#08: How Fridays For Future became a game changer

Dec. 15, 2020

Greta and the Fridays For Future movement are frequent targets of hatred, mistrust, and attacks. That means, what they're doing works. Here, I try to put some sense into the most common accusations against them.

After having watched the new documentary on Greta Thunberg I couldn't help but reminiscing about that moment several years ago when it all started. When this Swedish girl sat down in front of the Parliament to call for stronger action on climate change, a new era of conscience had started. To be honest, I can hardly recall how the media handled climate change before that day in August 2015. And there are two reasons for that which may be interlinked: 1. The media didn't cover climate change topics a lot (compared to today), and 2. I didn't know/care about it too much either. Both of these points have changed remarkably and this is due to Greta sitting down in front of this parliament building.

My own personal jump start on climate

If I had to put a very crude timeline on my own involvement in climate science communication it would probably look like this: First, Greta sits down as already mentioned. Next, Friday's For Future becomes a global movement. And aside from many encouraging voices, the movement also causes a remarkable backlash in media channels. People get mad, politicians are smiling at first, then they start blustering when they realise this will not go away anytime soon. And this backlash is peppered with a huge spread of misinformation on (i) climate science, (ii) climate scientists, and (iii) the kids taking part in the movement. As this scenario evolved, basically everyone started having their opinions on the matter. Not few of these opinions were not made through thorough scientific research, but rather by consuming either favouring or damning media accounts on the movement. Which is understandable... I mean, who has the time or the expertise to perform scientific research to fully understand climate change and its impact? How hard (but not impossible) it is to build your own opinion on such a complex topic I covered with my blog post #02: What does the science say?, so I'll spare you this one here. It's sufficient to say that people who were obviously and intensely misinformed on the topic of climate change were suddenly spewing their misinformation everywhere, also in my closest proximity. Ultimately, this caused myself to find an interest in climate change, its underlying scientific foundations, and - maybe most of all - the widespread false information on the topic that is littering the internet.

I became aware that I arrived pretty late in this game. Humans being the main contributors to climate change were identified decades ago and a scientific consensus on the matter was found soon after. Think tanks powered with fossil fuel money were distributing dangerous misinformation to put doubt on climate science and scientists. And many people were falling for that. When I started my investigations into the topic I had to realise that this had been going on for quite some time without myself knowing too much about it. And given that there really is quite a lot at stake for us, it came as a surprise to me how badly I was informed. Maybe I would still be sitting in my cave of ignorance if it hadn't been for Greta sitting down in August 2015. So first of all: Thanks, Greta.


She made me do it

As of today my views towards climate change and science communication have changed by a lot. I am actively working with the team of Skeptical Science, a non-profit science education organisation, run by a global team of volunteers. Don't be deterred by the name of the organisation (it is known that science deniers have hi-jacked the term "skeptic", which I discuss in blog post #07: On Skepticism and Scientific Research) - we are working on scientifically debunking misinformation on climate change and are a go-to-page even for renowned climate scientists and have been endorsed by the New York Times as one of the best pages to get your climate facts. Furthermore I am an active member of the Citizens' Climate Lobby Germany and try to do my best in living my life in a responsible way, climate-wise. Last but not least I am trying to help people who feel insecure about climate change, its reality and urgency, to find a way of understanding the complex mechanisms in an easily digestable way (e.g. by writing this blog). After some years of working on these topics (not by "doing my own research", but rather by eagerly learning from climate scientists, psychologists, and communication professionals), I feel comfortable in standing in for my own opinions on the matter and I absolutely do not feel confused about the complexity of the topic and the circulating misinformation anymore. The fact that I have started to work in this field of communicating science and helping to combat misinformation has made me feel much better about the looming threat of climate change.

But as good as this has made me feel, this is not an article about me, but about Greta and Fridays For Future. It was simply a necessary prerequisite to let the reader know what the movement means for me personally and how it has changed my own worldview. But the focus needs to lie on the people that deserve it. And Greta and the other kids have taken a lot of shit over the years from media, politicians, think tanks, and just plainly by many every day people. As I mentioned before, every one seems to have an opinion on the matter and many are not afraid to stand in for it. Especially the misinformed can appear surprisingly vocal. German Comedian Dieter Nuhr, for example, had a great time making fun of Greta and the movement, spilling wisdom on those silly kids that don't know about live and mobility. How can they believe that some sun rays will suffice to provide enough energy for our world (for an approximation whether this is actually realistic read my blog post #04: Are renewables capable of providing enough energy for the world?). And why are they not putting away their cell phones and video games... since all of these technologies are a part of the problem? They should go back to school, where they belong. If they care so much for the climate, they should visit some lectures on physics in order to become scientists and really help the world. He was far from the only one who offered these kinds of criticisms on Greta and Fridays For Future. But his utterances make a pretty good summary of the wide spread attacks on them. And since I don't like his guts, I chose him to represent the group of people opposed to the Fridays For Future movement. I'm sure he wouldn't mind. So let's dive into these attacks and see how much truth is to them.

You damn kids... get off my lawn!

