My Greta story
I spoke with the young activist after her powerful speech to members of Congress yesterday.
Welcome to HEATED, a Monday through Thursday newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis.
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Happy Thursday, hot stuff!
Today’s the last day of HEATED’s second week.
ICYMI, here’s a quick recap of what subscribers have gotten since Monday:
A conversation with MSNBC host Ali Velshi about the network’s 2-day presidential candidate climate forum. (Starts today)
Original reporting on why some Democrats are skipping the climate forum. We were the first to report that Vice President Joe Biden would be attending a fundraiser in Illinois instead.
A look inside what influential, big-pocketed climate deniers are doing during Climate Week NYC next week.
An exclusive peek behind my apocalyptic feature on climate-fueled global conflict for The New Republic. (Note: I’ll be talking about that for a full hour on NPR’s On Point tomorrow at 10 a.m.)
Today’s newsletter will focus on my experience yesterday meeting Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish activist who sailed to the U.S. on a boat and has taken the climate world by storm. I spoke with her, 17-year-old climate justice advocate Jerome Foster II, and climate scientists Mike McCracken and Brenda Ekwurzel in front of members of Congress in the House Ways and Means Committee room.
If you’ve valued any of this over the last week, and want it to keep going, please recommend HEATED to a friend. We’ll need everyone we can get once we launch paid subscriptions in a few weeks.
Now onto Greta.
My Greta story
The House Ways and Means Committee room is badass. When I walked in there on Wednesday, I thought, damn, this *would* be where rich dudes decide how much in taxes I should pay. The chairs look like they cost more than my stove. It’s cold and bright and smells like a bank.
The greenroom behind the dais is more like a railroad tunnel: dim, narrow, kind of creepy. That’s where I met Greta.
She was sitting in one of the dark leather chairs lining the walls, hunched over a stack of papers in her lap—the speech she was scheduled to give to members of Congress, media, and the public in the next half hour.
Initially, I was struck by how small she was. Since I’d only seen her on television and in internet videos, I guess I assumed she was adult-sized. But she’s not an adult. That’s kind of the point.
Greta was obviously tired. Who wouldn’t be after what she’d just done? Six days in Washington, D.C. making speeches, meeting with lawmakers, doing interviews; a few days prior in New York City, doing the same; and 15 days before that on boat to get there from Sweden.
A family friend sat next to Greta on the floor, her body position signaling that the teenager should, in that moment, be left alone. I obliged the unspoken request.
But I did need to talk to someone about what I was going to ask Greta later. The only reason I was there, after all, was because of her. Greta wanted to make sure members of Congress were not just listening to her, but to scientists and local activists—so she requested to do a panel with them. The panel needed a moderator, so there I was.
It hit me, though, that I had never interviewed a 16-year-old before—nor had I interviewed a person with Asperberg’s. These are obvious failings on my part as a reporter, but that was the reality. I didn’t want to fuck it up or ask something she wasn’t equipped to answer.
The family friend on the floor sensed my anxiety and came to talk with me—and thank God she did. I was going to ask Greta to expand on her Congressional testimony earlier in the day, when she said Swedes sometimes argue that Sweden shouldn’t act on climate change because the United States isn’t acting. “What else do people over there think about us?” I wanted to ask.
But the family friend said that would make Greta uncomfortable. “She cannot speak for the broad opinions of other people,” she said. She reminded me that Greta was simply a concerned teenager; not some expert in geopolitics.
So I took inspiration from Daily Show host Trevor Noah, who a few days prior had asked Greta her impression of New York City. I asked her what her impression was of Washington, D.C.
“Well, it is definitely calmer than I thought,” she said. “But everything is just happening so slow. And people are still talking, they’re just repeating the same things over and over again.
“I have met with so many politicians now here,” she continued. “It’s like they say the same things over and over again. And if it continues like that, we’re not going to get anywhere. We need to move forward from that, and actually transform words into actions. So my impression is that it is very calm, slow, and diplomatic, which has its up and downs.”
Struck by her characterization of D.C. as “diplomatic,” I asked her whether she believed a problem as urgent as climate change could be solved through bargaining and diplomacy—or if it needed to be treated more like a war.
“Of course it has to be diplomatic,” she replied. “But we cannot go on like this. We need to realize the urgency of this issue, and not just treat it like any other political issue, but actually treat it like the emergency it is. We have to step out of our comfort zones and not be afraid to do things that may not be popular. We need to care. We need to think long-term. We need to think about each other.”
