Greta Thunberg, Stockholm, August 2018. Photo courtesy

BOOK REVIEW: ‘No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference’ highlights immediacy of climate crisis

Urging patience and practicality, adults theorize about the possible devastating effects of the climate crisis. But their possible tomorrows are the nightmarish likelihood of the soon-to-be present for Greta and her generation.

Greta Thunberg
No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference
Penguin Books
Copyright © Greta Thunberg, 2018–2019, in agreement with Politiken Literary Agency

At the age of 15, Greta Thunberg took a tiny action and inadvertently began a massive global movement. It was August 2018 when she began her school strike for the climate outside the Swedish Parliament. Today, there are Fridays For Future demonstrations happening all over the world. Already millions of schoolchildren have participated.

She’s moved from obscurity to the cover of Time magazine. She has spoken before the United Nations and been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. And to take the cake, joining a long list of outspoken successful females, she has been attacked by President Donald Trump.

“No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference” is a compilation of speeches Greta Thunberg has recently delivered all over the world. At the Stockholm Climate March Sept. 8, 2018, Greta reminded the marchers: “Last summer, climate scientist Johan Rockström and some other people wrote that we have at most three years to reverse growth in greenhouse-gas emissions if we’re going to reach the goals set in the Paris Agreement.

“Over a year and two months have now passed, and in that time many other scientists have said the same thing and a lot of things have got worse and greenhouse-gas emissions continue to increase. So maybe we have even less time than the one year and ten months …

“If people knew this they wouldn’t need to ask me why I’m so ‘passionate about climate change’. If people knew that the scientists say that we have a 5 per cent chance of meeting the Paris target, and if people knew what a nightmare scenario we will face if we don’t keep global warming below 2°C, they wouldn’t need to ask me why I’m on school strike outside parliament.

“Because if everyone knew how serious the situation is and how little is actually being done, everyone would come and sit down beside us.”

Greta Thunberg has managed to take the very complicated science of climate change and, in the very simplest of terms, present her take on it to all who’ll listen. There is a lot that Greta Thunberg isn’t. She is not a climate scientist. She is not an engineer working on carbon sequestration technologies. She does not offer a comprehensive blueprint to successfully counter the climate crisis.

She does, though, speak with the urgency of a 16 year old. Why? Because, urging patience and practicality, adults theorize about the possible devastating effects of the climate crisis. But their possible tomorrows are the nightmarish likelihood of the soon-to-be present for Greta and her generation.

Is it surprising that the older so easily embrace denial? After all, Miami and New Orleans are still dry enough to visit. You can still see hints of a glacier or two in Montana.

Like Nelson Mandela opposing apartheid, like the members of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee who sat in the whites only section of their Woolworth’s lunch counter, Greta Thunberg has moved beyond words, beyond fear, beyond excuse, to action. And like those activist forebears, hers is a crusade that transcends politics and invokes a moral imperative:

“Our school strike has nothing to do with party politics. Because the climate and the biosphere don’t care about our politics and our empty words for a single second. They only care about what we actually do. This is a cry for help.”

Greta Thunberg at Stockholm Climate March. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/Reuters

And with the energy of the impassioned, Greta Thunberg calls out those she believes have failed to effectively confront climate change: “the newspapers who still don’t write about and report on climate change,” those “who have never treated this crisis as a crisis,” “the political parties that pretend to take the climate question seriously” and, of course, “all the politicians that ridicule us on social media, and have named and shamed me so that people tell me that I’m retarded, a bitch and a terrorist …”

Newsweek Tweet: Pastor Says Greta Thunberg is ‘psychologically disturbed.’

At one and the same time, Greta Thunberg rebukes the older generations, the powerful, the silent, while empowering her generation to confront the crisis head on: “A lot of people say that Sweden is a small country, that it doesn’t matter what we do. But I think that if a few girls can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school for a few weeks, imagine what we could do together if we wanted to.

“Every single person counts. Just like every single emission counts. Every single kilo. Everything counts. So please, treat the climate crisis like the acute crisis it is and give us a future. Our lives are in your hands.”

A month later, on Oct. 31, 2018, Greta Thunberg explained in London how she first learned about the challenges of the climate crisis:

“When I was about eight years old, I first heard about something called climate change, or global warming. Apparently, that was something humans had created by our way of living. I was told to turn off the lights to save energy, and to recycle paper to save resources.

