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A file photo of Greta Thunberg (Photo: Reuters)
A file photo of Greta Thunberg (Photo: Reuters)

Opinion | Greta Thunberg’s clarity of thought has shaken us up

Thunberg has had an impact on the world’s conscience about what we’re doing to this planet

Sandipan Deb’s Parallax column of 30 September, “Greta Thunberg is the face of an outlandish ultra-left dream", took my breath away. Let me begin with climate science—because this debate is ultimately about the scientific basis on which calls have been issued to tackle the foremost problem that confronts this planet we live on. Deb casts doubt on the very credibility of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) by saying that “IPCC is wrong all the time". In support of this, he says that in 2007, the Panel “gave us till 2012" to solve the problem. Now, 2007 was the year of the IPCC fourth assessment report (AR4)—AR6 will be presented in 2022—which firmly stated that anthropogenic carbon emissions were to blame for global warming. That report generated some controversy for its assessment that Himalayan glaciers would vanish by 2035. It also said that countries have to act urgently to mitigate global warming to prevent its long-term impact on the world and people’s lives.

But that is the job of the IPCC, a United Nations (UN) body that’s constituted to present the science of climate change to member nations, and to issue warnings. The AR4 of 2007 had predicted that there would soon be more frequent and stronger tropical cyclones and hurricanes if the oceans didn’t stop absorbing the heat caused by emissions. Between 2016 and 2019, an unprecedented five Category 5 hurricanes appeared over the Atlantic, the last one being this year’s Dorian. And, that’s just one forecast that has come to pass. Another fact: For AR4, the IPCC referenced fewer than 10,000 papers. For AR5, this number was above 20,000. Our understanding of climate change keeps evolving, but criticisms of the scientific readings seem frozen in amber.

Deb says that he is not a climate change denier and argues that “nothing cataclysmic will happen" even if global temperatures were to rise 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Well, it isn’t fine, though we may be able to stop it. What he conveniently doesn’t mention is the flip side of the same assertion. We can limit warming to 1.5-2 degrees by 2081-2100 only if we follow the lowest of IPCC’s emission pathways of “RCP 2.6". This is one of four greenhouse gas concentration trajectories based on alternative scenarios of projected emissions under varied international policy frameworks to address these. RCP 2.6 is what Thunberg is campaigning for—low emissions alongside highly effective climate-mitigation policies. Right now, we are on the highest pathway, RCP 8.5, which I’d call the business-as-usual scenario of high emissions alongside weak climate-mitigation policies. That could mean a maximum 2.4-degree rise by 2050, and a maximum 5.4-degree rise by 2100. That would not be good for anyone, be it Thunberg or anyone who needs to escape poverty.

We need to cut through the smokescreen of a “Hard-left" ideological conspiracy that Deb’s argument seems to suggest is in operation to understand that the urgency of the crisis we face does demand collective action. All the manifestos that he lists from the websites of groups that are allegedly in control of Thunberg’s voice can also be found in the UN’s policy prescriptions. The Reserve Bank of Australia on Friday said that climate change is a risk to the stability of financial institutions and the financial system, while an international consortium of insurers and pension funds, which together manage $2.4 trillion, pledged last week to shift their portfolios away from carbon-intensive industries. Are these all part of a left-wing conspiracy?

What any debate on climate change must grapple with is the latest that we know. Take the United In Science report compiled by the World Meteorological Organization and released last week. Among other things, it finds that CO2 emissions are rising by 1% globally every year and won’t peak even by 2030. Most of us will probably be dead by 2081, the year that long-term climate change predictions are for. At 16, Thunberg may not be, nor the hundreds of thousands of “shrieking" children that have joined her in protest. They will be alive to see the worst-case scenarios unfolding, which is why Thunberg implores the world’s policymakers to pay heed to the science that underlies her generation’s concerns. She made her point repeatedly in her UN speech, but that does not qualify as a “feral rage", as described in Deb’s article.

Unfortunately, Deb’s piece also refers to her medical condition. For many rightists, worldwide, this is common. Last week, right-wing commentator Michael Knowles appeared on Fox News to say Thunberg was a mentally ill child being exploited by her parents and the international left; the channel later apologized and said those remarks were “disgraceful". Even if Deb’s point was different—perhaps about her potential susceptibility to suggestion, which in itself is questionable—the relevance of her condition to the content of her speech escapes me.

The truth is this: across the world, contrarian right-wing ideologues are targeting children and science. Kids are easy targets because their passion can be conveniently mocked. Greta Thunberg has had an impact on the world’s conscience about what we’re doing to this planet. She has a voice that needs to be heard. Any portrayal of her as someone put up to it by people who may have anything to do with Pol Pot is deeply problematic. If the arguments of teenagers need to be put down to make a point, we should be ashamed.

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