I never planned to become a climate activist. But things have changed, and now, standing here as a climate activist, I ask you all to become one, too. Here's why, and most importantly, how.
Ten years ago, when I was 13 years old, I first learned about the greenhouse effect. Back then, we spent 90 minutes on this issue, and I remember finding it quite irritating that something so fundamental would be squeezed into a single geography lesson. Some of this irritation remained, so when I graduated from high school, I decided to study geography, just to make sure I was on the right track with this whole climate change thing.
And this is when everything changed. This was the first time I looked at the data, at the science behind the climate crisis, and I couldn't believe what I was reading. Like many of you, I thought that the planet wasn't really in a good state. I had no idea that we are rushing into this self-made disaster in such a rapid pace. There was also the first time I understood what difference it makes when you consider the bigger picture. Take the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, for instance, the number one driver for global warming. Yes, this looks bad. This looks like we are on a pretty bad track. But it's only once you don't just consider the last 60 years but the last 10,000 years that you understand how terrifying this really is. And this is just one aspect of the crisis we're seeing. I'm not going to get into details here, but let me tell you so much: we are in a point of history that the most destructive force on the planet is humanity itself. We are in a point of history that no scientist could guarantee you that you will survive this. We are in a point of history that humanity is creating an environment that's not safe for humans anymore.
Yeah, there I was, first year of geography, and felt pretty overwhelmed. But ... there was good news. The very same year I first learned about all this, leaders from across the globe came together in Paris to decide on the common target to limit global warming to below two degrees. Pictures went around the world, and I was told that history was made that day. How relieving, right?
Except ... something didn't quite work out about this. After this agreement was signed, things didn't really get better. Actually, they got much worse. Decision makers and industries, leaders and politicians, they went back to business as usual, exploiting our livelihoods like there is literally no tomorrow, building coal power plants again and again, even though we know that needs to stop, according to the Paris Agreement.
So while there are also good developments, of course — there are installations of wind and solar energy all over the globe, yes — but these positive changes are slow — too slow, in fact. So since the Paris Agreement was signed, climate graphs keep racing to the top, smashing records every year. The five hottest years ever recorded were the previous five years, and at no time have global emissions been higher than today.
So there I was, seeing and understanding the science on the one side, but not seeing answers, not seeing the action, on the other side. At that point, I had enough. I wanted to go to the UN Climate Conference myself, that very place that was created to bring people together to fix the climate — except not really, apparently. This was last year. I traveled to the Climate Conference and wanted to find out what this is really like, what this is about. For political realists, this might be no surprise, but I found it hard to bear: that fossil fuel industries and political leaders are doing everything, everything to prevent real change from happening. They are not keen to set targets that are ambitious enough to put us on a below-two-degree pathway. After all, these are the only ones who benefit from this climate crisis, right? The fossil fuel industry generates profits, and political leaders, well, they look at the next election, at what makes them popular, and I guess that's not asking the inconvenient questions. There is no intention for them to change the game. There is no country in the world where either companies or political powers are sanctioned for wrecking the climate.
With all the strangeness and the sadness about this conference, there was one someone who was different, someone who seemed to be quite worried, and that was Greta Thunberg. I decided right there that everything else seemed hopeless and didn't seem to make sense, so I joined her climate strike right there at the conference. It was my very first climate strike ever and an incredibly strange setting, just me and her sitting there at this conference hall, surrounded by this busyness of the suit-wearing conference crowd who had no idea what to do with us. And yet, this felt more powerful than anything I had expected in a very long time. And it was right there that I felt it was maybe time to start striking in Germany. I was now certain that no one else was going to fix this for us, and if there was just the slightest chance that this could make a difference, it seemed almost foolish not to give it a go. So I —
So I traveled back to Berlin. I found allies who had the same idea at the same time, and together we thought we'd give this "Fridays For Future" thing a go. Obviously, we had no idea what we were getting into. Before our first strike, many of us, including me, had never organized a public demonstration or any kind of protest before. We had no money, no resources and absolutely no idea what climate striking really is. So we started doing what we were good at: we started texting, texting en masse, night and day, everyone we could reach, organizing our first climate strike via WhatsApp.
The night before our first strike, I was so nervous I couldn't sleep. I didn't know what to expect, but I expected the worst. Maybe it was because we weren't the only ones who had been longing to have a voice in a political environment that had seemingly forgotten how to include young people's perspective into decision-making, maybe. But somehow this worked out. And from one day to the other, we were all over the place. And I, from one day to the other, became a climate activist.
