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  • Writer's pictureAndy Clark

Thunberg, Attenborough, The Rebellion, and You

[Transcript plus links etc.]

What a week for climate change! A sixteen year old Swedish lass has been putting world leaders in their place AGAIN [1, 2, 3], a national hero has finally achieved a thorough trend-bucking in coverage of the climate crisis, some people in London were slightly inconvenienced… and we’re still waiting to see what will really come of it all.

But I do believe that the collective efforts of this last week could be a substantial turning point in the climate crisis, and it’s because we’re starting to see a real and very public rallying to the cause. The climate for so long has been so easy for so many to ignore, and now more and more people are saying “no more”, for a variety of reasons.

Greta Thunberg has very quickly become a global hero, personally I absolutely adore her, but how is she so able to reach world leaders, and speak these unpleasant truths about their behaviour, and really touch hearts and minds in the process so effectively?

There are various thoughts on why she’s so relentless and enamoured to her cause, but from a communication perspective I think the reason she’s able to connect so powerfully is this: this is in absolutely no way a game to her. Greta is so powerful an individual because the issue is something that profoundly moves her, and she is completely open about how she feels about it. Yes, she chooses her words carefully and without a lot of the don’t-rock-the-boat constraint that other climate communicators do, but she doesn’t change who she fundamentally is to get her message across. In addressing world leaders she’s not trying to be like them to get onto their side, but neither is she trying to be averse to them – she’s just a beautiful compliment of facts and feelings - she speaks truths, openly, she shows clearly what emotional response those truths should trigger, and that powerful rapport is what has tremendous influence.

Critics of Thunberg have been quick to call her ‘Naïve’, saying things like “yes I understand why she must feel like that but the world’s more complicated than that – she’ll understand it better when she’s older”. BULLSHIT! Yes the world is a complicated place, but this issue is not a complicated one: we radically change, and quickly, or we die. Greta’s so-called Naivety is the best hope that we have for saving this planet because we don’t have time to learn every complexity of the world or to pander to the convenience of the status quo. The way the world is is what’s got us into this mess; we can’t continue to pretend that business as usual will somehow work itself out, because if we carry on as we have up to now we will die [1, 2, 3]. We have to believe there is another way forwards, we cannot be jaded, and in that way among many, Greta Thunberg could be the one who saves the world.

It’s not always easy to change the status quo – particularly when you’ve been a part of it for so long. The great Sir David Attenborough has been broadcasting for the best part of 70 years, and for most of that time has ardently stayed out of anything remotely political. While inspiring generations of conservationists, he’s also rankled conservationists who have to watch the world falling apart every day and have felt that the catastrophe that we are amidst should be more poignantly reflected in his programming. It’s taken a while, with only relatively small acknowledgements to climate change wiggling their way into BBC NHU shows over the last few years because there was some prevailing idea that people didn’t want to know about it(?). Attenborough started to test more controversial waters in his coverage of plastics in Blue Planet Two (and when I say controversial there I mean that the coverage of plastics was controversial because the Beeb thought viewers wouldn’t like it – not that there’s any debate left on the amount of plastic in the oceans). Blue Planet Two had a remarkable effect – we’re still seeing the ripples of The Blue Planet Effect into this year [1,2] – but last week’s one-off Climate Change: The Facts was a huge leap from the status quo of cherry picking neutral stories. And may I add what a great show I thought it was – if you haven’t watched it, watch it.

Many were quick to comment what a refreshing new position this is regarding the BBC’s stance on climate change, which has been pretty awful and ambiguous to date due to a misguided perception of ‘balance’. Most importantly though is the fact that Attenborough is still able to inspire us, to recognise his power and influence in communicating simple facts about our world emotively and sensibly, and to take a step towards a world that we all need to believe in.

Extinction Rebellion, on the other hand, have made numerous headlines this week for being quite the opposite of sensible or orderly. Their simple mission to basically ruffle feathers in order to put attention on climate change is something that I was initially pretty wary of. I am British, I am a scientist, and I’ve been berated for naivety so many times that I actually was starting to think that the only way to change the system was from within it.

But here’s the serious thing: conventional environmentalism over the last few decades has proven itself not to work. I’m not saying that great things haven’t come from conservation, but look at the world as a whole now; we have failed to move enough people with business-as-usual environmentalism.

This isn’t something that should threaten conventional environmentalists though - I don’t mean that we should abandon the current way of doing things in favour of gluing ourselves to public services – but we should welcome Extinction Rebellion as a part of the conversation and as a part of a suite of ways that we have to influence people. We need people giving as many shits about the state of the planet as Extinction Rebellion do, because they have been successful in their mission; they have put climate change among the headlines and in the direct attention of people in power.

The funny thing is, that while the Rebellion are shaking things up, they’re doing so very respectfully of the system they’re trying to change – and not just by holding these adamantly peaceful protests. Public dissidence is proven to work within our democracy. It’s not so much challenging the system as it is speaking to it on the system’s terms. That’s very clever, and does set quite an example for how we could be effectively communicating the climate crisis.

So where does that leave you and I? Well, if you have in any way been moved by the actions and discourse this last week, let yourself continue to be moved. Don’t just witness these events, and then change channel or move on to next headline. I’ve been given pause to think and re-evaluate my own habits and behaviours, and I ask you to do the same. We are talking about saving the world here – from plastics to pollution to deforestation and the changing climate of the whole thing – we need you to keep your energy up on that.

If there’s one thing this last week has shown is that you’re not alone, and if you give a shit about saving this world you will not be made to feel like a minority any more.

But if you don’t feel moved by this; if you’re still for any reason uncertain about the where the world’s headed or the changing of the climate, don’t just take anyone’s word for it. Because while there has been this positive outpouring this week there has also been derogatory commentary, scepticism and denial.

If you come across stories and articles on the subject – from any standpoint – ask yourself about the real credibility of what you’re reading. Do they provide evidence and / or references to back up their claims? Debating climate has to come with transparency – it’s important that everyone knows how we’re going to make the world a better place, and for what good reasons.

And overall, amidst concerns of “fake news”, apply a bit of critical evaluation [1, 2].

Call out the bullshitters – with evidence when you can. Don’t settle for anything less than action – in yourselves and in everyone else. We have ten years to turn this world around and, though maybe I’m being naïve, I believe we can do it.

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