For more than a century, climate change has elicited horrific reports of polar bears drowning, habitats disappearing, and kids spending entire days walking to dwindling water sources. Despite this surfeit of evidence validating the dangerous consequences of global climate change and warning of future catastrophes, their lack of immediate impact on our daily lives clouds our vision so that we fail to perceive them as urgent crises. And even when natural disasters do occur because of climate change, we focus on cleaning up the aftermath without resolving the root cause.
The greatest irony of climate change is that while individuals may feel detached because they believe it doesn’t impact them directly, it’s actually an international crisis. And despite its rapidly expanding consequences on our shared world, this has only led to a continuous game of hot potato, with no one willing to take the burden of responsibility. Citizens believe that they are powerless to create any tangible change and expect the government to exert its resources and expertise to confront the issue. In response, the government weighs climate change against industry and business, and struggles to create policies that balance these conflicting interests. So who is truly responsible for the continued deterioration of our environment?
Politicians have a duty to inform citizens and propose applicable measures to effectively lead their constituency. And in a democratic society, citizens can select solutions that enhance their welfare and standard of living. In theory, this creates a symbiotic relationship between the two parties. However, additional factors, particularly self-interest, complicate the actualization of this procedure.
While the link between politicians and citizens is tenuous at best, Greta Thunberg, a young activist, is being recognized for her fearless determination to confront global leaders about their failure to address climate change and inspire future generations who, in turn, will be able to expedite the decision making process and take a more active part in determining their future.
With this piece, I endeavor to examine how Greta Thunberg buttresses this fragile link between politicians and the people, and how she represents the influence that a single individual can wield through unswerving determination.
The Timeline for Global Warming
The first recorded concerns regarding global climate change come from Ty Hendall’s 1859 study demonstrating how gas emission blocks infra-red radiation from entering and differing concentrations of gas in our atmosphere can lead to climate change. However, this was soon superseded by the Second Industrial Revolution (1870-1910), two consecutive world wars, and other human-centric concerns. In fact, it wasn’t until 1963 when world experts first met and shared concerns regarding changing climates and rising sea levels, leading to a wave of environmental concern. Pressured by citizens’ demands for immediate action, governments held conferences and presented numerous plans, such as the Paris Agreement of 2016. However, when the Paris Agreement concluded on November 4, 2020 multiple countries had failed to meet their goals. Similarly, other environmental initiatives have petered out or ended in less than satisfactory results.
Limitations to Environmental Policies and Why it was a Failure
A key component of each of these failed policies is their anthropocentrism: their objective is to help people rather than the environment. They reflect our inability to separate ourselves from the notion of human supremacy and exceptionalism to nature. Nature is interpreted as an independent entity that functions best without intervention. This basic assumption that nature is distinct from humanity is a main cause of our failure to take mutually beneficial action.
Another factor is the growing concern that upcoming environmental proposals will require astronomical costs and yield no environmental gains. According to the Office of Management and Budget, they estimate approximately 144 billion dollars per year while researchers from the Johns Hopkins University anticipate 185 billion dollars annually. These high costs evoke complaints that implementing environmental policies will handicap US companies in an increasingly competitive market. Due to these contentions, the EPA is reluctant to draft new regulations; companies are concerned of potential impacts; and environmental groups are left in a stalemate.
Although environmental policies are implemented, the negative impressions brought by continuous accumulation of economic and legal costs cause them to backfire. In 1995, the Republicans used proposed environmental regulations as an argument to reduce costs of federal rules. Even Tom DeLay, a former politician serving for the House of Representatives, quotes “I am a conservationist, but I do not believe in being a Gestapo-type government imposing regulations of the American public’ about the Clean Air Act. Ironically, this exploitation of an environmental policy created a shift of capitalization of who is really protecting the environment.
Lastly, but most significantly, differing priorities hinder decisive action. Although it is assumed that with thorough evaluation, policy makers are capable of rational decision making, H. Eccleston and March, authors of ‘Global Environmental Policy’, note that for policymakers, political and economic factors take precedence over environmental concerns.
