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Greta Thunberg and prophetic utterance

Thursday, 3 October 2019  | Paul Tyson

Editor's note: This is a discussion-starter on the topic of climate change. We look forward to your comments and welcome all views. Please keep the discussion respectful and civil.

Greta Thunberg is a 16-year-old youth from Sweden. She has inspired a global movement of young people pushing for genuine action to slow down and stop CO2 emissions, and then start reducing CO2 in our atmosphere. On 20 September I went with one of my daughters to a student strike and march for climate change action in Brisbane, along with about 300,000 other Australians around the county. Shortly after this, Greta gave this very brief speech to the 2019 United Nations Summit on Climate Change:

This is all wrong. I shouldn't be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you're doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.

You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.

The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5 degrees, and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control. Fifty percent may be acceptable to you. But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of equity and climate justice. They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist. So a 50% risk is simply not acceptable to us — we who have to live with the consequences. To have a 67% chance of staying below a 1.5 degrees global temperature rise – the best odds given by the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] – the world had 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit back on January 1st, 2018. Today that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatons. How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just 'business as usual' and some technical solutions? With today's emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than 8 1/2 years. There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today, because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is. You are failing us.

But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.

There were three kinds of responses to Greta’s speech. Firstly: applause. Adults who agreed, in principle, with what she said, wanted to affirm it, and did so via applause. Secondly: dismissive patronism. This girl might make all sorts of statements about things she did not really understand, and her voice might be harming young people who should not worry themselves with these stories of doom and disaster, and just trust the adults to do the right thing by them. When she is older she will understand better. Thirdly: outright mockery. But none of these responses seem in any way appropriate, for it seems to me that Greta is speaking to us within the genre of prophetic utterance.

Granted, Greta makes no reference to returning to God. But remember, the prophets do not treat moral and environmental matters in isolation from matters of right worship. Oppression, injustice, ignoring the just claims of the small and weak (such as the cry of children for a viable ecological future) and the Levitic promise that the land will ‘spew out’ those who fail to keep the law of God (Lev 20:22) does not seem irrelevant to our global climate crisis. And then, the scriptures inform us that the lips of children should not be silenced, the leading of children into sin is a horror to God, and the crushing and frustration of children by the pride and sin of parents are matters to be treated with the utmost Christian seriousness.

I believe Greta is speaking to us in a form of prophetic utterance. She is making an inspired call to us for very serious repentance from a hubristic, abusive, inter-generationally unfair, and rampantly exploitative attitude to the resources of earth. This call is in entirely in line with the apocalyptic warning that God will destroy those who destroy the earth (Rev 11:18). Surely, if she does speak prophetically, the right response should be to rend our clothes, sit in the dust, and repent.

Paul Tyson is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland.


Ken Rolph
October 4, 2019, 3:05PM
I have understood for some time that we will be unable to deal with climate change, which doesn't bother me since I'm 70. We don't have the mental tools as human beings. Characterising it as an emergency is not adequate. Medicine makes a distinction between acute conditions and chronic conditions. An acute condition is a broken leg. People know how to deal with this and it is clear what needs be be done immediately. Climate change is more like diabetes. You need to measure carefully to actually understand that it is happening. Then you can go for a while without obviously needing to do anything. The widespread setting in of diabetes gives us a guide to these kinds of ... what? It doesn't matter if you are young or old. If you don't have a word for it you don't understand it and can't plan what to do about it.
David Brunckhorst
October 11, 2019, 8:46AM
Dr Tyson’s very thoughtful piece certainly brought me to tears of guilt (I/we should be doing more), frustration and concern for future generations. I am horrified by our various world leaders who are so dismissively arrogant about the groaning Creation and these children - a wise (beyond their years) upcoming future generations.
Paul Tyson
October 12, 2019, 11:29AM
Dear Ken.
Your comment is a counsel of despair for those who are not 70. I have children, and they can't function if they really believe they have a doomed future. And if we have created this problem - which we have - there is no reason why we cannot work to undo the damage we have done. If we stopped exporting coal and moved to a fully renewable energy grid for Australia, we would be working against doom, even if we failed. But to simply say, 'oh well, we can't beat this one, might as well keep going as we are' is not possible for the young. And this is why Greta is so angry. It is those driving the bus now who don't think anything can really be done about climate change, so they are just going to keep driving us full tilt towards the cliff edge, and by the time they move over and hand our children the steering wheel we will already be falling into disaster. That there is no serious action to try and divert the bus from the cliff face because it is all too hard to try and swing our energy consumption norms and our monster financial power configurations around is, quite simply, the most profound inter-generational immorality one can think of. Greta is right to be angry. She is right to reject the counsel of despair. This is something my children understand with crystal clarity.
Pete Rend
October 12, 2019, 12:51PM
Perhaps, like the prophets, Greta's speech is inspired. Perhaps, like Scot Morrison, her words are empty representations driven by hopelessness. In either circumstance this type of speech serves little to change the minds of the modern Christian Right - the loudest detractors - or the typical white uneducated senior, who can somehow figure out social media for the purpose of bigotry.

