On Joe on Greta

A lot of ink has been spilled on the subject of Greta Thunberg, and each analysis inevitably says far more about the writer than it does about Greta. She serves as a sort of canvas on which the world can paint their views on all sorts of subjects: climate change, teenagers, school, privilege, disability…

Take Joe Hildebrand’s response. I sometimes read his stuff because a friend forwards it to me, and also because he’s a friend of a friend. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I don’t. But always, I find problems with his articles which are fairly symptomatic of the problems I have with the media in general.

1. The first problem I find is that the articles seem to be written in great haste – without much time allowed for research, digging deeper, presenting facts. Perhaps this is just part of how journalists are required to operate today. They have to respond to a topic while it’s “trending”. Taking a week to collect thoughts, focus on the subject, read a range of views and check facts is just not part of the job description (although, having said that, Joe has taken two weeks to put this article on Greta together, since her appearance in New York on September 23rd).

2. Secondly, I always find myself irritated by the word salad of expressions, analogies and metaphors he serves up, where sense gets sacrificed on the altar of alliteration (sorry). E.g. “Greta Thunberg, the electric sceptic who has electrified both the left and right like a 50-amp fuse”, and “the world officially floats along on this little fig leaf”

Fig leaves don’t sail the oceans, they cover the awkward stuff in life, like penises.

As for Greta, is she a sceptic of electricity? Or did he mean “eclectic” ? She’s not a climate change sceptic … so what’s she sceptical about? Fuses don’t “electrify” stuff, they stop things from being electrified when the current exceeds the fuse rating.

3. Third: Joe tells us that “there is one question that remains unasked and unanswered: What exactly is she trying to achieve?” and then immediately goes on to answer it.

Given the great unasked / unanswered question has now handily been asked and answered, he changes the U&U Question from what (does she want) to how (will it be done) and who (will do it). His main problem with Greta’s demand seems to be that she doesn’t have a plan for stopping climate change, but at the same time notes that no-one who hasn’t finished high school could be expected to have a plan.

In short, you can’t demand that a problem be solved unless you have the solution, and you can’t have the solution if you’re only 16. We can cut out the middle part and connect the logic: you can’t ask for the problem to be solved if you’re only 16.

Now, it seems to me that Greta’s argument is precisely the opposite of this logic: I am asking you to solve the problem because I am only 16.

This is also the force of her demand, I think. It’s because she is only 16, she cannot fix it. And yet, she will inherit the problem.

4. Fourth: Joe continues the point about (“hysterical”) 16 year-olds not having a legitimate basis for a demand that something be done with an odd question: “all of my climate change-believing friends are equally perplexed: How on earth did a rational debate once led by professors in lab coats get hijacked by hysterical teenagers in hoodies?”

There are a lot of strange ideas in this one question which perplexes Joe and all of his friends… (it makes me wonder if they are often perplexed). Let’s unpick this.

I’m not sure what Joe is referring to when he talks about the “debate”. In scientific terms, there is no real “debate” about climate change and has not been for a long time. One of the most widely cited (and famous) climate science papers was published before Joe was born, in 1967 by Manabe and Wetherald. Far from being dangerous hyperbole of the “hysterical” Swedish teenager (or Tim Flannery) variety, their model has proved to be surprisingly accurate (as are other models). There is scientific consensus on the fact of anthropogenic climate change. The scientific version of the “debate” if you want to call it that, is around modelling details and where mitigation efforts should concentrate.

So the “debate” about climate change is led by politicians, not “professors in lab coats”, and has been since Joe himself was about 16 years old, when Margret Thatcher gave a speech to the United Nations, warning of the threat that climate change posed (in 1989). That was thirty years ago. Think about that. 30 years. A whole generation has grown up, studied, got jobs and had kids, knowing this is a problem. And yet, it is still a problem.

As soon as the debate moved out of the labs and into politics, it also ceased to be “rational” because politics is not a rational science, like atmospheric physics.

And because this problem has existed in politics since Joe was 16 and has continued to get worse exactly as it was predicted it would, today’s 16 year-olds are paying attention.  They’re not satisfied with Joe’s “tackling climate change is complicated”. Which brings us to Joe’s last point:

5. Fifth: Older and wiser heads. Joe writes “The good news is that older and wiser heads have been working on these questions for years, sensible scientists and pragmatic policymakers who are constantly racking their brains and pressing the flesh to come up with workable solutions to a problem that is as excruciating as it is existential.”

I’m not sure that it’s really “good news” that the older and wiser heads have been working on the problem “for years”, given the current lack of progress. If Joe spoke to his close friend who works on UN emissions trading and abatement schemes, I’m not sure his friend would have much good news to report. This friend knows, for example, that emissions trading schemes worth their salt are created (and enforced) by elected governments, not UN technicians, and they are just as easily dismantled by elected governments.

As it happens, I also work on these problems. I’m one of the “older and wiser heads”, (perhaps) even a “sensible” and “pragmatic” engineer, who is (definitely) constantly racking my brain to come up with workable solutions. And I can tell Joe that yes, tackling climate change is complicated, but no it is not complicated for technical reasons. I am familiar with the CDM stuff his close friend at the UN is beavering away on, because I also have seen the extraordinarily complicated technical marginal impact calculations. But if you think that is why climate change is complicated, you haven’t understood the problem.

Tackling climate change is complicated because it requires decisions over the use of resources which create winners and losers. Intra and inter-national winners and losers. Which means climate change is about local, and international politics. It requires clear thinking, and intellectual honesty about the problems and trade offs we face. About who the winners and losers will be. It requires us not to conflate issues, not to use climate change to pursue our other political agendas. It means compromising on other agendas. In short, it requires us not to be the animals that we are. It literally requires a superhuman effort – going beyond anything our species has historically been capable of in terms of cooperation.

I don’t expect Greta to be this superhuman – and holding her to these sorts of standards is unreasonable. But it’s also unreasonable to think that after 40 years of insufficient action in the hands of the “older and wiser heads”, something is going to change.

Greta is right to be angry. She is right to blame adults. She will not have the answers. A truly adult response to Greta would be to reflect on how we can live up to our children’s expectations, what difficult choices we need to make to protect their future. Not to expect her to solve the mess we have presided over.

Adults assume responsibility. And we are not doing that.