such as youth activists and those from particularly climate-vulnerable nations, argue that criticism of the agreement’s shortcomings is the only ethical response.

Both positions are valid, and the split is arguably even a good thing: the climate crisis needs tackling from every angle. It requires diplomats straining to inch forward a collective solution to a collective problem, summits to assess progress, researchers developing innovative solutions, companies rolling out new technologies, as well as activists demanding an ever faster and fuller response.

[See also: The good, the bad and the ugly: What did Cop26 achieve?]

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But behind the surface scorn of Thunberg’s preferred soundbite is also a powerful truth: there is still too much white noise, disinformation and greenwash surrounding claims of climate action. Calling out those who attempt to thwart ambition is more important now than ever.

The messy latest round of “blah blah blah” revealed that perceptions matter. In the final moments of the talks, India and China watered down the agreement to phase out coal, but China also did so only by hiding behind its less wealthy counterpart. No one wants to be seen to be on the wrong side of history.

Similarly, when Thunberg turned up to a Cop26 panel on carbon offsetting held by former Bank of England governor Mark Carney and described it as “greenwashing” before walking out, his team knew they were being served notice. By the time the particulars of carbon market rules were agreed a little over a week later, the biggest of the loopholes for continuing pollution had been closed.

[See also: “We have been cheated again”: Why developing nations feel silenced at Cop26]

This shift in awareness is certainly not all down to Thunberg. Voices from indigenous territories and the Global South have spoken out for years on these issues, alongside countless other activists, old and young. Yet by using her platform to publicly shame those who would hamper progress, she has helped mainstream the toxification. “Greenwashing is the new climate denial and we have seen too much at play in this Cop,” tweeted Laurence Tubiana, one of the architects of the Paris Agreement.

The first element in the success of the Swedish teen’s approach in Glasgow is consistency. “No more blah, blah blah. No more whatever the f*** they’re doing inside there,” she told a Fridays for Future rally on the opening day (later joking she would go “net zero” on the use of swear words). This led some to warn of the risks in taking cynicism too far. But by setting out her stall at the start of the talks and sticking to it, Thunberg gained authority by dint of repetition. By the time she tweeted her summary of the Glasgow deal’s outcome as “blah, blah, blah” on 13 November, the phrase had become a rallying cry.

Second, while her attacks on the insufficient status quo may be increasing in disdain (her latest criticism is arguably even more cutting than the emotional “how dare you” delivered to the UN climate assembly in 2019), they have always been underpinned by science – and that has not changed. The drastic emissions cuts needed to stem dangerous levels of warming are not in place. Adequate financial support for the world’s most at-risk is still not forthcoming. 

Thirdly, and perhaps most powerfully, in recent years Thunberg has extended her message of science-based climate action to one of wider social justice – lending her voice to everything from farmers’ protests in India to Black Lives Matter. At Cop26, the seeming completion of her personal journey from shy outsider staging solo “school strikes for climate” to global movement leader surrounded by activist friends, has coincided with demands for loss and damage “reparations” finally being recognised in the official UN process.

Moreover, the Cop26 presidency itself has helped cement her continued relevance. The decision not to issue her with an official invitation to speak on the presidential stage (as in previous years) arguably only strengthened her voice outside the talks and validated her anti-establishment standing. “I think that many people might be scared that if they invite too many radical young people, then that might make them look bad,” she told Andrew Marr.

In fact, her iconic status is, paradoxically, now so entrenched it is almost no longer needed. At a New York Times hub event hosted by actor Emma Watson, Thunberg shared the panel with, among others, Uganda’s Vanessa Nakate and Britain’s “BirdGirl” Mya-Rose Craig. On the Fridays for Future stage, she was preceded by speeches from an array of indigenous speakers from Brazil and Ecuador. And her absence from the official talks was more than made up for by the rousing address given by Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados.

If Thunberg was to never appear at a climate summit again, the climate movement – which existed long before she was born – would certainly continue to exist. But with her decision to go all-in on calling out greenwash at Glasgow, the 18-year-old has blown apart the association of “youth” with straight talking, and “adulthood” with hedged nuance. She has proved herself the consummate climate watchdog. And in the process shown how we must all now defend against the “blah, blah, blah”.

[See also: In an age of ‘blah, blah, blah’, what should climate activism look like?]

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