Let's recapture: Nuhr states that kids don't know enough to engage in this complex topic. They should leave the problem to be solved by politicians and scientists, most of all: grown-ups. One cannot help but assume he feels a bit patronised or even attacked and intimidated by these determined teenagers. So he simply denies them expertise. And he is right to do so. Because although these kids are obviously much better informed on climate change than he is, they have no proper expertise on the matter. But what most people are getting wrong about Fridays For Future: These kids are not trying to tell politicians how to solve this problem. They can't. Instead, they are telling politicians to listen to the climate scientists, who have the required expertise. This is their central claim: Listen to the scientists! They do not claim to know it all better or to be the bearers of wisdom. They are kids. Kids that ask the grown-ups to listen to the scientists. Which they should do. In a related matter, the German politician Christian Lindner (FDP) said about Fridays For Future that these kids should leave the work for the real scientists. Funnily enough, the very next day after his speech on the topic the Scientists For Future declared their long prepared collaborative endorsement of Fridays For Future, rendering Lindners statement ridiculous. I am proud to be a signing member of this initiative and the timing was just perfect.


Next up: If these kids care so much about the environment, why don't they put away their smart phones and video games and emails? Critics are correct in pointing out that technical devices such as cell phones or other gadgets are in sum harmful to our planet and the climate. Just like sending emails causes CO2 emissions by increasing energy consumption of computers, routers, and servers. Let's not kid ourselves (pun intended): We are all living lives with a huge demand in energy and this demand is growing. It starts with the light switch we use when entering a room, includes all technical gadgets like phones, watches, televisions, microwaves, computers, refrigerators... not to talk about new technologies such as drones, Alexas and Siris, automated vacuum cleaners, and other helpful robotic devices. The list seems endless and is steadily increasing. And blaming these kids for using their cell phones - one of the most crucial and central technology of the last 20 years - is just ridiculous. And it is one of the 5 characteristics of denial employed by opponents of science (see this CNN article on the characteristics of climate science denial, where "Impossible Expectations" ranks #3). The kids are also using their phones to call their parents, to meet their friends, to coordinate and publish their efforts for Fridays For Future and related movements. Yes, also for playing games, but that is absolutely irrelevant. And putting away your cell phone is not an issue that needs to be solved in order to combat the climate crisis. Fridays For Future does not tell the world to put away their phones. They are telling the world to listen to the scientists. And guess what: Also the scientists don't tell anyone to put away their phones. Because this is just a big distraction from the actual issue that needs to be addressed: Stop meeting our growing energy demands by burning fossil fuels!

But by far my favourite attack is that children that want to battle climate change should go to school, learn physics, become climate scientists, and then save the world in a "proper" manner, how it is supposed to be. Anyone who would propose this approach has absolutely no idea of our current situation, so let me fill you in: At present, climate scientists have found a consensus on the primary cause of climate change. And it is humans. Burning fossil fuels. The handful of scientists that still dispute this, are dwindling in number more and more. Climate scientists are still uncertain about some peripheral topics of climate change, such as the role of clouds, methane release from permafrost, tipping points, and positive feedbacks, but... the cause of climate change is settled. We will not need our children to go to their physics courses to become climate experts that investigate the cause of global warming. No. We have enough of those. What we need is people that try to force politicians to listen to the climate scientists we already have. Because there lies the real problem: The cause of climate change is found, but politicians do not act on it. The reasons for them not acting on it are manifold and I write about this in my blog post #03: Who is spreading misinformation and why?. So to make it really easy: We don't need more climate scientists, we need politicians to listen to the climate scientists that we have! Because they are telling us something and we are not listening. That's why Fridays For Future are on the streets.


Putting the blame on children
Kids are easy targets. And kids that skip school for whatsoever reasons are even easier targets. Combine that with the mixed public reception of the controversial topic climate change and you will understand the hate that these kids are receiving. Furthermore, there is not few money spent by the fossil fuel lobbies and their think tanks to distribute more disinformation and to a large part ad hominem attacks on Greta and her followers. Just to make it clear one last time: It doesn't matter if Greta uses a cell phone. It doesn't matter whether the founder of a green PR startup helped Greta to gain more attention in her beginnings. It doesn't matter if there are kids in the FFF crowd that "only" want to skip school and don't care for the climate. None - and let me make this very clear - NONE of this invalidates the cause that Greta and FFF are on the street for: To call for politicians to listen to the climate scientists and call for action on climate change.

Many people - especially the older generations - feel attacked by Greta and FFF and maybe unfairly so. That is no wonder... Frequently, Greta tells us grown-ups to be ashamed, to feel scared, to panic. And she puts blame on people for not having acted on climate change long ago. Who enjoys to hear these accusations after having lived a life without knowing how damaging your behaviour may be for the climate? Nobody would like that. And let me assure you: I feel you. Most of our parents and grandparents just didn't know. In my opinion, they are not to blame for having lived their lives the way they have. Not even most of the politicians are to blame, because many of them didn't know either thanks to false information spread by the fossil fuel lobby. I'd like to focus much more on the Now. Because by now, people should know. Climate change and climate scientists are in the news. The kids are on the streets and call for help and action. By now, you really should know. So stop attacking them because you are scared or because you feel patronized or because these darn children belong in school. By now you should know and you should act on it.

Picture references are this time exclusively prolific Markus Spiske.

#00: Another Climate Blog: But why?

If you are wondering where the comment section is or who I am to talk about climate science and why, please have a look at my disclaimer here.