By Prof. Will Steffen
I had just finished my opening presentation-conversation with Martin Hedberg, Sweden’s rock star meteorologist, at the annual climate forum in Stockholm. Many other interesting presentations were to follow.
But tension was already building around the large conference hall. The global day of school strikes for climate had dominated the news for several days, with a rapid rise in the count of countries and cities that were taking part. The Stockholm strike, featuring Greta Thunberg, was the epicentre.
I made a quick decision, grabbed my coat, and headed out of the conference hall. The conference organiser gave me a worried look and asked where I was going. “Jag är med Greta”, I responded – “I am with Greta”. It was a phrase often heard around the streets of Stockholm today.
Braving the grey skies and cold rain, I made my way to Stockholm’s central square. It was still an hour before the strike and the square was overflowing with people. You would have thought that Sweden had just won the World Cup in ice hockey.
The actual location of the rally was Mynttorget, another square that lies between the Swedish Parliament and the Palace. It was the lonely place where, in the middle of winter, Greta had rugged up and huddled there in her one-person strike.
The crowd that had gathered in the central square was so massive that we couldn’t make the 500 metre walk to Mynttorget on the narrow street that formed the direct route. So we split, but always with students in the lead, forming three long snakes of placard-carrying people weaving our way through central Stockholm.
Converging on Mynttorget, the square was quickly overflowing. People backed up into the Old Town, crowded on the stairs of the Palace, and amassed along the terrace of the Parliament building. A Stockholm friend of mine, whom I bumped into by chance at the rally, said he never seen a crowd this big in the city for any reason.
But this crowd was different from any I’d seen at a rally before. Dignified and respectful, it was dominated by girls, young women, mothers and grandmothers. Greta spoke for only a few minutes. She didn’t need to speak any longer. Her message was simple, direct and very powerful.
Future generations are facing an existential threat to their well-being from climate change. Now – not in two or three years – is our last chance to turn the system around. And the student strikes will continue to grow until fundamental change – starting with the elimination of fossil fuels from our economies – is achieved.
Sweden is a long way from Australia but Australia is front and centre in the firing line for climate action. Our vast fossil fuel resources – coal, gas, unconventional gas – are enough on their own to blow the entire planet’s remaining carbon budget for the Paris targets.
Greta and the thousands of school students around the world are laying down the challenge to us. They need a world they can live in.
Australia is a key country in the world in meeting Greta’s challenge. We could choose now to stop any new fossil fuel developments and, based on the principles of a fair transition, phase out all fossil fuel exports and usage over the next two decades. We could cross our own tipping point, from a laggard to a leader on climate change.
The world’s students are waiting for our answer.