“I remember thinking that it was very strange that humans, who are an animal species among others, could be capable of changing the earth’s climate. Because, if we were and if it was really happening, we wouldn’t be talking about anything else. As soon as you turned on the TV, everything would be about that. Headlines, radio, newspapers. You would never read or hear about anything else. As if there was a world war going on.

But. No one talked about it. Ever.

Perhaps those who ignore the complicated academic reports of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will be more likely to heed Greta’s message. Because what she says is so very simple:

“If burning fossil fuels was so bad that it threatened our very existence, how could we just continue like before? Why were there no restrictions? Why wasn’t it made illegal? To me, that did not add up. It was too unreal.

“I have Asperger’s syndrome, and to me, almost everything is black or white. I think in many ways that we autistic are the normal ones and the rest of the people are pretty strange. They keep saying that climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all. And yet they just carry on like before. If the emissions have to stop, then we must stop the emissions. To me that is black or white. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival. Either we go on as a civilization or we don’t …

“Countries like Sweden and the UK need to start reducing emissions by at least 15 per cent every year, to stay below a 2°C warming target. Now the IPCC say that we have to aim for 1.5°C … You would think every one of our leaders and the media would be talking about nothing else – but no one ever mentions it … Nor does hardly anyone ever mention that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, with about 200 species going extinct every single day. (Emphasis added.)

“Furthermore, does no one ever speak about the aspect of equity, or climate justice … That means that rich countries need to get down to zero emissions, within six to twelve years, so that people in poorer countries can heighten their standard of living by building some of the infrastructure that we have already built. Such as roads, hospitals, electricity, schools and clean drinking water. Because how can we expect countries like India or Nigeria to care about the climate crisis if we, who already have everything, don’t care even a second about it or our actual commitments to the Paris Agreement?”

Greta asks the fundamental question: How is it that such little progress is made? How is it that denial is so prevalent?

“So, why are we not reducing our emissions? Why are they, in fact, still increasing? Are we knowingly causing a mass extinction? Are we evil? No, of course not. People keep doing what they do because the vast majority doesn’t have a clue about the consequences of our everyday life. And they don’t know the rapid changes required.”

Allow me to interrupt Greta and offer, in support of her case, some of the latest science. According to the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, while “coal use is down dramatically in the United States and the European Union, and renewable energy is gaining traction … rising natural gas and oil use in 2019 increased the world’s carbon dioxide emissions modestly for a third straight year.”

Global carbon dioxide emissions. Image credit: Jackson, et al. 2019 Environ Res Lett

And on a per capita basis by nation:

Per capita carbon dioxide emissions from 2000 to 2018

Back to Greta: “When school started in August this year I decided that this was enough. I sat myself down on the ground outside the Swedish parliament. I school-striked for the climate. Some people say that I should be in school instead. Some people say that I should study to become a climate scientist so that I can ‘solve the climate crisis’. But the climate crisis has already been solved.

“We already have all the facts and solutions … Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground. So we can’t save the world by playing by the rules. Because the rules have to be changed. Everything needs to change. And it has to start today. So everyone out there: it is now time for civil disobedience. It is time to rebel.”

I have no idea whether or not Greta Thunberg has read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” but her words recall his: “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be … This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

And he too called his generation to action: “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

At the Dec. 15, 2018, UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland, Greta Thunberg linked the politics of climate to the economy: “I don’t care about being popular, I care about climate justice and the living planet.

“We are about to sacrifice our civilization for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue to make enormous amounts of money. We are about to sacrifice the biosphere so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. But it is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few …

“You say that you love your children above everything else. And yet you are stealing their future. Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there’s no hope …

“And if solutions within this system are so impossible to find then maybe we should change the system itself? We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again. You’ve run out of excuses and we’re running out of time. We’ve come here to let you know that change is coming whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.”

At the World Economic Forum Jan. 22, 2019, in Davos, Greta challenged those attending the yearly gathering of the most powerful: “Some people say that the climate crisis is something that we all have created. But that is just another convenient lie. Because if everyone is guilty then no one is to blame. And someone is to blame. Some people – some companies and some decision-makers in particular – have known exactly what priceless values they are sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money.

“I want to challenge those companies and those decision-makers into real and bold climate action. To set their economic goals aside and to safeguard the future living conditions for humankind. I don’t believe for one second that you will rise to that challenge. But I want to ask you all the same.

