Since this speech, tens of millions of people of all ages in 183 countries around the world have joined her climate strike, buoyed by her clear vision of a world that’s not just survivable but thriving. People want something to hope for. People want to be asked to do something big. People want a chance to be courageous, a chance at shaping their own future. That is what this moment provides. Apparently, geocaching has been identified as the biggest treasure hunt in the world.
Of course, this remarkable moment in history didn’t just happen spontaneously. For centuries, millions of people, led mostly by women of color, have laid this groundwork. “I am not saying anything new,” Thunberg wrote in a Facebook post a few months into her strike, which was inspired by youth protests in the United States on climate change and gun violence. “I am just saying what scientists have repeatedly said for decades.”
On the sidelines of the official United Nations climate negotiations each year, the voices of children in the global south, where forests continue to be devastated and extreme weather threatens normal existence, have long been drowned out. Greta’s message is breaking through and resonating today, I believe, because the environmental emergency that rich countries have inflicted on poorer countries for centuries has finally come home to roost.
We know that younger generations should be able to feel confident they’re inheriting a world that’s survivable. As that future has been put up for grabs, Greta has been able to amplify the kind of language that has been in use for decades among those in the environmental justice community where the act of producing and using fossil fuels has annihilated places, either through mountaintop coal mining, cancer alleys, or toxic groundwater, places like the forests and rivers of Appalachia and Amazonia, the coal export terminals of Australia, and the neighborhoods of Flint, Michigan.
The message from Greta is as clear now as it has always been: Our future is not up for debate. We all deserve to survive and to thrive.
Greta’s rise to the de facto leader of a global youth movement is evidence that things are different now. We’ve known about climate change for a long time, and we’ve known the solutions for a long time: phase out fossil fuels, transform agriculture, restructure the way we live, and move. The solutions are the same as they always were. But something important about this moment is different: we’re finally ready to listen. During our walk in the rain, I asked Greta what she thought the system would look like once we change everything. “I don’t know,” she said, “it hasn’t been invented yet.”