Greta Thunberg has blasted politicians as hypocrites and international climate summits as empty words and greenwash. Until humanity admits it has failed to tackle the climate crisis and begins treating it as an emergency like the coronavirus pandemic, society will be unable to stop global heating, she said.
In an interview with the Guardian, Thunberg said leaders were happy to set targets for decades into the future, but flinched when immediate action to cut emissions was needed. She said there was not a politician on the planet she would vote for: “If only,” said the teenager, who will turn 18 in January.
But she is inspired by the millions of students who have taken up the school strike she began by herself in Sweden 116 weeks ago. Since then she has addressed the UN and become the world’s most prominent climate campaigner. She also has hope: “We can treat a crisis like a crisis, as we have seen because of the coronavirus. Treating the climate crisis like a crisis – that could change everything overnight.”
Thunberg said the scale and speed of the emissions reductions needed to keep global temperature close to the limit set by the Paris climate agreement are so great that they cannot be achieved by the normal operation of society. “Our whole society would just shut down and too many people would suffer,” she said.
“So the first thing we need to do is understand we are in an emergency [and] admit the fact that we have failed – humanity collectively has failed – because you can’t solve a crisis that you don’t understand,” Thunberg said.
A vital UN climate summit had been scheduled to begin on Monday in Glasgow but has been postponed for a year because of Covid-19. Thunberg, however, said she was not disappointed by the delay: “As long as we don’t treat the climate crisis like a crisis, we can have as many conferences as we want, but it will just be negotiations, empty words, loopholes and greenwash.”
She is also unimpressed with pledges by nations including the UK, China and Japan to reach net zero by 2050 or 2060. “They mean something symbolically, but if you look at what they actually include, or more importantly exclude, there are so many loopholes. We shouldn’t be focusing on dates 10, 20 or even 30 years in the future. If we don’t reduce our emissions now, then those distant targets won’t mean anything because our carbon budgets will be long gone.”
Thunberg is particularly scathing about the EU’s MEPs who in October approved almost €400bn (£360bn) in subsidies for farmers, the majority of which has weak or non-existent green conditions attached. Agriculture is responsible for about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, and Thunberg said: “It is a disaster for the climate and for biodiversity.”
She said MEPs had asked for her support in September when the EU was deciding its target for emissions cuts by 2030. “When it’s about something that is in 10 years’ time, they are more than happy to vote for it because that doesn’t really impact them. But when it’s something that actually has an effect, right here right now, they don’t want to touch it. It really shows the hypocrisy.”
Thunberg said there were no politicians she would vote for when she reaches voting age: “If only. I wish there was one politician or one party that was strong enough on these issues. Imagine how easy it would be if you could just support a politician.”
Justice is at the heart of her campaigning, Thunberg said. “That is the root of all this,” she said. “That’s why we are fighting for climate justice, social justice. They are so interlinked, you can’t have one without the other.”
“The climate crisis is just one symptom of a much larger crisis, [including] the loss of biodiversity, the loss of fertile soil but also including inequality and threats to democracy,” she said. “These are symptoms that we are not living sustainably: we have reached the end of the road.”
On campaigning, Thunberg said: “We need to do everything we can to push in the right direction. But I don’t see the point of being optimistic or pessimistic, I’m just realistic. That doesn’t mean I’m not happy, I’m very happy. You need to have fun, and I’m having much more now than before I started campaigning for this. When your life gets meaning you become happy.”
She said she was inspired by fellow school strikers. “It is so inspiring to see them because they are so determined and so brave,” Thunberg said. “In some countries, they even get arrested for striking. For instance, Arshak Makichyan in Russia, he had troubles with the police, but he just continues because he knows what he’s doing is right. And then also in places like China, Howey Ou is incredibly brave.”
The school strikers brought headline-grabbing crowds to the streets of cities and towns around the world before the coronavirus pandemic, but are now largely confined to online activism. “We are still around and we will have to keep pushing, unfortunately. But we will. We’re not planning to go away,” Thunberg said.