By Mark Kaufman
In front of a hall of seated diplomats, Greta Thunberg delivered a particularly emotive speech at the New York City headquarters of the United Nations on Sept. 23.
Though, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist’s address to the U.N. Climate Action Summit was more like a four-minute scolding: Global governments have fallen woefully short of responding to relentlessly rising global temperatures, Thunberg emphasized.
“This is all wrong,” Thunberg began. “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!”
“For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear,” she added. “How dare you continue to look away, and come here saying that you are doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.”
Scientists have emphasized, repeatedly and in a deeply-vetted U.N. report, that modern civilization must curb the planet’s warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-Industrial Revolution temperatures to avoid the worst and ever-worsening consequences of climate change, namely extreme weather and the growing potential of irreversible planetary disruptions (such as catastrophic ice sheet collapse in Antartica).
“Limiting warming to 1.5 C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes,” Jim Skea, a leading IPCC scientist, said last year.
But Thunberg noted that global society continues to emit prodigious amounts of heat-trapping gases, particularly carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. Society will soon surpass its 1.5 C carbon budget, meaning the amount of carbon civilization can emit before heating the Earth beyond the 1.5 C mark.
“With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone in less than eight and a half years,” Thunberg said. “There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures today. Because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.”
Without a radical transformation of nations’ electrical generation, transportation, industrial, and agricultural sectors — particularly among the U.S., EU, China, and India — curbing temperatures at even 2 Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is now likely unfeasible, if not nearly impossible, to achieve.
Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions are now skyrocketing. CO2 levels haven’t been this high in at least 800,000 years — though more likely millions of years. What’s more, carbon levels are now rising at rates that are unprecedented in both the geologic and historic record.
“Right here, right now is where we draw the line,” concluded Thunberg. “The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”