Why are environmental policies not prioritized?
These skewed priorities derive from the tendency of politicians to align themselves to the objectives of citizens. During Nixon’s 1968 campaign, he pledged to support new regulations in each state and provide new leadership in the Vietnam War. Although he invested in these sectors, Nixon also founded the National Environmental Policy Act in the 1970s, giving rise to American Environmentalism, but also leading to backlash from business and politicians. This was not aligned with Nixon’s campaign promises, which led him to reach agreements with Congress to initiate an expansion in social security. This occurred in 1972, which was just in time for the elections. This investment sustained Nixon’s second election bid and highlights the responsiveness of the citizens to environmental policies.
Sustaining the environment is a long-term process and global leaders need a similar vision to bring tangible change. However, with the Presidential term being 4 years, there is simply not enough time to bring about the significant changes that citizens can appreciate. Like Nixon, while politicians have the responsibility to inform citizens, they also desire re-election. If you ask the typical blue- collar worker, do you want policies for more jobs, better housing, and enhanced financial aids or policies for sustaining the environment, they are likely to choose the former as it directly impacts their welfare.
Again, cost-related concerns emerge when environmental policies are implemented. Due to the volatile nature of our environment, large amounts of investment are hindered by uncertainty’. For politicians, there are high risks in pushing through fiscal investments that might not produce an equivalent output. Also, rather than bringing an immediate impact, these policies are for the long- term benefit, which does not benefit politicians’ goals to remain in office.
Neglection of Potential Risks – Texas Power Crisis
When Texas experienced a rare series of snowstorms in 2021, the resulting freeze damaged the state’s power plants and natural gas system, causing approximately 4.5 million electricity consumers to lose power and 57 deaths by hypothermia.
While rare, this catastrophe was not unprecedented; Texas had experienced a similar situation a decade ago but state-wide winterization hadn’t happened. The fallout from this lack of preparation was compounded by Texas’ energy grid independence because as an independent state Texas is not able to channel energy from other states. In the 10 years since the last snowstorm, the Texas State government has invested most of their funds towards Medicaid and education which obviously received the most support from citizens. Although the need for winterizing infrastructure may have seemed like a priority when the crisis occurred, it was soon forgotten until a similar catastrophe occurred a decade later.
This trend of short-sighted spending by politicians derived from their desire for voter approval can no longer be sustained. As we can see from the Texas crisis, responsibility does not solely depend on global leaders but also requires public awareness. Changes must be made and we must be prepared to take hold of the steering wheel ourselves, instead of simply expecting to be dropped off at an optimal destination. This is what sets Greta Thunberg, with her uncompromising demand for micro and macro changes for climate change, apart. Ignoring all other concerns that may affect her individual interests or comforts, she is unafraid to make unfiltered challenges to global leaders by asking ‘How dare you?’. Amidst a society that is too often caught up with weighing various interests, her single-minded advocacy for mitigating climate change makes her a beacon for the upcoming generation.
Greta Thunberg’s Influence
While she’s become an international icon, Greta Thunberg’s determination began with a lone demonstration outside the Swedish Parliament in August 2018. Over time, this has extrapolated to more than 14 million people across 7,500 cities demanding immediate action on climate change. Through this movement, Greta Thunberg has become a household name and public concern regarding climate change. The awareness she brought has reached its pinnacle in the recorded history of the US.
Greta Thunberg still embodies characteristics that may be perceived as limiting her influence – her youth and her gender. Women in today’s society are gaining recognition but there has not been much improvement. While in 1997, 12% of the MPs were women, in 2015, 25% were women. In a world where the majority of political decisions are made by men, women and the youth are deemed as individuals with limited power. However, these factors are also the reasons why she has been successful in gathering people’s attention, and why she has become an inspiration to others. At first without much social or political stance, Greta Thunberg’s duel with the most powerful leaders in the world seemed futile, but her unfaltering courage has made her fight like that of David and Goliath. For example, Greta Thunberg’s ferocious acts such as going to the UN Climate Action Summit and saying “How dare you” with such disgust on her face and sarcastically mocking Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin would be portrayed as an amusing fight to the audience. Because of her young age, Greta Thunberg is pardoned from the words she says – to some extent compared to that of a globally recognized authority/politician. By throwing invectives towards global leaders, this satisfies the audience who live vicariously through her.
