Greta Thunberg’s rebuke of Congress last week took no prisoners and showed no favor to heroes of the left who have styled themselves friends of the environment.
Though Thunberg did not utter the words “Green New Deal,” she characterized partisan efforts that envision an idealized future as unhelpful dreams, and her criticism culminated in these words:
“No matter how political the background to this crisis may be, we must not allow this to continue to be a partisan political question. The climate and ecological crisis is beyond party politics. And our main enemy right now is not our political opponents. Our main enemy now is physics. And we can not make ‘deals’ with physics.”
The Achilles’ Heel of the Green New Deal is that it deploys the climate crisis as a liberal cause, which ensures conservative opposition.
The climate crisis is a universal cause.
Conservatives need a way to get on board. It’s difficult for them to support a policy that evokes the New Deal. And conservative opposition will relegate the Green New Deal to the realm of fantasy at least until a cataclysm arrives like the one that inspired the original New Deal.
We need a climate policy sooner than that.
To explain Greta’s sudden, global impact, people have begun speaking of her superpowers. One might be that at 16 she understands political reality better than some who have spent their lives in politics.
Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey has been in Congress more than 40 years, often leading the climate charge there, if we can call it a charge. Markey is one of the good guys on climate, by all accounts, one of the best. I’ll long remember the night he and I walked out of the Copenhagen Climate Conference at the same moment and strolled together toward the bus stop. How nice, I thought, Markey is taking the bus. But halfway there a long black limousine sidled up to the curb and Markey climbed in. You see, he’s no Greta.
Maybe that mixture of partisan fantasy and convenient compromise explains why Markey, climate’s champion in Congress, hasn’t gotten the job done. It is perhaps why even in a Democratically-controlled Congress, with a Democratic president, the Waxman-Markey Bill failed. His Green New Deal may get us no closer.
“Wherever I go I seem to be surrounded by fairytales. Business leaders, elected officials all across the political spectrum spending their time making up and telling bedtime stories that soothe us, that make us go back to sleep. These are ‘feel-good’ stories about how we are going to fix everything. How wonderful everything is going to be when we have ‘solved’ everything. But the problem we are facing is not that we lack the ability to dream, or to imagine a better world. The problem now is that we need to wake up. It’s time to face the reality, the facts, the science. And the science doesn’t mainly speak of ‘great opportunities to create the society we always wanted’. It tells of unspoken human sufferings, which will get worse and worse the longer we delay action – unless we start to act now. And yes, of course a sustainable transformed world will include lots of new benefits. But you have to understand. This is not primarily an opportunity to create new green jobs, new businesses or green economic growth. This is above all an emergency, and not just any emergency. This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced.”
Greta can’t remember the last time we learned this lesson about partisanship, because she hadn’t been born yet. But Markey must remember it.
The Republican Party used to support climate action. We owe our participation in the Paris Agreement not just to Barack Obama, who committed us to it, but to George H.W. Bush, who ratified the treaty that created the United Nations Framework on Climate Change.
But when Al Gore ran for president in 2000, climate change became a partisan issue, and the climate denialism that had been lurking in damp, self-interested corners of the culture went mainstream in the Republican Party. What better way to discredit the candidate they called “Ozone.”
Before long, Republicans could scarcely admit that science was true without being ousted from office by the Tea Party. And now denialism is personified in the Commander in Chief.
That’s what partisan politics gets you.
So Greta resists the temptation to side with the friendlies. It was Obama who told Greta, over a fistbump last week, “You and me, we’re a team.” And though Greta went along with that, she didn’t change her message.
Moments later, speaking to Obama’s Capitol Hill allies, including Markey, she said, “I know you’re trying, but just not hard enough.”
To me, Greta’s most important superpower is her integrity. She’s not going to take a limo back to the hotel. She’s not going to compromise for convenience. She’s not going to compromise for feel-good friends or would-be allies. She’s not going to seduce us with utopian palliatives. She’s going to keep telling the truth.
She sailed here just to insist that we read and heed the science.
Integrity secures her a place in the history of activism. For a quality so simple, so straightforward, she appears in the company of lions of non-violence, endurance and compassion—Gandhi and King, Mandela, Mother Theresa and Tenzin Gyatso—this prescient Swedish teen with an uncompromising call for us to hear the unvarnished truth.
But she doesn’t want our praise. She wants us to take real action. Let’s do.