Thunberg: "When your house is on fire, you don't wait a few more years to start putting it out"

Greta Thunberg tells Europe that aiming for zero carbon emissions by 2050 is not enough to address climate change

By Matthew Rozsa
March 5, 2020 12:01AM (UTC)
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Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks to AFP during an interview aboard La Vagabonde, the boat she will be taking to return to Europe, in Hampton, Virginia, on November 12, 2019. - Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg said November 12, 2019 that US President Donald Trump's climate change denialism was "so extreme" that it had helped galvanize the movement to halt long term planetary warming. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg condemned the European Commission's new climate law as a "surrender" that won't do enough to combat global warming.

"When your house is on fire, you don't wait a few more years to start putting it out, and yet this is what the commission are proposing today," Thunberg said in a Wednesday speech to Members of the European Parliament. "When the EU presents this climate law, and net zero by 2050, you indirectly admit surrender, that you are giving up." 

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After claiming that the E.U. delegates were abandoning their commitment to the Paris agreement and describing climate change as an "existential threat," Thunberg concluded that "this climate law is surrender, because nature doesn't bargain and you cannot make deals with physics."

In addition to delivering her speech, Thunberg signed an open letter with 33 other young climate activists advocating for immediate carbon dioxide emissions instead of long-term goals. The letter, which was published on Tuesday, argued that "we don't just need goals for just 2030 or 2050. We, above all, need them for 2020 and every following month and year to come."

The European Commission said in a press release Wednesday that the proposed European Climate Law "proposes a legally binding target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050" and "includes measures to keep track of progress and adjust our actions, accordingly." It also requires a comprehensive impact statement for creating a new 2030 E.U. target for greenhouse gas emissions and establishes five year assessments beginning in 2023 to determine whether the EU is complying with its goals.

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"To some extent [Thunberg] is correct, but at the same time, she ignores the difficulties," Kevin E. Trenberth, a distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told Salon by email.

Noting that it can be politically difficult to pass comprehensive legislation accepted by the general public, Trenberth added that "one region acting responsibly when another, like the U.S., is totally irresponsibly can put them at a major disadvantage in the world markets. So it is essential that leadership in Europe also bring along the U.S and China, for instance. Those three could solve the problem through peer pressure on the rest of the world."

He added, "Go, Greta."

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Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science's Department of Global Ecology, agreed with Thunberg's criticisms. 

"It is somewhat cowardly for politicians to make promises that will be kept (or not!) only after they leave office," Caldeira said. "If we are to see effective action, we need to know what politicians will do during their terms in office."

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Thunberg's climate change activism won her the Time Magazine Person of the Year award in 2019, but it has also resulted in bullying from some conservatives. President Donald Trump tweeted in December that she needed to "work on her Anger Management problems" and one month later told the World Economic Forum in Davos that "we must reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse. They are the errors of yesterday's fortune tellers, and we have them and I have them."

Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham compared Thunberg last year to the child villains in the horror movie "Children of the Corn," while other conservatives have described her as "deeply disturbed" or the "Justin Bieber of ecology." Critics have also attacked her physical appearance, while one Brexiteer said he hoped she would get into a yachting accident.


Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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Climate Change European Union Furthering Global Warming Greta Thunberg Politics