“I ask you to prove me wrong. For the sake of your children, for the sake of your grandchildren. For the sake of life and this beautiful living planet. I ask you to stand on the right side of history. I ask you to pledge to do everything in your power to push your own business or government in line with a 1.5°C world.”

Greta Thunberg at the World Economic Forum, 2019. Photo: Markus Schreiber/AP

“You say that nothing in life is black or white. But that is a lie. A very dangerous lie. Either we prevent a 1.5°C of warming or we don’t. Either we avoid setting off that irreversible chain reaction beyond human control – or we don’t.

“Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t. That is as black or white as it gets. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival. Now we all have a choice … In clear language. No matter how uncomfortable and unprofitable that may be. We must change almost everything in our current societies. The bigger your carbon footprint – the bigger your moral duty. The bigger your platform – the bigger your responsibility.

“Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful.

“I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire.

Because it is.”

Not surprisingly, her ability to inspire and mobilize young people in nations throughout the world has brought with it enormous notoriety and nasty criticism. Back in Stockholm on Feb. 2, 2019, Greta responded, while revealing that her parents initially reacted in much the same way as many parents might when she explained she was about to start striking:

“Recently I’ve seen many rumours circulating about me and enormous amounts of hate … So let me make some things clear about my school strike. In May 2018 I was one of the winners in a writing competition about the environment held by Svenska Dagbladet, a Swedish newspaper. I got my article published and some people contacted me, among others was Bo Thorén from Fossil Free Dalsland. He had some kind of group with people, especially youth, who wanted to do something about the climate crisis.

“I had a few phone meetings with other activists. The purpose was to come up with ideas of new projects that would bring attention to the climate crisis. Bo had a few ideas of things we could do. Everything from marches to a loose idea of some kind of school strike (that schoolchildren would do something on the schoolyards or in the classrooms). That idea was inspired by the Parkland students, who had refused to go to school after the school shootings.

“I liked the idea of a school strike. So I developed that idea and tried to get the other young people to join me, but no one was really interested … So I went on planning the school strike all by myself and after that I didn’t participate in any more meetings.

“When I told my parents about my plans, they weren’t very fond of it. They did not support the idea of school striking and they said that if I were to do this I would have to do it completely by myself and with no support from them.

“On the 20th of August I sat down outside the Swedish parliament. I handed out fliers with a long list of facts about the climate crisis and explanations on why I was striking. The first thing I did was to post on Twitter and Instagram what I was doing and it soon went viral. Then journalists and newspapers started to come …

“Many people love to spread rumours saying that I have people ‘behind me’ or that I’m being ‘paid’ or ‘used’ to do what I’m doing. But there is no one ‘behind’ me except for myself. My parents were as far from climate activists as possible before I made them aware of the situation.

“I am not part of any organization. I sometimes supported and cooperated with several NGOs that work with the climate and environment. But I am absolutely independent and I only represent myself. And I do what I do completely for free, I have not received any money or any promise of future payments in any form at all. And nor has anyone linked to me or my family done so.

“And of course it will stay this way. I have not met one single climate activist who is fighting for the climate for money. That idea is completely absurd. Furthermore, I only travel with permission from my school, and my parents pay for tickets and accommodation.

“My family has written a book together about our family and how I and my sister, Beata, have influenced my parents’ way of thinking and seeing the world, especially when it comes to the climate. And about our diagnoses …

“Before the book was released my parents made it clear that their possible profits from the book, Scener ur hjärtat, ‘Scenes From the Heart’, will be going to eight different charities working with the environment, children with diagnoses and animal rights.

“And yes, I write my own speeches. But since I know that what I say is going to reach many, many people, I often ask for input. I also have a few scientists that I frequently ask for help on how to express certain complicated matters. I want everything to be absolutely correct so that I don’t spread incorrect facts, or things that can be misunderstood.

“Some people mock me for my diagnosis. But Asperger is not a disease, it’s a gift. People also say that since I have Asperger I couldn’t possibly have put myself in this position. But that’s exactly why I did this. Because if I would have been ‘normal’ and social I would have organized myself in an organization, or started an organization by myself.

