10 years ago, a green carpet was rolled out in Leicester Square for the solar-powered premiere of The Age of Stupid, a documentary film starring Pete Postlethwaite as a man living alone in the devastated world of 2055. He watches archival film and asks, “Why didn’t we stop climate change when we had the chance?” I was 18 at the time and I acutely remember coming home in a state of depression and confusion. The film had hit me hard. Why wasn’t more being done to reverse the worrying trends that scientists were observing? So, when 16-year old Greta Thunberg started her school strike for climate outside the Swedish Parliament last August, she instantly sparked my interest and took me back to that moment 10 years ago – and I have not stopped obsessing over her since. For me, watching that film was a pivotal moment, that led to me dedicating my career and several years of academic study to understanding climate change in more detail. But Greta has achieved something remarkable – her awakening to the issue and subsequent actions have ignited a global movement and inspired influential global leaders to pay attention.
I wanted to share with you some of the extraordinary impacts she has had since last August and also some of the lessons I think we can all learn from her, as we strive to lead positive change in our own lives.
What are some of the extraordinary impacts she has had to date?
1. Growing the School Strike for Climate into a global movement. On March 15, just 7 months after Greta stood alone outside the Swedish Parliament, more than 1.4 million young people, in 2,233 cities and towns, in 128 countries took part in the school strikes and the numbers keep on growing. According to 350.org, the March strike represented the biggest day of global climate action ever. The Executive Director of Oxfam International, Winnie Byanyima said: “Our children are walking out of school saying we have failed them. This is the kind of clarity and energy we need now.”
2. Her special address at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum 2019 in Davos made her the unlikely focus of the world’s media. Her speech was as candid as they come, “At places like Davos, people like to tell success stories, but their financial success has come with an unthinkable price tag” she said. And her message was crystal clear, “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic.”
3. Her speech in the European Parliament to MEPs, strategically timed in the run up to the European elections in May. In her, now characteristically blunt tone, she berated the lack of action from MEPs on climate change, pointing out “If our house was falling apart, you wouldn’t hold three emergency Brexit summits and no emergency summit regarding the breakdown of the climate and the environment”. Across Europe, millions of voters have backed pro-environment green parties in the latest election, securing a record number of seats in the European Parliament.
4. In March, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. The Norweigan Socialist MP Freddy André Øvstegård said “We have proposed Greta Thunberg because if we do nothing to halt climate change it will be the cause of wars, conflict and refugees,”…“Greta Thunberg has launched a mass movement which I see as a major contribution to peace.”
5. Capturing the wider public’s interest in climate change, appearing on countless influential magazine and newspaper covers, including TIME magazine.
6. Speaking at the UK Parliament.
She spoke first to party leaders, a meeting in which agreement was made to start regular cross-party meetings on climate policy and to open consultations with youth climate activists. She then spoke to a packed room of MPs and officials, with the turnout far better than a recent climate debate in Government. On 1 May, MPs approved a motion to declare an environment and climate emergency.
“Your voice – still, calm and clear – is like the voice of our conscience,” said the environment secretary, Michael Gove. “When I listened to you, I felt great admiration, but also responsibility and guilt.
What are some lessons we can learn from Greta?
1. Be bold and try to ignore those whose behaviour or views you cannot influence. In the current global political climate and in the age of social media, taking a stance on any topic in the public eye is far from easy. People have tried to knock Greta down time and again and subjected her to a vitriol of abuse online. Addressing the criticism she has received with her rise to fame Greta said “it’s quite hilarious when the only thing people can do is mock you, or talk about your appearance or personality, as it means they have no argument or nothing else to say”. Working in sustainability, the scale of the challenges we face can feel daunting. The timelines to mobilize change are aggressive. Therefore, we need to take risks and be comfortable with failure. Not everything we try will work. But if we are bold, there is hope.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat .” - Theodore Roosevelt
2. Consistent, simple and relatable messaging is key. Greta’s white placard with the words “Skolstrejk för klimatet” (“School strike for the climate”) has become iconic, and a metaphor for how black and white her message to everyone is – there is a climate crisis and not enough is being done about it. She has been intentional and thoughtful in her choice of language throughout, careful not to pose solutions that have the potential to muddy her message, but instead always reiterating the message of the IPCC’s latest report - that we are facing a climate and ecological emergency. She has also been effective at engaging with people using emotions. In her speech at the World Economic Forum she said, “The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.” As the sustainability field has developed over the last 30 years, a whole lexicon of terminology and acronyms has evolved with it that risks alienating people coming to the topic for the first time. Whatever the change is that we are each trying to lead in our own lives, it pays to spend some time thinking about how we can communicate that to those we want to bring along on the journey. Are we using language that is widely relatable?
3. Do what feels authentic to you. Greta has spoken widely about how her having Asperger’s (on the autism spectrum) has helped her view the world in stark terms. She has said “It makes me see things from outside the box. I don’t easily fall for lies; I can see through things. If I would’ve been like everyone else, I wouldn’t have started this school strike for instance.” This ‘difference’ is making her effective at speaking the truth to leaders in her characteristically blunt terms, something that might not be possible, or at the least more difficult for others without autism. We all have unique skills and qualities that we need to draw upon when we lead change. We can all benefit from taking some time to reflect on what these are for us and think about whether we are using them most effectively in the change we are leading. If not, how can we utilise them more?
I can’t wait to see what she does next. Let’s capitalise on the momentum and support each other.
What am I listening to? Human by Rag’n’Bone Man. The lyrics of this song are resonating hugely with me at the moment. There is a lot of blame flying around for the imperfect actions of people working in sustainability (flying, clothing, transport, etc.) and we all need to remember, we are all only human and are doing what we can.
What am I watching? Brené Brown’s Netflix documentary The Call to Courage and her TED talk The Power of Vulnerability. I am coming to the end of a leadership course called She Leads Change and a lot of her concepts have been woven into the course. If you haven’t already discovered her, you can thank me later.