Swedish activist Greta Thunberg (File photo: Reuters)
Swedish activist Greta Thunberg (File photo: Reuters)

Opinion | The cathedral thinking of Greta Thunberg

The 16-year-old has shaken the world up on climate change and called for a far-sighted plan that lays a foundation for action. We need not fall for doomsday prophecies to listen

An entire summit on climate change at the United Nations has been overshadowed by an electrifying speech delivered by a student activist, one that should escape nobody’s attention. All of 16, Greta Thunberg of Sweden admonished world leaders for their “betrayal" of the world’s young through their myopic inertia over a crisis that could jeopardize the lives of generations to come. The conference itself was the usual catalogue of country-wise promises on scaling back carbon emissions to mitigate global warming, but it was the teenage Swede who snapped audiences awake across the globe. She pointed a finger squarely at governments and mega corporations, accusing them of putting money and “eternal economic growth" at the forefront of their agenda. The truth of this is debatable. However, in a world where the leader of the world’s most powerful country, the US, portrays “globalists" as has-beens and “patriots" as the future, a voice of dissent as passionate as Thunberg’s revives the hope that global policy action could save the planet from the ravages of soaring mercury.

Much of what Thunberg says and does is rather radical. Her demands can sound unrealistic and not all her assertions bear scientific scrutiny. Her early fame came from her school strikes as a form of protest, but what ought to concentrate minds is her call for “cathedral thinking" in tackling climate change. A concept that dates back to Europe’s medieval era, this refers to the creation of a visionary blueprint for action that assumes a shared commitment to a common cause far beyond the foreseeable future. “We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling," she is reported to have said earlier this year. That countries are squabbling over relatively minor issues, as she sees it, would explain her exasperation with our leaders.

But are policymakers failing Thunberg as badly as she seems to believe? Many analysts caution against the bandying about of doomsday scenarios. That our species is staring at extinction, as some activists suggest, is an exaggeration. Yes, a warmer planet will cause much devastation, mostly in poorer countries. Haphazard atmospheric patterns have begun to wreak havoc in many places. Apart from frequent droughts and floods, according to the latest report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the global average sea level is projected to rise by 1.1 metres by 2100, which could displace 700 million residents of low-lying regions. To avert the perils, we have resolved under the Paris Accord to keep our average temperature from rising no further than 1.5° Celsius. For this, all countries need to slash their carbon emissions sharply by 2030, depending on the size of their economies. Progress so far has been tardy, largely because the process is costly. However, the world will not become uninhabitable if that target is missed. Since the phenomenon affects people unevenly in different parts of the world, and we have almost 200 sovereign nations, the focus of global talks could shift from the moral imperative to quit spewing pollutants towards crafting a deal between those doing the most damage and those who’ll bear the brunt of it. This may need the sort of give and take that we see at trade negotiations. While Thunberg’s cathedral thinking calls for everybody’s consideration, globalists and patriots alike, at the end, it’s the details that must deliver.

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