I know it’s been said many times and throughout history, but we do indeed live in interesting times. And it’s not just because the most unlikely person has become president of the most powerful nation, not because an unplanned and unreasoned proposition has won the vote for an exit from the European Union, and it’s not because the world seems unable to find a workable set of solutions to an existential and, yes, wicked problem that is climate change.
My friends tell me that I can talk, and my publisher says that I can write. But I must say that for the first time in my long professional career, I struggled to write this article. I struggled to find the words that would adequately describe my reactions to some of the tweets, opinion pieces and podcasts posted and published on Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN. The words that came to mind were “staggered,” “intrigued,” “angered,” “shocked,” “saddened,” “stunned.” But surely, having done the research for my book, “A Climate for Denial,” I should have been prepared for the reactions from all the climate deniers and the reasons for their denial and predictable responses.
But none of my understanding of the reasons for denial has prepared me for the venom, and the demeaning of the message and the messenger.
A Fitting Metaphor
The many responses that I obtained and read carefully can be summarized in a following metaphor: A man is enjoying the grandeur of an ocean trip on a boat when his child comes running to him shouting, “Daddy, there’s a leak at the other end, and water is coming into our boat!” The father looks at the child with a wry smile and thinks that his child is imagining the leak — maybe it’s just a bit of wetness on the floor of the boat. The water is probably coming from within the boat and not the vast ocean. Even if there is a real leak, as unlikely as it is, surely it is a minor one, and the people at that end of the boat will see it and fix it.
Then he keeps on reasoning that even if they don’t immediately see it and fix it, sooner or later they will, and everything will be fine. Children don’t know much about leaks, they don’t fully understand that a small leak will not sink a boat, and that there are safety mechanisms in place on sophisticated modern boats like this to make sure we don’t sink. Besides, we should be careful in dealing with a situation like this and how it might affect the passengers on the boat. What about the panic amongst the passengers this could cause?
You get the drift, and perhaps guess the rest of this hypothetical story. Unfortunately, the negative commentary goes much deeper than just analyzing and criticizing every word Thunberg used, and goes as far as mocking her, as well as her parents, even questioning her family’s agenda in all of this. Wow, really?
But enough of the metaphor and generalizations. Let me unpack some of the condescending and derogatory commentary, and there’s plenty to unpack. To do it simply, let me list the method by some of the commentators who wanted to discredit and even mock Thunberg and her speech by:
Questioning her motives
Questioning her state of mind and her psychology
Criticizing the factual basis and accuracy in her assessment of the impacts of climate change
Questioning her right to represent an entire generation
Questioning her and her team’s environmental credentials and practices
Blaming her for virtue signaling
Mocking her speaking style
Labeling he an idealist, with an impractical position and view of the world order
Calling her views undemocratic
Calling her a puppet of false information and left-wing ideology
What the critics seem to misunderstand and misjudge is the nature of protest and a genuine and desperate cry for help. When someone runs out of a house crying, “My house is on fire,” it is totally inappropriate to reply with: “You’re exaggerating — it’s only your kitchen that’s on fire,” or “Stop being hysterical — here’s a water hose, go back in and put it out,” or “You should have been more careful with your cooking.”
But despite all of the denialist rigor and vitriol, the momentum appears to be on the side of youth and others protesting the slow responses by world leaders. Perhaps the strength of all the negative responses is a reflection of that. The chorus of voices pleading for more urgent action has shifted, from the voices of scientific knowledge to the voices of children pointing out the generational inequity of climate change.
Ideally, the father on the boat should have taken his child’s hand and asked her to take him to the leak and assess the situation properly and then raise the alarm if necessary, to rectify the impending disaster.
What, if any, influence Thunberg’s speech and the youth movement she has generated will have on global responses to the climate emergency is difficult to tell. Maybe it will be the beginning of a wider expression of concern and then some responsive action. We’ll have to wait and see. But one thing appears certain: that the youth will not be quietened and, if anything, their voices will only become louder as more of them become involved in policymaking.
So, to all those people who are condescendingly in denial of a generation screaming for help, and on their behalf, I say, How dare you?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.