Climate icon Greta Thunberg finds that political change is ‘complicated’ – POLITICO
STRASBOURG — Turns out that building a global climate change protest movement was the easy part.
Now 16-year-old climate icon Greta Thunberg is getting an up-close look at why politicians are having trouble turning her demands into policy.
“I have learned that anything can happen, but also learned how things work, how complicated everything is,” she told POLITICO on Tuesday about her political learning curve since starting her climate strikes last summer.
“It’s not just pressing a button and something happens, everyone has to agree — I have definitely started to understand more how everything works,” she said after watching the European Parliament’s Strasbourg plenary session from the visitors’ seats.
It’s a path traveled by other protestors who have tried to turn their demands into policy.
“Our house is falling apart, and we are rapidly running out of time, and yet basically nothing is happening” — Greta Thunberg
Rebecca Harms, 62, a German Green MEP, cut her teeth as an anti-nuclear protester in the 1980s before becoming a politician. She understands the messy compromises that are a part of politics, but which infuriate those who want fast action.
“We’re making the political calculations: climate and jobs, new technologies versus old technologies, who’s working where today, and who’s working where in the future, how much are products, a warm house, transport,” she said.
Svante Thunberg, Greta’s father who’s traveling with her, said that one of the main things his daughter has taken away from her political activism over the past months is “her perception of democracy.”
She’s been visiting negotiators doing “the boring work” behind treaties and policies, learning about how politics works and that “treaties can be changed … It’s hopeful to see democracy is actually working,” he said.
That’s not to say star power isn’t useful, and Thunberg has that in spades.
Starting with a solitary strike outside the Swedish parliament last summer, hundreds of thousands of students have followed her lead to protest for greater climate efforts, and politicians are feeling the heat to do more to cut emissions.
While watching the plenary session, she received standing ovations from some MEPs — including Manfred Weber, the European People’s Party candidate to be next Commission president.
Her high profile has also made her a political target, and some politicians have dismissed her as a pawn of the environmental movement and her climate crusade as ideological. Not all political groupings were in favor of her appearing before the Parliament’s environment committee.
Thunberg makes for uncomfortable listening for politicians, but there can be an aspect of self-flagellation as they line up to get chastised for their inaction by the diminutive, pig-tailed Swede.
It’s something Thunberg did at December’s COP24 summit and before world leaders in Davos in January, and MEPs on Tuesday got the same treatment.
“Our house is falling apart, and we are rapidly running out of time, and yet basically nothing is happening,” she told the environment committee. “Everyone and everything has to change so why waste precious time arguing about what and who needs to change first?”
Her demands go way beyond the EU’s hard-won 2030 climate targets. Those goals reflect a careful balance between national interests, as well as concern about losing competitiveness to other major economies. But that doesn’t cut ice with a campaigner (and Nobel Peace Prize nominee) who sees climate change as the defining issue of our age.
“We have not treated this crisis as a crisis; we see it as another problem that needs to be fixed. But it is so much more than that. It’s an existential crisis, more important than anything else” — Greta Thunberg
“When I tell politicians to act now, the most common answer is that they can’t do anything drastic, because that would be too unpopular among voters. And they are right of course. Since most people are not even aware of why those changes are required. That is why I keep telling you to unite behind the science — make the best available science the heart of politics and democracy,” she told MEPs.
She is scathing about the calculations that politicians have to make. “They talk about the same things,” betting on some future technologies “that will solve everything” or championing their party proposals as something “everyone has been waiting for,” she told POLITICO. But “it doesn’t seem like they’re open to actually change as drastically as they have to.”
“We have not treated this crisis as a crisis; we see it as another problem that needs to be fixed. But it is so much more than that. It’s an existential crisis, more important than anything else,” she said.
A popular attraction
But many politicians let the harsh words wash over them — keen to bask in Thunberg’s popularity.
In Strasbourg, her afternoon appearance drew huge crowds of politicians, aides, journalists and other hangers-on. She was met with rousing ovations — almost swallowed up in the crowds of people keen to get a glimpse of her.
“I’ve never seen so many politicians in an environment committee, applauding for someone who is basically saying you’re not doing enough,” said Bas Eickhout, one of two Green candidates to become the next European Commission president. “Everyone is applauding … this is fascinating to see.”
Committee Chair Adina-Ioana Vălean, a Romanian conservative, called her visit a “spectacular” end to the environment committee’s term.
Thunberg’s head isn’t being turned by all the praise. “When you walk around in here, it’s very shallow, everyone acts, no one is themselves, it’s fancy titles,” she told POLITICO earlier in the day.
But for Harms, the flash around Thunberg’s appearance has to translate into pressure to push through difficult compromises needed to cut emissions and decarbonize. “Greta is creating great momentum but, so far, we haven’t dealt with it like clever and grown-up climate politicians,” Harms said after the meeting.
“Those who are serious about climate policy don’t just join the queue to get a photograph with Greta but start explaining that there are many opportunities out there to make better climate protection policy … and why we at times fail when we try to push stricter legislation,” she said.