I confess to mixed feelings about Sweden’s surprise world spokeswoman on climate change, the 16-year-old non-flying vegan Greta Thunberg. I was not ready for the harsh words of a child for world leaders, whom she chastised forcefully with the words, “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” She added, “The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you…” That speech put her on the world stage, in a spot that often seems designed for her unique persona. She is credited with wisdom well beyond her years and a sophistication that puts other world leaders to shame. Example: She has refused to accept awards offered her for her leadership on the issue, implying that the meaningless gesture of recognizing her efforts is not a substitute for doing something about the climate crisis.
Despite her obvious stature, there is mumbling, including among some of us who self-identify as “correct” on the climate issue. Is Thunberg an arrogant brat? How dare she lecture the world leaders on climate change without any credentials as a scientist. Is her appeal, the widespread public acceptance of her as a world leader on climate change, based on the forcefulness of her words and her stern demeanor and little else? Is she the world’s greatest actress? When she addresses the climate crisis, she is instantly credible. She believes the inaction of the current generation is robbing her generation and those that follow of a future.
With all this in mind and after weighing the evidence, I have accepted Thunberg as a legitimate leader on the issue. Looking at her simple message—we are not doing enough—through the lens of our fragile ecology of the Eastern Shore, leads one to question whether Maryland’s political leadership is taking the climate issue seriously enough. Though it isn’t clear what exactly can and should be done, I fear the answer is no, despite the record of most of our elected representatives. With some exceptions, all Maryland’s leaders are considered progressives on the issue, especially our two Senators. Even Republican Larry Hogan accepts climate change as a threat to the state and has proposed an action plan. But do all the proposals, both federal and state, do enough to address the pending climate crisis? Probably not.
Amazingly, a year without a major disaster is viewed by some as evidence that “weather is weather.” For many of us, consciously or unconsciously, a sense of immediate crisis escapes. We keep or buy gas-powered cars, keep our boats in the water, fly to Europe and elsewhere without a second thought, keep the AC cranked up, and maintain our diet of red meat. We think we should reform our ways, but there’s tomorrow to start that, right?
I am fast concluding that we need some sort of shock that will result in immediate, concrete steps to address climate change. This means not only enactment of some of the more painful proposals already out there, but also adoption of some actions that are currently inconceivable—things like deterring driving, rethinking food production and what we eat, and banning construction that guarantees decades of climate unfriendly practices—things such as AC, use of gas stoves, and lawn maintenance on the huge lots that are common practice in our rural area.
That’s a tall order. A few friends I discussed this piece with suggest that a huge climate-related event, or even a series of them, won’t succeed is shifting the global focus sufficiently to make change happen. Most also not only doubt but assume that actions in the US won’t be complemented by action elsewhere. If the US engages in huge sacrifices to save the earth but others don’t, what’s the point? I don’t have answers, but does that mean I should give up?
So, I am ready to listen to a 16-year-old (and others) if it means that the Eastern Shore (and, of course, the rest of the planet) will be here for my grandchildren to enjoy. I fear, however, that I will fail to act on my new-found commitment to be a “friend of the climate.” My record to date is not a good sign. I’m not sure I’m ready to abandon my comfortable home, move into a yurt, and go off the grid altogether. Like the rest of us, I need to figure out how to connect the dots, but don’t have a lot of time to do it.
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant. He is a former counsel to the House Committee on Education and Labor. For more than 30 years, he advised clients on federal education and social service policy.