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The Return of Greta: ‘Our House Is Still on Fire’

The environmental activist calls for climate action while addressing attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg addresses a panel session during the 50th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on January 21st, 2020.


DAVOS, SWITZERLAND — The World Economic Forum is set in the picturesque Swiss town of Davos, nestled in the Alps. But the first thing you smell is not the crisp cool mountain air but the noxious fumes of an endless stream of belching black Mercedes driving the plutocrats to their appointed places to discuss inequality amid a badge-access-system that is about as egalitarian as the ancient Indian caste system.

It’s no wonder that teen environmental activist Greta Thunberg seems to detest every minute she spends in Davos. (She was supposed to appear at a youth environmental camp on Monday, but begged off with a fever, leaving the disappointed camera crews to photograph Rainn Wilson). Last year, Thunberg famously proclaimed that ‘your house is on fire’ as she outlined how desperately close we were to the no-return point of the climate crisis.

This time, her message was, essentially, “Same shit, different year.” There was no greater disconnect between her message and the largely male attendees in the calcifying stage of middle age than when Time magazine editor Edward Felsenthal asked Thunberg at a panel how she deals with all the haters, as if she was Taylor Swift in her latest online beef.

Thunberg responded with, “I would like to say something that I think people need to know more than how I deal with haters.” She then cited chapter and verse from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report. She mentioned that if we are to have even a 67% chance of limiting global temperature change to under 1.5 degrees Celsius, the point where catastrophic changes begin, we have less than 420 gigatons of CO2 that we can emit before we pass the no-going-back line. Thunberg pointed out that, at the current rate, we have less than eight years to turn back the tide.

“These numbers aren’t anyone’s opinions or political views,” said Thunberg, speaking in an exasperated tone as if lecturing a classroom of slow first-graders.  “This is the current best-available science.” She then addressed the media. “I know you don’t want to report about this. I know you don’t want to talk about this, but I assure you I will continue to repeat these numbers until you do.”

Later on Tuesday, Thunberg gave a brief address. Echoing last year’s speech, she proclaimed, “Our house is still on fire.” “Your inaction is fueling the flames by the hour.”

Outside the conference center, five helicopters circled like petroleum-hungry vultures.

She chided the jewelry-rattling audience. “You say children shouldn’t worry. You say, ‘Just leave this to us. We will fix this, we promise we won’t let you down.’ ” She paused. “And then, nothing. Silence. Or something worse than silence. Empty words and promises, which give the impression that sufficient action is being taken.”

“Let’s be clear,” Thunberg said. “We don’t need a ‘low-carbon economy.’ We don’t need to ‘lower emissions.’ Our emissions have to stop. And, until we have the technologies that at scale can put our emissions to minus, then we must forget about net zero. We need real zero.”

Later that night, the belching black Mercedes would once again fill the Davos streets, taking the designer-clad clientele to wine tastings and oligarch-hosting parties.

The emissions would be more than zero.