In a sea of still predominantly white men, the fresh-faced Swede, with long braids frequently tucked under a woolly hat, has already achieved what scores of campaigners will spend a lifetime trying to do. Josie Cox writes about the impact of Greta Thunberg at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Greta Thunberg’s speech at Davos shows that if anyone is going to save the world, it’s Generation Z
Considering the icy temperatures gripping central Europe, it’s remarkable how much hot air was able to circulate in the small town of Davos at over 5,000 feet this week. As per usual, the annual WEF gathering of politicians, business leaders, celebrities and the global media delivered a healthy portion of pomp and splendour. Brexit-weary journalist friends who managed to get their hands on a coveted accreditation shared selfies with Bill Gates, a hastily snapped picture of a star-struck Prince William as he prepared to face David Attenborough, and a shaky video of Wycliffe Jean serenading a dinner crowd.
The philanthropic (and not so philanthropic) regulars donned their Monclers and rocked up in force – Bono, Al Gore, Matt Damon, George Soros, and Sting, to name but a random few – but when the supposed leaders of the free world got down to the noble business of actually safeguarding our future under the grand theme of “Globalization 4.0”, it all got a bit uncomfortable.
The Wall Street Journal’s Greg Ip summarised it neatly when he said that Davos’s raison d’etre is to gather intelligence and collectively conjure up solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. “Hedge funds go to chat up CEOs, CEOs go to chat up politicians, politicians go to chat up donors, and journalists go to chat up everyone,” Ip explained in a recent piece, sketching out the weird ecosystem of largely well-heeled attendees.
But 2019’s crippling malaise turns out to be utter cluelessness, making Davos’s mission basically unachievable this year. Anyone know how the US government shutdown will finally end, how Brexit will pan out, whether US-China trade tensions will defuse, or whether robots will indeed take all of our jobs? No, nein, non and nyet. But everyone’s perfected the art of the sober nod and everyone is eager to express their ironclad commitment to making the world a better place. They just haven’t quite got around to figuring out how to do that.
And so it was with some relief that I learned of at least one sensible voice among the fat cats in the snow. The figurative adult in the room just happens to be a Swedish teenager. Greta Thunberg is no stranger to the public eye. Last year she led a massive school strike to raise awareness of climate change outside the Swedish parliament. She’s done a TED talk and addressed the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poland last year at the tender age of 15. On Thursday in Davos, unintimidated by the magnitude of her fellow panellists (Bono, diplomat Christiane Figueres, Jane Goodall, will.i.am and Japanese businessman Kengo Sakurada), Thunberg – who also happens to be autistic – took the floor and fearlessly accused some of the planet’s richest and most influential people of imperilling her future while looking them dead in the eye.
“Some people say that the climate crisis is something that we will have created, but that is not true, because if everyone is guilty then no one is to blame. And someone is to blame,” she said in a stoic, steady voice, as heavyweights like former Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff looked on. “Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular, have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money,” she added in flawless English with a charming Scandinavian lilt, before going in for the kill: “And I think many of you here today belong to that group of people.”
A short, excruciating pause ensued before a flutter of guilty laughter filled the room and then eventually (thank God!) wordless applause. Many in the audience no doubt wished they were anywhere – anywhere! – but here.
Thunberg, who on Friday was due to meet with WEF founder Klaus Schwab and International Monetary Fund chairwoman Christine Lagarde, truly is leading by example. While some self-proclaimed climate warriors swarmed to the Swiss resort in private jets and choppers, the youngster reportedly endured a more than 30-hour train ride accompanied by her dad. Though no doubt having received reams of offers to stay in fancy hotels for free, she opted to camp in the snow, braving temperatures of -12C and lower. “I want to practise as I preach,” she told reporters.
Legitimately or not, millennials have earned a reputation for being feckless snowflakes, but I dare anyone to fob off Generation Zers like Thunberg as equally gritless. The 16-year old and her peers have the most to lose from the reckless way in which we’re mistreating the planet, so perhaps it will take her and her contemporaries’ passion and courage to inspire change. Call it youthful ignorance if you will. I’ll call it necessity.
Events like the WEF need more Thunbergs. Despite a push by organisers for change, women this year represented just 22 per cent of delegates and the average age was well over 50. Just as homogeneity breeds homogeneity, diversity breeds diversity. In a sea of still predominantly white men, the fresh-faced Swede, with long braids frequently tucked under a woolly hat, has already achieved what scores of campaigners will spend a lifetime trying to do. She’s been heard and hopefully her words will haunt the elite for a while.
Hot air might make snowflakes melt but Thunberg has shown us that Generation Zers have other plans.