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Greta Thunberg to UN: You have stolen my dreams; we must act now

I confess I find this one a little hard to write about because there are, and should be, at least two conflicting emotions when watching this.

On the one hand: She is clearly distressed, and not faking it. Whether you agree with her or not, she passionately believes what she is saying.

On the other hand: She is demanding (and that is not too strong a word) a global revolution that will impact the daily lives of every man, woman, and child on the planet. Some scrutiny of what she says is perfectly fair, whatever her age, gender, or other factors. Nobody demanding such changes can be above scrutiny.

Anyway, here she is. Watch what she has to say:

I was talking to the estimable Richard Chambers – a very fine reporter – about this on twitter and he made the not unreasonable point that Climate Change should not be a left/right issue. If the world is, indeed, under threat, then we should deal with it reasonably as grown human beings, and not let it devolve into stupid petty culture war nonsense. He’s right about that.

On the other hand, though, it is not petty culture war nonsense to ask for, and to honestly debate, the proposed solutions to the putative problem.

Ms. Thunberg had this to say on the matter of solutions, back in March. It’s worth quoting her extensively, and if you are, like me, a sceptic of her message, do her the justice of at least reading what she has to say:

“People keep asking me “ what is the solution to the climate crisis.” And how do we “fix this problem”. They expect me to know the answer.

That is beyond absurd as there are no ”solutions” within our current systems. No one ”knows” exactly what to do. That’s the whole point. We can’t just lower or heighten some taxes or invest in some ”green” funds and go on like before.

Yes there are many many things that are very good and necessary, and improves the situation. Such as solar- and wind power, circular economy, veganism, sustainable farming and so on. But even those are just parts of a greater picture.

We can no longer only focus on individual and separate issues like electrical cars, nuclear power, meat, aviation, bio fuels etc etc. We urgently need a holistic view to address the full sustainability crisis and the ongoing ecological disaster. And this is why I keep saying that we need to start treating the crisis as the crisis it is. Because only then – and only guided by the best available science (as is clearly stated throughout the Paris Agreement) can we together start creating the global way forward.

But that can never happen as long as we allow the ”yeah-but-what-about-nuclear-power-then-debate” to go on and on and on. This is wasting our time. This is climate delayer-ism. We need to keep a great number of thoughts in our head at same time and yet move forward with the changes at unprecedented speed.

Personally I am against nuclear power, but according to the IPCC, it can be a small part of a very big new carbon free energy solution, especially in countries and areas that lack the possibility of a full scale renewable energy supply – even though it’s extremely dangerous, expensive and time consuming. But let’s leave that debate until we start looking at the full picture.”

Let’s start with the fact that the “solution” is, in simple terms, obvious. The Global “fair share” of carbon in order to eliminate climate change in the medium terms is that each of us should emit no more than 2 metric tonnes per year. For context, each Irish person currently emits just over 7 metric tonnes per year. For further context, a round trip to Japan to watch the Rugby World Cup will emit about 3 or 4 metric tonnes – just on the flights.

Most of the carbon we emit we do not even emit directly. Consider eating a banana – that’s a perfectly carbon-neutral activity, unless you are prone to banana-induced flatulence. But the cost of getting that banana to you from Mozambique or wherever – that is not carbon neutral at all.

Irish politicians say they are committed to addressing the climate crisis, but that is, of course, not true. And it’s entirely your fault, and mine, that it is not true. Oh fine, you’ll throw your plastic bottles in the recycling, because it doesn’t cost you a second thought. But if the Government was, for example, to ban the import of unnecessary goods in order to reduce our emissions? Dublin 4 would be on the streets faster than you can say “Kale and Quinoa burger”.

It is all well and good, to be frank, blaming politicians for the climate issue, but she is asking them to end their political careers for no good end. “But John”, you might say, “it is a perfectly good end – it is saving the planet”. But of course, the politician who actually does the things necessary to reduce Ireland’s per capita emissions to two tonnes per person will be replaced in very short order by a politician who reverses those policies – so, no good end.

Ireland, of course, produces about 1.9% of EU emissions. So, picture that dramatic action by Governments across all 27 member states. If Ms Thunberg wants a revolution, she might end up getting several, and not the kind she imagines.

Ireland’s tourism industry, for example, is quietly a huge emitter of carbon, because everyone who comes here, bar the odd Brit on a driving holiday, flies here. Our agri-food sector produces a third of all of our emissions. To get to two tonnes, we would have to basically confiscate – not phase out, confiscate – every motor car in the country, and throw in lawnmowers and tractors for good measure.

Here is a graph of Ireland’s carbon emissions over time (blue line). In 1960, we were at 4 tonnes per person. The graph does not record a time we were ever at 2 tonnes, but it’s a fair assumption that it was at some time prior to the outbreak of the second world war. If you want to get to the global fair share of emissions in Ireland, that’s the kind of standard of living to which you need to return.

So my scepticism, I confess, is not scepticism about Greta Thunberg directly. She’s 16. She is allowed to be idealistic and to shout at politicians. My scepticism is about the voters, and the politicians. These people will praise her to the heights, and promise “urgent action”. But will they do what is actually required? No. Because nobody really actually wants them to.

If the scientists are right, the unpalatable truth that far too few people accept is that there actually is nothing that we can do about it. Irish people are not going to return, voluntarily, to their lives and incomes and lifestyles of the pre-war period. The Chinese and the Indians definitely are not. The Americans? They were already more carbon-intensive than the rest of us at that point in history, so you’re probably asking them to do far more. You’ll have to go to Texas in the height of summer and ask them to turn off their air-conditioning to cool the planet down.

And they’ll look at you as if you have two heads.

We’re not going to change. We will have to adapt. The good news is, we’re pretty good at adapting.

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