This is because climate change, as an invisible enemy, requires genuine education and unbiased interest in knowledge. Without a tangible 'face' to the evil of climate change, Greta is likely to be nailed to her cross by the most moral of her detractors only, in the true prophetic fashion, for her truth to be recognised far too late.
Marko Vuckovic
October 12, 2019, 1:01PM

What an unsettling, and completely new, observation on this issue. It seems we must understand our investments and collective projects, including those in energy, relative to the real needs of our communities. Prophetic utterances - both as speech acts and as a literary genre - may be those that in part serve to properly identify this community.
October 12, 2019, 1:18PM
The deterioration of our planet has reached an unprecedented level that was only made possible as people grew in power and forgot their role as stewards and not owners. Like any self-idolatry, this attitude does not consider the consequences it will have on its dependents or the pain it will cause those it forgot it depends on.

The prophesies of the Bible and science seem to preach the same warning on our treatment of the world with one key exception; the Bible’s entails a judgement that reaches past this life. Whether or not our earthly leaders acknowledge this, it should be every Christians responsibility to combat climate change despite of the enormity of the task.
David Reynolds
October 12, 2019, 4:58PM
Great piece Paul.

I've been flabbergasted by the venom of some of the responses to Greta, and the mockery. Maybe I'm guilty of being an 'applauder'.

I was reflecting recently that history is replete with teenage girls who change the world and who are mocked and attacked by their detractors. Joan of Arc and Anne Frank immediately spring to mind. So I don't mind too much being on the applauding side.

I think when people start attacking the messenger like this, it demonstrates to me that they have no adequate counter to the message. A thinking person would reflect on this.

It's interesting that you that you refer to her as a possible prophet. I suspect you're right. On a related note, do you think it's possible that the conservative church, with their indifference to the poor and the wellbeing of the planet, could be the Whore of Babylon? :)
Andrew Tyson
October 12, 2019, 11:35PM
Rend our clothes and weep, begging for forgiveness from the younger generation as well as from God! Yet, the majority of first world nations seem to have politicians whom are willing to accept minimal effort for change in global forums - and that includes countries that are seriously trying to effect changes in their own national emissions. What little I know of other countries largely comes from my experience in the automotive industry. As far as I understand, nations such as Germany are implementing a standard of production where the manufacturer is responsible for the disposal of the waste from products that they have made - cradle to grave. i.e. In the automotive industry in Germany, Mercedes Benz make products that go into their cars, such as dashes and internal panels, out of coconut fibre and resin, molded into all the necessary shapes that make modern cars such a pleasure to use. This coconut fibre is natural and completely biodegradable; unlike the plastics used by so many other vehicle manufacturers in other countries. Of course, the metal panels of the cars, and all the mechanical components are able to be recycled and made into new components in their turn; and seats are covered with animal skins while they are filled with horse hair. The one remaining component that seems to be difficult still is the tires; which I believe can be solved with technology, but is not yet deemed to be financially viable.

Germany also has solar panels seemingly everywhere, on any surface that gets any sunlight; and they get a lot less sunlight then we get here in Australia. Why do they think it is a good idea and we don't? Why must Australia seemingly be keeping our collective heads in the 19th and 20th Centuries; while world leading nations such as Germany are expanding into the 21st century of technology?