“But since I am not that good at socializing I did this instead … I felt like I had to do something, anything. And sometimes NOT doing things – like just sitting down outside the parliament – speaks much louder than doing things. Just like a whisper sometimes is louder than shouting …

“There is one other argument that I can’t do anything about. And that is the fact that I’m ‘just a child and we shouldn’t be listening to children’. But that is easily fixed – just start to listen to the rock-solid science instead. Because if everyone listened to the scientists and the facts that I constantly refer to then no one would have to listen to me or any of the other hundreds of thousands of school-children on strike for the climate across the world. (Emphasis added.)

“Then we could all go back to school. I am just a messenger, and yet I get all this hate. I am not saying anything new, I am just saying what scientists have repeatedly said for decades.

“And I agree with you, I’m too young to do this. We children shouldn’t have to do this. But since almost no one is doing anything, and our very future is at risk, we feel like we have to continue …

“And thank you everyone for your kind support! It brings me hope.”

Climate Strike, Rome. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

On Feb. 21, 2019, in Brussels, Belgium:

“We don’t have any other manifestos or demands – you unite behind the science, that is our demand … But that is not enough. We need a whole new way of thinking. The political system that you have created is all about competition. You cheat when you can, because all that matters is to win, to get power. That must come to an end, we must stop competing with each other, we need to cooperate and work together and to share the resources of the planet in a fair way. We need to start living within the planetary boundaries, focus on equity and take a few steps back for the sake of all living species. We need to protect the biosphere, the air, the oceans, the soil, the forests.”

Greta Thunberg has turned the tables and reframed the issue of responsibility. Who in this struggle against the climate crisis is acting with maturity and with a realistic acknowledgement of the present danger, and who is stubbornly and selfishly refusing to face facts:

“And I am sorry, but saying everything will be all right while continuing doing nothing at all is just not hopeful to us. In fact, it’s the opposite of hope. And yet this is exactly what you keep doing. You can’t just sit around waiting for hope to come – you’re acting like spoiled, irresponsible children … And since our time is running out we have decided to take action. We have started to clean up your mess and we will not stop until we are done.”

At the European Parliament, Strasbourg, April 16, 2019:

“We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction and the extinction rate is up to 10,000 times faster than what is considered normal, with up to 200 species becoming extinct every single day. Erosion of fertile top soil. Deforestation of our great forests. Toxic air pollution. Loss of insects and wildlife. The acidification of our oceans.

“These are all disastrous trends being accelerated by a way of life that we, here in our financially fortunate part of the world, see as our right to simply carry on. But hardly anyone knows about these catastrophes or understands that they are just the first few symptoms of climate ecological breakdown …

“You need to listen to us, we who cannot vote. You need to vote for us, for your children and grandchildren. 

“What we are doing now can soon no longer be undone. In this election, you vote for the future living conditions of humankind … I ask you to please wake up and make the changes required possible.

“To do your best is no longer good enough. We must all do the seemingly impossible. (Emphasis added,)

It turns out that just as I was reading Greta Thunberg, I was confronted with the mind-boggling assertions of the most powerful human in the world: President Donald Trump. On Dec. 21, 2019, before the conservative Turning Point USA Youth Conference he went on a stream of consciousness rant about the Green New Deal:

“We will have an economy based on wind – I never understood wind. I know windmills very much. I have studied it better than anybody and it is very expensive. They are made in China and Germany mostly, very few made here, almost none. But they are manufactured tremendous fumes and gases are spewing into the atmosphere. You know we have a world, right? The world is tiny compared to the universe. Tremendous, tremendous amount of fumes and everything. You talk about the carbon footprint, fumes are spewing into the air, spewing, whether it is China or Germany, is going into the air. So they make these things and then they put them up and if you own a house within vision of some of these monsters, your house is worth 50% of the price. They are noisy. They killed the birds – you want to see a bird graveyard go under a windmill someday. You will see more birds that you have ever seen in your life. You know what, and California, they were killing the bald eagle. If you shoot a bald eagle, they want to put you in jail for ten years. A windmill will kill milli – many bald eagles. It is true. After a certain number, they make you turn the windmill off. That is true. And yet if you killed one, they put you in jail. That is OK. Why is it OK for windmills to destroy the bird population and that is what they’re doing …

“What they want to do is get rid of all petroleum products. That means you basically won’t have any factories in the United States …Our numbers environmentally are better than they’ve ever been before. Just so know I’m an environmentalist. I am. I want the cleanest water on the planet. I want the cleanest air anywhere. Crystal clean water. I want perfectly clean air and we have the best numbers right now that we’ve ever had, meaning in the last 40 years.”

