Greta Thunberg’s Stolen Dreams: The Politics of Climate Doom

Terence Chong

Terence Chong

Terence Chong is a student ambassador of Adam Smith Center, and a current undergraduate at Yale-NUS College.

“How dare you!” An indignant Greta Thunberg spat into the microphone as she stared out with her unflinching eyes at legions of starry-eyed guests at the recent UN Climate Action Summit. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words… We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

With upright shoulders, Thunberg leaned forward, her petite frame seeming larger than life. The audience clapped, listening intently as she spewed on about how today’s politicians are cheating the global citizens of tomorrow with their inaction regarding climate change.

To me, it just seemed so bizarre. Here Thunberg was, sitting there, berating the leaders of the world with eyes full of resentment. A mere sixteen-year-old, with a pessimism that to most, bordered on extreme. However, her speech was strangely unifying at the same time. Say what you want about the girl, but she contributed to the strong waves that rejuvenated climate activism with harsh words and a defiant attitude.

It just seemed like it was all a performance, with an audience to lap it all up like me licking an emptied cereal bowl. Why was this?

Her message was indeed a dark one. Thunberg cites the widely accredited International Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about how “cutting emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5 degrees”, which would trigger numerous feedback loops that can cause the situation to spiral out of control.

This may or may not be true. We can never know for sure. However, what can be certain is the rate with which this whole doom and gloom narrative is being taken up by young environmental activists eager for change. Take for example, the rise of Extinction Rebellion, an organisation that is in their words, an “International Non-Violent Rebellion Against the World’s Governments for Criminal Inaction on the Ecological Crisis”.

As news outlets and social media reel from the aftermath of Climate Rally Day, we see photos of masses of youths, brandishing posters calling for greater action on climate change, yelling at a world that they believed betrayed their hopes and dreams. A world that they claim has been corrupted by the excesses of capitalism.

Globally, environmental awareness has never been stronger. The apocalyptic narrative of climate doom has been mainstreamed by online media, and its undeniably wide reach has penetrated society’s young minds. Emissions level has never ever been higher as well. Even Germany, despite their large expenses on renewable power, are set to open new coal power plants.

This disconnect between the reality of climate change efforts and the noise surrounding reveals a black box, encompassed in the murky depths of high power.

Maybe that is why the doom and gloom narrative peddled by our dear celebrity activist was one that was eagerly lapped up by youths disenchanted with modern reality. The image of a world collapsing under its own weight, struggling under its own consumption is an urgent one, striking a chord within idealistic youths, its effects perpetuated by a media eager to profit out of its popularity.

But to hardened politicians who have profited out of the wave of economic upturns bolstered by capitalism, it is hardly a concern to their power and donor bases. Only time can tell if this apocalyptic narrative can prove to be sufficient in pushing for the climate action the environmental activists desire.

It is probably not the case.

For so many issues, the reality of politics prove to be the greatest obstacle to activists’ desire for change. Having climate rallies and protest marches may draw in the crowds and make some splashes on the papers. However, the demands these activists require to be satisfied need such large shifts in economic policies for most countries that it is simply not feasible politically. The realities of the weaknesses of renewables play themselves out in the highest courts of power. It is simply more expedient to continue consuming fossil fuels.

A middle ground exists in many developed countries. But it is also not one many environmental activists can stomach. It is nuclear energy. Many countries are reaping the benefits of using it due to its stability, power output and low level of emissions. Even Japan, who suffered a great crisis, in the infamous Fukushima incident of 2011, has been ramping up its nuclear power output once again.

Is this a solution that activists are willing to accept? Or will they continue shouting from below at the rungs of power?

If the status quo remains, Thunberg’s emotionally charged speech will remain what it is, a bizarre performance. Politicians will continue clapping their hands, enjoying every second, smiling at the flashing cameras, and echo the urgency of her narrative. All for the cameras. All for the votes. “A child’s stolen dreams” may make the headlines, but it shall only serve to further the dreams of the ones who hold real power.

It would be interesting to keep tabs on how environmental activists would continue their crusade. How would further disappointment drive them? More climate rallies and protest marches? Thunberg said in her speech that “right now is where we draw the line”. How far will they go to draw it?

I can almost hear sniggering politicians reply with a statement, ironically spun out of Fidel Castro’s infamous “History will Absolve Me” speech:

“Condemn me, it does not matter. Reality will absolve me.”

How dare they! Oh, they will dare. They will dare indeed.

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Terence Chong

Terence Chong

Terence Chong is a student ambassador of Adam Smith Center, and a current undergraduate at Yale-NUS College.