‘Changing the world’ also means changing ourselves

People hate Greta Thunberg not merely because she is right but because – unlike themselves – she is young, and therefore fully entitled to believe that she can really ‘change the world’

One thing I have never understood about the entire climate change debate is… why all the anger? Why all this militancy? What is it that makes so many perfectly normal (mostly male) people react so aggressively to the claim – especially when made by a 16-year-old Swedish girl (more of this later) – that ‘our planet is in danger because of increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere’?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a sceptic by nature, too… so I’m all on board with the notion that it is perfectly healthy – necessary, even – to question absolutely everything: down to the most widespread and broadly accepted ‘truths’ of everyday existence.

And yes, that includes climate change; and even such mind-numbingly obvious theories as, for instance, that ‘the world is round’.

Flat-earthers? I do kind of see their point, you know. After all, planets do not become ‘spherical’ just because every scientist in the world says so. On the contrary, they tend to be the shape they are, regardless what ‘science’ – or anything else, for that matter – ever says or thinks.
At the same time, however, this is where the problems begin. Scepticism ceases to be healthy, when it simply disregards all evidence provided in support of the scientific claim. In fact, it ceases even to be ‘scepticism’ at all… and instead becomes ‘disbelief for its own sake’: which is every bit as unhelpful as ‘blind faith’ when it comes to establishing things like… um… what shape is our planet, anyway?

For even if we accept that scientists may be wrong to assert that it’s round… it doesn’t follow that the world must be shaped like a disc, as claimed by flat-earthers. How do we know it’s not shaped like a rhomboid? Or a trapezium? Or an inverted pyramid? Or a giant Pringle, floating in space…?

Why, in a nutshell, should the rest of us not be just as sceptical towards the flat-earthers’ claim, as they are sceptical towards the generally accepted scientific view?

But flat-earthers (the more obsessive ones, anyway) do not limit themselves to rejecting the ‘spherical-planet’ world-view; they also believe that everyone who disagrees with them is part of a hugely successful global conspiracy aimed at deceiving the entire human race… for no apparent reason whatsoever.

This raises questions that go far beyond the mere shape of the planet. Why the heck would the world’s entire scientific community go to such lengths to pretend the earth is round, when they all know perfectly well that it’s actually flat? What would be gained, and by whom, through the deception?

Applied to climate change, the implications become considerably more insidious (even for the simple reason that… well, we can all safely ignore a tiny minority which clings to hopelessly archaic models of cosmology; but we can’t ‘safely ignore’ a process that may actually threaten our own survival as a species).

So what is to be gained, and by whom, by concocting a global deception along the lines that ‘climate change is the consequence of human (mostly industrial) activity’?

For the life of me, I can’t see how that lie could possibly benefit anyone at all: least of all, the scientists who must be fabricating all the supposedly fraudulent evidence. What’s in it for them, anyway?

At the very most, you could argue that there may be some funding attached to individual climate change studies… or even that some scientists might be ‘profiteering’ from the situation, by publishing papers, writing books, giving lectures, providing government consultancy services, and so on.

Some of that may even be true; but still, it cannot account for the overwhelming global scientific consensus that now exists on the subject. Unless we subscribe to the (quite frankly absurd) view that 99.9% the world’s scientists are somehow ‘on the take’… we are left with the unanswerable question of why this giant global conspiracy even exists in the first place.

Ah, but reverse the roles and a whole different picture emerges. What is to be gained, and by whom, through rejecting or denying climate change science? Quite a lot, actually… and by quite a lot of people.

Let’s just limit ourselves to the stated aims of the Kyoto Protocol, for instance. (Note: that’s the international treaty on climate change we all signed up to in 1997… only to forget about immediately afterwards).

What sort of targets did we bind ourselves to, when we ratified that treaty? The main aim is the “stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would stop dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” And the protocol sets out a timetable for the ‘reduction of CO2 emissions’ by 2020 (that’s 15 months away, folks).

But what sort of industry or activity emits CO2 into the atmosphere? Erm… pretty much all of it, as it happens; because almost everything these days – even just ‘walking down the street’, if you text while you walk – consumes some form or amount of power.

Naturally, the most immediate net beneficiary of climate change denial remains the world’s entire energy sector: the oil, coal and gas industries, and all their close relations… all of which exert enormous influence on the global political decision-making process.  

