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Monday, October 19, 2020

Great speeches of history #2 - Greta Thunberg at the United Nations



Greta Thunberg’s address to the United Nations in New York on September 23rd, 2019 was a remarkable part of a remarkable story. A teenage girl had gone from being seen as a lone eccentric protester to becoming an international celebrity and the voice of the world’s conscience on climate change. In this speech she combines passionate feeling with a forensically logical presentation of the case for immediate action on climate change.

My message is that we'll be watching you.

Thunberg immediately challenges and engages her audience, both in the hall and around the world, by using the second person (‘you’).

This is all wrong. I shouldn't be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean.

Short, sharp, direct sentences, presenting in an uncompromising tone what is wrong with the status quo.

Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.

Again, a direct address to her listeners, making us all implicit in what is wrong with the status quo.

And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing.

Now she moves on to verbs, ‘suffering’, ‘dying’, ‘collapsing’, pointing us to what is happening in the world around us.

We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!

She sets up a dichotomy - a division into two - between what is happening (‘mass extinction’) and what we wish was happening (‘eternal economic growth’).

For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you're doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.

You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.

Now she’s focusing on pronouns. ‘You’ - initially her audience at the United Nations in New York, but by implication all of us, are failing; but ‘I’ - initially her, but by implication our own better side, still has hope. She’s done the work of pointing out what’s wrong with the status quo, the ‘now’; at this point she needs to show us the potential for a better ‘then’. A speech that is all despair and no hope will get few listeners.

The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5 degrees [Celsius], and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control. Fifty percent may be acceptable to you. But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of equity and climate justice. They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist. So a 50% risk is simply not acceptable to us — we who have to live with the consequences. To have a 67% chance of staying below a 1.5 degrees global temperature rise – the best odds given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the world had 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit back on Jan. 1st, 2018. Today that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatons. How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just 'business as usual' and some technical solutions? With today's emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than 8 1/2 years.

This is a passage heavy in what Aristotle would call logos. It has facts, figures, deductions from data. But mixed in there also is what Aristotle called pathos; an appeal to guilt and shame with the repetition of ‘How dare you?’

There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today, because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is. You are failing us.

Now she moves back to the second person, directly accusing her listeners of failing to respond to the clear logic of the data. She might be addressing the UN, but we all feel implicated.

The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.

By switching pronouns from ‘you’ to ‘we’, she moves from accusation to action, from anger to agency. The ‘we’ can take control and respond. We can move from being the ‘you’ who are accused to being the ‘we’ who act. So shame leads to action; this is the purpose of her speech.

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