Later, I asked how she has dealt with feelings of depression and anxiety surrounding the magnitude and seriousness of this crisis—because I know, from the emails I get, that she’s not the only one who’s dealt with them.
“When I started to do something—to take action, to try to make a difference instead of sitting in despair—that changed my life,” she said. “Because then that gives your life meaning . . . and that’s important, because things can sometimes seem meaningless. But to know that you can actually have an impact. Really, It makes you feel a lot better.
“So if not to save the world, then you can engage in activism to help yourself.”
Clearly I need to interview 16-year-olds more often.
Greta’s “I have a dream” speech
I’m glad I left Greta alone while she pored over her speech. Because I’ve heard a lot of speeches about climate change in the last six years. And the one she gave in the House Ways and Means Committee room was one of the few that made me stop taking notes and just listen.
I was recording, though, so here’s a transcribed excerpt:
The U.S. is a nation that to many is a country of dreams. I also have a dream.
That governments, political parties and corporations grasp the urgency of the climate crisis, and come together despite their differences as you would in an emergency, and take the measures required to safeguard the conditions for dignified life for everyone on earth.
Because then, we millions of schoolchildren can go back to school.
I have a dream that people in power, as well as the media, start treating this crisis like the existential emergency it is. So then I could go back to my sister and my dogs. Because I miss them.
In fact, I have many dreams. But this is the year 2019.
This is not the time and place for dreams.
This is the time to wake up.
This is a moment in history where we need to be wide awake. And yes, we need dreams. We can’t live without dreams.
But there is a time and place for everything. And dreams cannot stand in the way of telling it like it is. Especially not now.
And yet, wherever I go, I seem to be surrounded by fairy tales. Elected officials all across the political spectrum spending their time making up bedtime stories that soothe us. That make us go back to sleep.
These are feel-good stories about how we are going to fix everything. How wonderful everything is going to be when we’ve solved everything.
But the problem we are facing is not that we lack the ability to dream, or to imagine, a better world. The problem is that we need to wake up. It is time to face the reality, the facts, the science. And the science doesn’t speak of great opportunities to create the society we always wanted. It tells of unspoken human sufferings that will get worse and worse the longer we delay action. Unless we start to act now.
And yes, of course a transformed world that is sustainable will include lots of new benefits. But you have to understand, this is not primarily an opportunity to create new green jobs, new businesses, or economic growth. This is, above all, an emergency. And not just any emergency. This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced. And we need to react accordingly.
I’ve been told the full speech will be published in The Guardian at some point today. I recommend trying to track down the full thing once it’s up.
Man, what a day to start a section on suggestion actions, am I right??
In the spirit of Greta, I wanted to share this piece sent to me by Oxford-based reader Samuel Miller MacDonald (who also wrote the piece). He suggested sharing it, because it includes both free actions and non-free actions that he thinks are effective. Sam knows his shit; I used to edit his freelance pieces for The New Republic. So hopefully that’s helpful!
I’ve also gotten more than 50 e-mails from readers suggesting actions to take in response the Heartland Institute’s climate denier debate at the Marriott Marquis on Monday night in New York City. Here are a select few to get your weekend started:
From Louisiana-based reader Valerie Massimi:
In this very specific case I would suggest that your audience email or call the Marriott in question and or any Marriott property to complain that climate deniers are worse than hate groups because if their agendas move forward the whole population will suffer and die. We can shame them for hosting this group and refuse to patronize their business. Basically bombard them with critical emails, phone calls and visits.
From California-based reader Mary Rose LaBaron:
I love the idea of putting an inflatable pipeline through their lobby. I was reading Bill Mckibben’s New Yorker article last night that mentioned what Seattle protest had done in a Chase Bank lobby and I love it!
Now where do I get an inflatable pipeline for my local chapter of Extinction Rebellion ( of which I am a founding member)?
From New York-based reader Ken Young:
It’s simple: Ignore them. The majority of the American people understand that there is a climate change problem being made worse by what we do as human beings. Stay focused on that. As things continue to get worse (which they surely will, at least in the short term), the deniers will become a smaller and smaller part of the conversation.
Have more ideas for general action on climate change you’d like to suggest? E-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
OK, that’s all for now—thanks so much for reading HEATED!
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See you next week in New York.