But that’s just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. Everybody who consumes the energy those industries produce – including me right now, as I need power to operate the computer I am typing on – stands to lose something by implementing the Kyoto Protocol. We would all have to collectively lower our energy-consumption patterns, for starters: something that can only be achieved by radical changes to our collective lifestyles.

In Malta’s case, one possible outcome would be legislation to curb private vehicle usage (cars being our country’s main CO2 emitters). How many of us, in this car-crazy country, would willingly accept laws which place limits on how many private vehicles we own, or how often we can actually drive them?

More to the point: how many of us – if faced by that, or any other comparable ‘sacrifice’ in the name of climate change – would suddenly start finding all the anti-climate change arguments more ‘convincing’ than before? Enough to post links to pseudo-scientific articles online, for example… or repeat those arguments ourselves in dinner conversations?

From this perspective, it is not just the world’s biggest energy producers or guzzlers that have a vested interest in disbelieving climate change science.  More or less everyone and his dog – actually no; for once, we can leave the dog out of it – also has an impetus to be a climate change denier, whether they realise it or not.

Even this, however, stops short of explaining the sheer belligerence of the deniers’ scepticism. This brings us to Greta Thunberg, who – very conveniently, it must be said – has provided a human target for all this angst and hatred to be vented upon (for arguably the first time, too: as  – short of David Attenborough and maybe George Monbiot: both of whom are male and adult – the one thing climate change science has never really had, since it first became a global concern, was a human face attached.)

And what a lot of hatred has been aimed at that face, too. Why, I wonder? What is it about little Greta Thunberg that instantly pisses off so many people around the world?

I’ve heard a lot of answers to this question: e.g., that people hate her because ‘she’s right and they’re wrong’… and (let’s face it) no adult enjoys being corrected by a smart-alec little brat from Sweden. Or ‘because she’s a girl’… suggesting that the reaction might have been different, had she been an equally smart-alec little boy named ‘Hans Thunberg’ instead.

And yes, there probably is some of that in the mix… but not nearly enough to account for the full extent of the global, hate-filled backlash she is now facing.

So for what it’s worth, this is what I think really lurks beneath the surface here. People hate Greta Thunberg not merely because she is right, or has Asperger’s Syndrome, or behaves like any other spoilt child throwing toys out of the pram…  no, people hate her primarily because – unlike themselves – she is young, and therefore fully entitled to believe that she can really ‘change the world’.

Let me repeat that last part: ‘change the world’. Isn’t that what we all thought we could do… when we were 16? It’s only now, when we’ve settled into our grumpy (and largely cynical) middle age – and, more pointedly, when we’ve grown comfortable with the world just as it is, to the point that we no longer want it to ‘change’ at all –  that we laugh that romantic idea to scorn as ‘impossible’.

But – and this is where Greta Thunberg really is right, and her detractors wrong – it is not impossible at all. Far from it. The world really does change (heck, it has changed beyond recognition in my own lifetime); and every one of those changes has entailed radical alterations to our daily lifestyle.

This is the real difference between Greta Thunberg, and all those middle-aged (mostly male) bores who have lost the ability to dream… and with it, their enthusiasm for everything that makes life on this planet worth living in the first place.

We all know that ‘to change the world’ also means to change ourselves… but where Greta Thunberg is (or claims to be) ready and willing to make all the necessary sacrifices to change the world for the better... the rest of us old fogeys are not.

And this is why people of a certain age hate and fear that little girl so much. They know she represents a hopeful future, while they represent only a jaded, failed past. And it’s a future that terrifies them, too… because it will be led by a generation that is entirely unafraid of the one thing that frightens them most: change.  

But above all, they hate Greta Thunberg because she reminds them of how they themselves used to be, before life knocked some of the fight out of them. They are jealous of her commitment and drive… because they know what it means to be committed and driven (having once been 16, too); and they desperately miss the idealism they once possessed, but have now lost.

And even though their reaction is entirely irrational, it is also eminently understandable. In spite of ourselves, we all harbour a subconscious grudge against people who remind us – like Greta Thunberg clearly does – of what we ourselves could have been; or what we all know should be doing, but are too darn lazy and cowardly to actually do.

That, I believe, is the only explanation for the otherwise inexplicable hate Greta Thunberg inspires in so many people. She is a mirror in which we can all see our own collective failure reflected fearlessly back in our faces.

And let’s be honest: it’s not a pretty sight.

More in Blogs