World needs greater diversity in its climate action champions
Greta Thunberg turned 18 on Sunday, but it feels as though the world’s most influential climate change activist has been around for so long that the news is hard to process.
Thunberg’s story is inspiring for so many reasons (let us not forget she has Asperger syndrome). If, by the time you become eligible to vote, you have already been named Time magazine’s Person of the Year, inspired millions of people to take part in a global climate strike and crossed the Atlantic upwind in a yacht to deliver an address at the UN climate action summit, what is the plan for the rest of your life?
So perhaps, if we concede that the pressures of global celebrity are also a strain on someone so young, the most positive way of framing the story of Thunberg’s meteoric rise onto the world stage, which began in August 2018, when she sat on a solo school strike outside the Swedish parliament, is to think of her support base. Thunberg is the unlikely face of the only major global movement for change in which the youth have a voice proportionate to their demographic size and stake in the outcome.
A number of major studies (such as a 2019 22-country survey of 10,000 people aged 18 to 25 by Amnesty International) show that, globally, young people are far more likely to think of climate change as the greatest issue of our age and to demand immediate and radical action by governments and institutions, which is our only hope of slowing climate change to manageable levels. Further, Thunberg’s rallying call for climate strikes — a phrase that has now entered the popular consciousness — is a continuation of the long tradition of nonviolent mass civil resistance that has produced so much transformative change in the last century.
Of course, one can respectfully disagree with Thunberg on some of her stances, arguing that, as a young adult raised in the developed world, she does not appreciate the complexity of the trade-offs between environmental action and economic growth. Thunberg has herself admitted that, partly because of her neurodevelopmental disorder, “I see the world in black and white, and I don’t like compromising.”
Thankfully, then, the second-most prominent global personality on climate change is almost the polar opposite of Thunberg. At 94, the legendary British naturalist and television personality David Attenborough was born not just in a different century to Thunberg but, scientifically speaking, in a different age. “I arrived in this world during a period geologists call the Holocene and I will leave it — as will every one of us alive today — in the Anthropocene, the time of humans,” Attenborough wrote in his recent book “A Life on Our Planet.” He adds that this new period “could prove to be uniquely brief in geological history and one that ends in the ultimate disappearance of human civilization.”
The message is a sobering one but, unlike Thunberg, the tone is not strident: It is the sound of experience rather than innocence. And, as a naturalist and wildlife expert, Attenborough comes to climate change from a different starting point. His concern for its potential effects on the human race come folded into a larger appeal for us to protect the world’s astonishing biodiversity.
Why are the global faces of the movement invariably white and Western, with others consigned to the realm of the ‘local’?
Indeed, some critics have accused Attenborough of facing up to the realities of climate change far too late in his immensely influential television programs (he admits to only being fully convinced of the scientific reality of anthropogenic climate change in 2004). And, as someone who has flown several million miles over the last 50 years to capture the diversity of life on earth (Thunberg, in contrast, refuses to take any flights), Attenborough probably has a larger carbon footprint than anyone alive.
Even so, persuasion and change come in many different packages and who can deny that the climate action movement needs a moderate, courteous, authoritative voice like Attenborough’s. He is someone who can show us what is at stake by reminding us of our place in the entire web of life, and in so doing allow us to transcend the selfish anthropocentric perspective that created the climate crisis in the first place and continues to perpetuate it.
On the subject of climate action, then, one might see Thunberg and Attenborough as two different kinds of shepherd of the human flock — they even met (virtually) for a 2019 show on BBC Radio 4. But even if we accept the huge credibility and legitimacy of this odd and inspiring pair, we must still confront some other unsettling questions about the politics of climate change activism today.
Why are the global faces of the movement invariably white and Western, with climate activists from India and the Middle East, Africa and South America predictably consigned to the realm of the “local?” What does it say about the world’s media, and even ourselves, that we pay a different kind of attention to Thunberg and Attenborough than we do to the longstanding climate activism and wisdom of Wangari Maathai and Sunita Narain? Do we have ears for the indigenous Brazilian climate activist Artemisa Xakriaba or the young Ugandan Vanessa Nakate (who last year found herself cropped out of a group photo of herself and four other youth climate activists, including Thunberg, by the media agency the Associated Press)?
If we are to make a success of climate action in the coming decades, when the climate-aware youth of today turn into world leaders, we will have to embrace a more diverse set of voices than Attenborough and Thunberg, diverse as they themselves are.
• Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist and writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.