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‘You are never too small to make a difference’

Voices | Published:

Greta Thunberg’s solitary protest outside Swedish parliament, which escalated into a global movement involving an estimated 1.5 million schoolchildren, including 200 in Guernsey, is proof that young people can make a difference. And when it comes to climate change action, every little step in the right direction is important, says Deputy Lindsay de Sausmarez...

IT SOUNDS like the voiceover to a superhero movie trailer. ‘Can an ordinary schoolgirl overcome the odds and change the course of human history forever?’ We’d glance at the picture of a teenager in pigtails and a white knitted hat and conclude it’s a pretty unlikely premise.

Except that the girl is not fictional, and it is looking increasingly likely that she will.

What started last August as a solitary protest by Greta Thunberg standing outside the Swedish parliament has escalated into a global movement that saw an estimated 1.5 million schoolchildren protesting in March, demanding more action on climate change from their respective governments in 125 countries.

More than 200 Guernsey secondary school students were among them. Facing their questions, several facts quickly became clear to me: they were well-informed, they were serious, and they were really worried about their future.

They have every right to be.

The world they will grow up and grow old in is becoming increasingly less liveable.

We’re not just talking about polar bears or orangutans here, important though they might be in their own right: we’re talking about an environment in which humans can comfortably live.

The earth’s atmosphere is currently on track to warm to around 4C above pre-industrial levels by 2100 – a milestone that many of today’s schoolchildren can reasonably expect to live to see. 4C might not sound like much, but its impact would be truly catastrophic.

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Sea level rises would inundate coastal communities around the world, including many major cities.

Food security would be threatened by changes in ecosystems such as insect extinctions and more frequent and intense extreme weather-related events, such as heatwaves, flooding, drought, wildfires and hurricanes.

Fresh water availability would be an increasing problem globally, whilst ocean acidification would see corals wiped out and various marine food chains collapse.

Human health would suffer, and growing competition for increasingly scarce resources would increase the risk of displacement and conflict, with far-reaching socio-economic impacts.

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As David Attenborough explained at the UN Climate Change Conference in December, ‘if we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon’.

That horizon is not just a distant, abstract concept for our young people: it is their future – but only if we do nothing to change it.

Thankfully, 195 nations have signed the Paris Agreement, committing to efforts to limit global warming to well below 2C, which – if they succeed – should reduce the severity of the impacts. For context, though, we’ve already reached the 1C mark, so time is not on our side.

Climate change is affecting us right now, even here in Guernsey. There are lots of little signs. Pick up an old gardening book and you’ll see that flowers no longer bloom when they’re supposed to, meaning ecosystems are disrupted as plants, insects and birds fall out of sync. Sour fig – an invasive species affecting our biodiversity – is spreading rapidly across our coastal landscape because our winters are typically too mild now to keep it in check.

Guernsey Water’s records show that rainfall patterns have changed in line with climate change modelling: we now have more intense bursts of rainfall that cause flooding more often.

Charlotte and James Cleal at Youth Action 4 Climate Guernsey. (Picture by Steve Sarre, 24394137)

Guernsey students James and Charlotte Cleal, who organised last month’s event, have challenged local policymakers to commit to a really meaningful target: to make the island net carbon neutral by 2030.

Is it even possible to reach such an ambitious goal?

I can’t guarantee that the answer is yes. However, what I do know with absolute certainty is that if we don’t commit to trying, then we won’t even get close.

Targets are there to stimulate action, and action is what’s needed. Reaching the target isn’t a binary win or lose situation: it’s what we do in an effort to reach it that’s important. Every bit of progress is a win in its own right.

As climate scientists are keen to stress, the sooner we act, the better. If we don’t sign up to the target until we’re confident we know the minutiae of exactly how we can achieve it, we’ll do too little too late. We know what direction we need to be travelling in and we know that every step towards our destination is a lot more useful than standing still.

The younger generation, both here in Guernsey and around the world, is asking us to please get a move on.

In a scene that would look at home in that superhero movie, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg addressed world leaders at Davos with characteristic directness, asking them to act as though the house is on fire. ‘Because it is.’

Those world leaders listened. Many agreed that their Paris Agreement commitments don’t go far enough and have pledged to up their targets. Various individual states and cities are going even further than their central governments: Copenhagen, for example, has just announced that it is aiming for net carbon neutrality by 2025 – the most ambitious target yet.

‘I’ve learned that you are never too small to make a difference,’ said Greta, now nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

The movie script is no doubt being written as we speak, but how it ends is up to us.

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