This, as his administration has savaged multiple environmental regulations. Of course, he has no appreciation of the great advantages of properly sited windmills, nor the great numbers of jobs a Green New Deal might provide while curbing CO2 emissions. Because, unlike Greta Thunberg, he has not done his homework.

Half a million march for Climate Justice in Madrid, Dec. 6, 2019. Image courtesy Greenpeace

On April 23, 2019, Greta spoke before the Houses of Parliament in London:

“I was fortunate to be born in a time and place where everyone told us to dream big; I could become whatever I wanted to. I could live wherever I wanted to. People like me had everything we needed and more. Things our grandparents could not even dream of. We had everything we could ever wish for and yet now we may have nothing.

“Now we probably don’t even have a future any more. Because that future was sold so that a small number of people could make unimaginable amounts of money. It was stolen from us every time you said that the sky was the limit, and that you only live once.

“You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to. And the saddest thing is that most children are not even aware of the fate that awaits us. We will not understand it until it’s too late. And yet we are the lucky ones. Those who will be affected the hardest are already suffering the consequences. But their voices are not heard.

“Is my microphone on? Can you hear me?

Around the year 2030 … we will be in a position where we set off an irreversible chain reaction beyond human control, that will most likely lead to the end of our civilization as we know it. That is unless, in that time, permanent and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society have taken place, including a reduction of CO2 emissions by at least 50 per cent …

“These projections are backed up by scientific facts, concluded by all nations through the IPCC. Nearly every single major national scientific body around the world unreservedly supports the work and findings of the IPCC.

“Did you hear what I just said? Is my English okay? Is the microphone on? Because I’m beginning to wonder … But no one seems to be talking about it, and nothing has changed. In fact, the emissions are still rising …

“But perhaps the most dangerous misconception about the climate crisis is that we have to ‘lower’ our emissions. Because that is far from enough. Our emissions have to stop if we are to stay below 1.5–2°C of warming …

“The fact that we are speaking of ‘lowering’ instead of ‘stopping’ emissions is perhaps the greatest force behind the continuing business-as-usual. The UK’s active, current support of new exploitation of fossil fuels – for example, the UK shale-gas fracking industry, the expansion of its North Sea oil and gas fields, the expansion of airports as well as the planning permission for a brand new coal mine – is beyond absurd …

“People always tell me and the other millions of school-strikers that we should be proud of ourselves for what we have accomplished. But the only thing that we need to look at is the emission curve. And I’m sorry, but it’s still rising. That curve is the only thing we should look at …

“The climate crisis is both the easiest and the hardest issue we have ever faced. The easiest because we know what we must do. We must stop the emissions of greenhouse gases. The hardest because our current economics are still totally dependent on burning fossil fuels, and thereby destroying ecosystems in order to create everlasting economic growth.

‘So, exactly how do we solve that?’ you ask us – the schoolchildren striking for the climate. And we say: ‘No one knows for sure. But we have to stop burning fossil fuels and restore nature and many other things that we may not have quite figured out yet.’

“Then you say: ‘That’s not an answer!’ So we say: ‘We have to start treating the crisis like a crisis – and act even if we don’t have all the solutions.’ ‘That’s still not an answer,’ you say.

“Then we start talking about a circular economy and rewilding nature and the need for a just transition. Then you don’t understand what we are talking about. We say that all those solutions needed are not known to anyone and therefore we must unite behind the science and find them together along the way. But you do not listen to that. Because those answers are for solving a crisis that most of you don’t even fully understand. Or don’t want to understand.

“You don’t listen to the science because you are only interested in solutions that will enable you to carry on like before. Like now. And those answers don’t exist any more. Because you did not act in time …

“We children are not sacrificing our education and our childhood for you to tell us what you consider is politically possible in the society that you have created. We have not taken to the streets for you to take selfies with us, and tell us that you really admire what we do.

“We children are doing this to wake the adults up. We children are doing this for you to put your differences aside and start acting as you would in a crisis. We children are doing this because we want our hopes and dreams back.

“I hope my microphone was on. I hope you could all hear me.”

And I, too, hope you can hear Greta.


Additional sources

President Trump made remarks at Turning Point USA’s Student Action Summit 2019 in West Palm Beach, Florida. Dec. 21, 2019

Global carbon emissions growth slows, but hits record high