Climate Change

On Greta Thunberg and the protesting students

Sunita Narain on the lessons from the ongoing #FridaysForFuture demonstrations  

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Wednesday 20 March 2019
Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg leading a protest in Stockholm, Sweden.Credit: Ulrica Loeb/Flickr Greta Thunberg leading a protest in Stockholm, Sweden.Credit: Ulrica Loeb/Flickr

Greta Ernman Thunberg is a 16-year-old Swedish school girl who is rocking the world with her protest against inaction on climate change. In August 2018, as Sweden was gearing up for its national elections, she decided not to go to school, but to sit outside to raise the flag on the need to do more, much more to combat deadly climate change. At first, it is said, she was alone but as she persisted and persisted, her voice got louder and louder. Now she sits in protest every Friday outside her school urging the world to act. And with her, at the last count, Friday of mid-March some 1,650 strikes were on in over 100 countries.

What Greta and her fellow youth are asking is simple and straight, “If climate change happens, as predicted and now more or less certain, then what is our future?” This is a fact. The inheritors are asking, what are you leaving for us? What are you doing?

I don’t know how far Greta’s organic movement will go — will it get exhausted, irrelevant or just disappear as the youngsters get older and the reality of livelihood takes over. But I hope it will not go away. I hope it will continue to rage and rant and spread across our world. I hope it will capture the imagination of the young; gather their desperation and all this will make its way into their parents’ company boardrooms and ministerial offices. I hope it will not shush down. I hope it will not become like the old — like us.

Because there is one more chance for us to make this work. The fact is if we reconfigure our measurement of progress so that it is built on measuring the wellbeing of our children, then the Planet may just survive. We know today that children are not just the inheritors of the future warmer world. We know also that environmental destruction and toxification has the worst impact on their lives. So, make them the centre of the universe of development. Measure growth through their wellbeing.

We know that the lack of access to safe sanitation impinges on children’s lives, not just wellbeing — it leads to malnutrition, stunting and high disease burden, including death. We make this our way to understand if sanitation is improving or not, not just counting toilets. Then we know that the availability of the toilet is not enough, human excreta has to be taken back and made safe for reuse. If not, it will pollute water and spread diseases, including vector borne. So, let’s start measuring pollution through data on the growth of malaria or diarrhoea.

Similarly, the lack of clean energy in homes is another wicked problem; women cooking on biomass fuel suffer from killer respiratory disorders. Lower respiratory tract infections remain the top causes of children and adolescent mortality in the world. Even as the world needs to re-invent its energy system to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, it also needs to do much more to provide energy to the poorest in the world. Then there is the challenge of toxification because of air in cities, which is showing up in the increased disease burden, particularly of children. So, lets measure progress to clean energy or clean air through the health of our children.

There is also no doubt that education — ideally good and meaningful — changes lives. There is also enough evidence that educating the girl child is the beginning of the change in the fertility and population trajectory of a country. Their empowerment is real power as an educated young woman is the first to take charge of her mind and her body. It’s also clear that education will build more informed consumers — the inheritors cannot take on the same lifestyle and expect to save the planet.

It is also clear that livelihoods are critical — the insecurity of the young comes from their lack of jobs in this increasingly automated world. What will they do? What are the skills that will build the new world, which will not add to the crisis of climate change? Have we built jobs that are in the green economy? This is the question that will work, not just to build futures, but also correct the present.

In this way we will measure the health of the planet through the health and wellbeing of our young. We will build hope that we are working towards a new future—the one Greta Thunberg and millions like her are calling us to ensure. Today, not tomorrow.

Sunita Narain, Editor of Down To Earth, has been included among 'The World's 100 Most Influential People in Climate Policy' by Apolitical, a global network for government, helping public servants find the ideas, people and partners they need to solve the hardest challenges facing our societies  

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