Sitting small on the large stage, face contorted trying to contain emotion as she labours to push her words out: “This is all wrong, I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean.” Greta Thunberg—the 16-year-old girl who just one year ago started a global climate movement—addressed world leaders meeting in New York last week at the United Nations Climate Summit.
As Thunberg speaks, her words put many of us on the edge of our seats. Everyone is transfixed by her message: the adults on stage, the audience, and the young people that joined Thunberg outside the UN holding signs in protest. Her powerful speech is played over and over in an endless chain of social media tweets and likes. We all watch with some mixture of fascination, awe, inspiration and curiosity.
Yet there is a line past which Thunberg’s activism can become spectacle. The young person, who in her own words has felt the loss of her childhood because of empty promises from state leaders who were supposed to be the keepers of a healthy planet for her generation, becomes the voice of a human sacrifice that none of us should accept.
It is time that Thunberg, who sparked millions of people to action, got some rest; and for others to pick up the torch. With this newly invigorated movement, it is time for proper accountability relationships to be redrawn between citizens and their political representatives, consumers and producers, civil society organizations and their members, children and adults.
This article is directed at the adults left in the room. There has never been a shortage of citizen mobilization when states raise taxes or run deficits, wage war abroad or build infrastructure at home, freeze wages or create training programs, legislate clean water or relax industrial waste pollution, and there shouldn’t be a shortage for climate action.
Our best social achievements are the products of relentlessly negotiating goals and then enforcing them until we accomplish peace, a livable wage or a safe place to live and thrive—though many of these hard-fought battles have been preceded by untold human suffering and environmental disasters.
Just as we have mechanisms to create rules and assign responsibility for public, private and voluntary action in our diverse societies, we also have established modes of sanctioning rule-breakers who individually, and for private benefit, undermine our collective public goods. These accountability mechanisms of our everyday lives need to reassert themselves in the most comprehensive way possible as we face an existential threat to our planet.
These weeks have been about a collective will to prioritize our quality of life over “endless economic growth,” in Thunberg’s own words, and in some cases setting up specific accountability metrics.
City mayors across 800 cities around the world have declared climate emergencies. Many companies supported the climate strikes by closing stores, temporarily ceasing operations and launching their own digital strikes in which their websites go dark.
Giants like Amazon are pledging to drastically reduce their carbon emissions ahead of their own targets. Pension funds and insurers are committing to carbon neutral portfolios by 2050. Some academic institutions, like the University of California, are also divesting from fossil fuel holdings their billions of dollars in pension funds and endowments.
Some media outlets are changing the language they use when reporting on climate, introducing into their style guides wording like “climate crisis” instead of “climate change.”
Professors are cancelling their regular classes and holding teach-ins, open and participatory fora for lecturing and debating large social issues that are reminiscent of ones that helped galvanize student protests against the war in Vietnam.
Children, who are so much at the core of this fight, have resorted to domestic courts and complaint mechanisms in international conventions. Most recently children from 12 countries, including Greta, have filed a complaint to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, against the five largest carbon emitting states that are signatories of the convention. They accuse states of violating their rights by subjecting them to the devastating effects of climate change.
To reassert proper relationships of accountability, the next steps must include ensuring compliance and effecting sanctions wherever failures to deliver results start to emerge. After all, we cannot set standards if we as citizens, consumers and members of civil society are not equally committed to enforcing them.
Just as we sanction those who undermine our political resolve for peace, equity or human security we have to sanction with all the accountability mechanisms we already have at our disposal those who undermine carbon emission standards and maximum carbon budgets. Adults must reassert and enforce the collective will, not marvel at a young person’s self-control on a global stage to get that work done.