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Greta Thunberg has recently become the key symbol of, and inspiration for, a new generation of climate activists. As an effective communicator on climate change, the 16-year-old Swede is currently in a league of her own.
Scientific communication doesn’t translate well into appropriate political action, as numerous scholars on this topic have pondered recently. The language used in climate communications has frequently been unhelpful, as has the failure of many climate advocates to effectively link research to action that relates to the everyday lives of the public.
As a professor and researcher working on climate change, the security threats it presents and how people both understand the dangers and pose political responses, it has become clear to me that the language being used about climate action is often seriously misleading.
Thunberg’s success is due in part to the fact that she’s had a substantial impact over how people relate to climate issues. By her actions, as well as her simple and very direct speeches, she’s called out numerous politicians whose failure to act endangers her future. She neatly inverts the usual cultural assumption that the adults should educate children.
Her success is not just because she took what is usually understood to be a radical step by going on strike. She also uses a simple but important metaphor by referring to our house being on fire. And she focuses her attention on the key point that, if anyone is remotely interested in the long-term future for children, then politicians need to act on the urgent warnings being repeatedly issued by climate scientists.
Fires fit into her narrative
Choosing the right figure of speech is important in any communication, and Thunberg’s focus on the simple point about our house being on fire is key. Forest fires are getting attention around the world, including recent blazes in Indonesia and Brazil. The damage being done by climate change-fuelled fires fits simply into her narrative.
Unlike warfare and images of climate struggles that are only sometimes effective in getting attention, Thunberg focuses on something that much more obviously relates to everyday life and the dangers to it: Not only is our house on fire, but the fire department has vanished.
At the heart of the climate change issue is the fact that those of us in the developed world are burning huge amounts of inflammable materials to power our homes, vehicles, factories and much else. Coal, oil and natural gas are being consumed in huge amounts and the resulting gases are heating the planet and causing weather patterns to become much more dangerous.
The governments that should be preventing fires are, by subsidizing and encouraging the development of fossil fuels, encouraging us to burn more stuff. This is disrupting societies due to disasters, storms, wildfires and floods. Our house is indeed being burned. The more we burn the worse this is going to get.
Going on strike is usually understood to be a radical act, something done when negotiation and persuasion fail. But for Thunberg, anxious to ensure a future for herself and her generation, it is really not a radical act at all; it is really something very conservative.
Traditional conservative desires
A future in which one can live well, have children and obtain a decent job, maintaining a world of predictable social order, is what conservatives usually wish for.
Instead, so-called conservatives across much of the English-speaking world are telling us we have to burn more stuff — oil, gas and coal — and ship it around the world so others can join in on burning things as well.
They are ignoring the warnings from climate sciences about the obvious predictable consequences if we continue to do so. Even a few more decades of unrestrained combustion will make things much, much worse, setting in motion disruptions that no human fire department will be able to contain.
There is nothing remotely conservative about assuming we can destabilize the climate system and somehow society will be fine because at least some people have amassed major wealth with money made by burning things.
With the consequences of climate change now clear, and the science able to much more accurately predict what is coming if we stay on our existing course of using ever more fossil fuels, it is the fossil fuel industry, its propagandists and supporters who are the radicals, and very dangerous ones at that.
This is the point that Thunberg has managed to make so very effectively. No wonder they are so angry at her.
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Written by Simon Dalby, Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies, Wilfrid Laurier University