In Australia, we really seem to be collectively dim witted (See argument above re: use of solar panels). I live in Tasmania, which is one of the colder states of Australia; and it was only in 2006 that the state government legislated standards of house building that mandated the use of double glazing. And this mandate is so weak that the builders still easily bypass it and only install single glazing. And don't get me started regarding other forms of insulation in the ceiling, walls, and floors...

It is not hard to be more energy efficient. There are potentially many more jobs in sustainable energy supply, storage, and distribution than there will ever be in the coal industry. And, we have so much sun that we could export energy to the world if we can come up with a suitable way to bottle the excesses we have available. There is no reason why we have to be so lavish in our use of materials or energy other than selfishness and stupidity. Why doesn't Australia live up to the claims of the 1980's where we were supposed to be 'the clever country'?

And, lets show some leadership qualities and tell the truth about ourselves and the other countries that are dragging their collective heals in regards to doing anything about climate change.
Rob Farago
October 13, 2019, 2:26PM
Thanks Paul. I think she is a prophet in the long standing tradition of God using people other that his 'chosen' to show them the error of their ways.

When it comes to climate it's hard to know who to trust.

If you are more likely to trust someone from your own tribe, Professor Katharine Hayhoe is a Climate Scientist and Evangelical Christian.

In this twitter thread she looks at the common skeptical arguments about the climate changing for other reasons that us burning fossil fuels.

In this washington post article you can read a backgrounder on her life and work.
October 15, 2019, 8:57PM
I can't resist having another go at this topic. The main point I want to make is that the world does not have much more time to act in before time runs out and irreversible effects run rampant. The earth is a self-contained eco system - Note: One system. Entropy is dominant! So, balance of the system is delicate (arguable, and within limits). What someone does today, can and most probably will go on to have effects for others both in the present and in the future. The human race, particularly in the past several centuries has added a lot of pollution into this self-contained, or enclosed system; with the result that the atmosphere now contains much more particulate matter than it previous has had in the earths history (possibly). Net result of the particulates and the various contributions of gases is, again arguably, the absorption of more heat into the system.

So, read 'heat' as energy! Put energy into a single particle, and that particle starts to move more rapidly (principle of microwave ovens). As can be seen with boiling a pot of water, after a certain amount of energy has been absorbed by the water, its particles become erratic. With enough energy added, the water becomes chaotic - it bubbles. The analogy is obvious and the western world has understood this for centuries. Its called thermodynamics!

What is the world's climate doing at the moment - with increased risk of droughts, floods, fires, heatwaves, and sudden chills? I would say that it is becoming more unstable, like water does after enough energy is added. Can this be reversed? I would suggest yes, but I don't imagine that that will always be the case.

I remember reading an engineering magazine from 1963 when working for a firm that made electronics. There was an article that boldly stated something the equivalent to 'Now that climate change has been proven, governments will have to act to address it.' Well, our governments haven't! And, what's worse, they are resisting efforts to address it, whether imposed externally or internally.

Another analogy. Climate scientists claim that the world has a carbon dioxide budget; the level of CO^2 that the atmosphere can tolerate before it has the potential for extreme consequences. We have already surpassed any previously recorded figures as our climates have become less and less stable. And now certain scientists are claiming we have less than 8 years to reduce emissions before that last straining boundary is crossed - the level of CO^2 where you get run away effects.

EIGHT YEARS! And we've had a fair level of certainty of the damage our Western world economies have been doing since before the 1960's.

This is not a time to say that we should politely indicate that all sides should be invited to put their opiniosn. It is not the time to complain about how complex things are! Now is the time to act, and act decisively. Australia can be energy sufficient on solar and wind alone; if the effort is put into energy storage that should have been done decades ago! We can increase the number of jobs in the sustainable energy industry to make the previous industries look piffling. We can export these products to the world; still enjoying the benefits of the world market (greed and profit!).

Why are we still standing around and trying to discuss whether or not there is any need to act? Greta is right! 'How Dare We!'
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