Greta Thunberg’s effect has been proven to be far reaching. An article published in Journal of Applied Social Psychology titled “The Greta Thunberg Effect” states that people’s belief that they can help mitigate climate change as part of a collective effort is enlarged if they are more familiar with Greta Thunberg; they are also more willing to take actions themselves. Her successful campaign stemmed from social media – Twitter and Instagram specifically. While environmentalism has traditionally relied on more conventional strategies, such as textbooks, posters, and pamphlets, Greta Thunberg’s decision to employ social media has allowed her to make a lasting impact on the younger generation. The social media market size has increased by 16.5% in 2021. Moreover, LinkedIn reports – ‘Truth about Social Selling’ – that more than 50% of revenue across 14 major industries is through social sales. With the increasing popularity of social ‘influencers’ such as Kylie Jenner and Lady Gaga who have successfully strategized to fit into this new trend, social media is both widespread and ubiquitous. What sets Greta Thunberg apart is that unlike other influencers, who market products and showcase dazzling destinations, she utilizes her fame amidst 11.5 million followers to share her protests against stagnant governments, present factual news reports, and reach out to politicians. As Greta Thunberg has developed into a ‘celebrity’, she has been able to not only inform the younger generation about the growing dangers of climate change, but remind them of their need to take action instead of relying on politicians. The contagious nature of social media with shares and likes has empowered Greta Thunberg and inspired the younger generation to take bold moves without considerations of age or social status to initiate change.
In addition, although Greta Thunberg is perceived as a nuisance to some partisans of society she provides an opportunity for reflection. She has already inspired global leaders, such as Michael Gove, Britain’s secretary for the environment and Ed Miliband, the initiator of the Climate Change Act 2008, to the extent where she has been successful in gaining funds from the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker; between 2021 and 2027, every fourth euro spent within the EU budget will used to mitigate climate change. In the European Parliament election in May 2019, the Green party, a political party promoting eco-friendly politics and environmentalism, experienced a boost in their MEP seat numbers from 52 to 72 – dominated by young activists who were inspired by Greta Thunberg. Like this politicians have shown a change in their actions and thus these positive influences have spread to influence global mega-riches: Trevor Neilson personally utilizing his network to promote donations which will be ‘a hundred times’ more in weeks and months and created a cross-party meeting with the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, the Green Party, and SNP for net-zero emission aspiration. Through Greta Thunberg’s everlasting presence in politics, her movement serves as an effective catalyst to urge the current leaders to preclude the disasters of climate change.
Until now, the consequences of the egocentric cycle of prioritizing economic prosperity, seeking reelection, and satisfying the constituency has taken precedence over climate change. Further speculation tells us that upcoming calamities will be accelerated and bring substantial effects without consideration for the considerable costs future generations will have to pay. Greta Thunberg acts as a reminder that climate change is a non-negotiable issue that must be resolved.
It is fully recognized that Greta Thunberg does not only have advocates. However, what sets her apart is her complete lack of self-interest and her absolute devotion to climate change. In a world where these qualities would be considered naive and considering how she might leverage her position for personal glory, Greta Thunberg remains adamant that her voice is solely devoted to serve the future generation. By leveraging what seemed to be her weaknesses as a strength, she has been able to not only revisit a century-old global dilemma, but enhance it with a new urgency and accountability, demanding that both individual citizens and world leaders come together to develop a sustainable solution.
Greta Thunberg conveys the message “Think globally, act locally,” (1955, Scottish planner and conservationist, Patrick Geddes). She embodies the idea that anyone can be of an impact to their immediate surroundings and their actions are a significant factor in preventing further climate change. Therefore, I contend that we not only need Greta Thunberg now, but that she will serve as a symbol of constant vigilance for the future and remind us that we as individuals can determine the imprint we leave through our actions alone.
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