Usually, in these kind of TED Talks, I would now say how it's overly hopeful, how we young people are going to get this sorted, how we're going to save the future and the planet and everything else, how we young people striking for the climate are going to fix this. Usually. But this is not how this works. This is not how this crisis works. Here's a twist: today, three and a half years after that Paris Agreement was signed, when we look at the science, we find it's still possible to keep global warming to below two degrees — technically. And we also see it's still possible to hold other disastrous developments we're seeing, such as mass extinction and soil degradation — yes, technically. It's just incredibly, incredibly unlikely.
And in any case, the world would have to see changes which we have never experienced before. We'd have to fully decarbonize our economies by 2050 and transform the distribution of powers that is currently allowing those fossil fuel giants and political leaders to stay on top of the game. We are talking of nothing less than the greatest transformation since the Industrial Revolution. We are talking, if you want to put it that way, we are talking of a climate revolution in a minimum amount of time. We wouldn't have a single further year to lose.
And in any case, for any of that change to happen, the world needs to stop relying on one or two or three million school strikers to sort this out. Yes, we are great, we are going to keep going, and we are going to go to places no one ever expected us, yes. But we are not the limit; we are the start. This is not a job for a single generation. This is a job for humanity. And this is when all eyes are on you. For this change to happen, we will have to get one million things sorted. It's an incredibly complex thing, after all. But ... there are some things that everyone can get started with.
Bad news first: if you thought I would tell you now to cycle more or eat less meat, to fly less, or to go secondhand shopping, sorry, this is not that easy. But here comes the good news: you are more than consumers and shoppers, even though the industry would like you to keep yourselves limited to that. No; me and you — we are all political beings, and we can all be part of this answer. We can all be something that many people call climate activists. Yay?
So what are the first steps? Four first steps that are essential to get everything else done, four first steps that everyone can get started with, four first steps that decide about everything that can happen after.
So what's that?
Number one: we need to drastically reframe our understanding of a climate activist, our understanding of who can be the answer to this. A climate activist isn't that one person that's read every single study and is now spending every afternoon handing out leaflets about vegetarianism in shopping malls. No. A climate activist can be everyone, everyone who wants to join a movement of those who intend to grow old on a planet that prioritizes protection of natural environments and happiness and health for the many over the destruction of the climate and the wrecking of the planet for the profits of the few. And since the climate crisis is affecting every single part of our social, of our political and of our private life, we need climate activists everywhere on every corner, not only in every room, but also in every city and country and state and continent.
Second: I need you to get out of that zone of convenience, away from a business as usual that has no tomorrow. All of you here, you are either a friend or a family member, you are a worker, a colleague, a student, a teacher or, in many cases, a voter. All of this comes along with a responsibility that this crisis requires you to grow up to. There's the company that employs you or that sponsors you. Is it on track of meeting the Paris Agreement? Does your local parliamentarian know that you care about this, that you want this to be a priority in every election? Does your best friend know about this? Do you read a newspaper or write a newspaper? Great. Then let them know you want them to report on this in every issue, and that you want them to challenge decision makers in every single interview. If you're a singer, sing about this. If you're a teacher, teach about this. And if you have a bank account, tell your bank you're going to leave if they keep investing in fossil fuels. And, of course, on Fridays, you should all know what to do.
Thirdly: leaving that zone of convenience works best when you join forces. One person asking for inconvenient change is mostly inconvenient. Two, five, ten, one hundred people asking for inconvenient change are hard to ignore. The more you are, the harder it gets for people to justify a system that has no future. Power is not something that you either have or don't have. Power is something you either take or leave to others, and it grows once you share it. We young people on the streets, we school strikers, we are showing how this can work out. One single school striker will always be one single school striker — well, Greta Thunberg. Two, five, ten, one thousand people striking school are a movement, and that's what we need everywhere. No pressure.
And number four, finally — and this is probably the most important aspect of all of this — I need you to start taking yourselves more seriously. If there's one thing I've learned during seven months of organizing climate action, it's that if you don't go for something, chances are high that no one else will. The most powerful institutions of this world have no intention of changing the game they're profiting from most, so there's no point in further relying on them. That's scary, I know. That's a huge responsibility, a huge burden on everyone's shoulders, yes. But this also means, if we want to, we can have a say in this. We can be part of that change. We can be part of that answer. And that's quite beautiful, right?
So let's give it a try, let's rock and roll, let's flood the world with climate activists. Let's get out of the zones of convenience and join forces and start taking ourselves more seriously. Imagine what this world would look like, where children would grow up, knowing their future was this one great adventure to look forward to and nothing to be scared of, what this world would look like when the next climate conference is this great happening of people who come together, who had heard the voices of millions, who would then roll up their sleeves, ready to create real change.
You know, I dream of this world where geography classes teach about the climate crisis as this one greatest challenge that was won by people like you and me, who had started acting in time because they understood they had nothing to lose and everything to win.
So why not give it a go? No one else will save the future for us. This is more than an invitation. Spread the word.