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Naomi Klein: Greta Thunberg Is a “Prophetic Voice” in Fight for Climate Justice

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Renowned activist, author and professor Naomi Klein discusses the importance of youth voices, including 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, in communicating the urgency of the climate justice movement. Klein’s new book, “On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal,” addresses the necessity of structural change to combat rising global temperatures and climate injustices. Klein praises Greta for her “moral clarity” as one of many youth voices that “burst through the bureaucratic language with which we shield ourselves from the reality of the stakes, the extraordinary stakes, of our moment in history.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are the last ones to cite polls, but that’s when it comes to presidential candidates.

NAOMI KLEIN: Right. That’s wise.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about some of these new polls that are coming out around the climate crisis, whether we’re talking about in this week called Covering Climate Now, that many of us are involved with, collaborating on, media organizations around the world — CBS came out with a new poll — and then Scientific American on children and what they believe.

NAOMI KLEIN: Oh, well, that was a poll — Scientific American, I think, was reporting on a study in Nature Climate Change about the impacts that young people are having on their parents’ belief in climate change. So, I think this growing sense of urgency, that you see really clearly in many of the polls, including, most recently, the CBS poll, where people are defining climate change more and more as a crisis — they want politicians to act — that’s very different. You know, when I was doing this research just a few years ago, it was — climate change would reliably be listed last, among Democrats, like, so, people — not people who are denying climate change. They say, “Yes, I care about climate change.” But you ask them to rank it, and it would rank like 19th or 20th among other issues of concern. That’s really shifted.

And I think partly it’s because of lived experience. Partly it’s the clarity of the scientific messaging that we’re getting, particularly from the IPCC, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, now speaking in a language people really understand: You have “11 years left to transform” virtually every aspect of society. That’s a quote from their summary, from their 1.5 report. And also, I think so many young people are really living with climate grief, with climate terror, and they’re turning to their parents, and they’re saying, “You have to do something about this.” And this is now — now it’s become clear that young people, particularly young girls, are changing the views of their parents.

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s where the Scientific American article begins, was about children, particularly girls, having an effect on conservative fathers, which is so interesting.


AMY GOODMAN: We want to turn right now to a young woman, to a girl, to Greta Thunberg. On Monday night, Amnesty International presented its 2019 Ambassador of Conscience Award to the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement. This is Greta speaking last night.

GRETA THUNBERG: Right now I think there is an awakening going on. Even though it is slow, the pace is picking up, and the debate is shifting. This is thanks to a lot of different reasons, but it is a lot because of countless of activists, and especially young activists. Activism works. So what I’m telling you to do now is to act, because no one is too small to make a difference. I am urging all of you to take part in the global climate strikes on September 20th and 27th. And just one last thing: See you on the streets.

AMY GOODMAN: Greta Thunberg, receiving the Amnesty International award from Kumi Naidoo, the head of Amnesty International, who will be joining us later this week in our climate coverage. Naomi, you had the chance to be on stage with Greta Thunberg at the Ethical Culture Society. Almost a thousand people packed in to see the two of you have this intergenerational conversation. Talk about her significance. She’s here in New York and will be participating in the Global Climate Strike on Friday.

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, she’s — I love seeing her, and her moral clarity is so forceful. I think she’s really a prophetic voice, who has brought the existential urgency of the crisis to the heart of power.

She isn’t the first person to do that, right? And you have covered other young voices on Democracy Now! in the past, particularly from the Global South. You know, I think about Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands, speaking at the United Nations in New York, holding her 9-month-old baby, reading a poem to her, or Yeb Saño at the U.N. climate talks a few years ago. As Typhoon Haiyan is hitting his family home, he’s negotiating on behalf of the Philippines. So, these moments that sort of burst through the bureaucratic language with which we kind of shield ourselves from the reality of the stakes, the extraordinary stakes, of our moment in history.

There are so many ways in which we use language to protect ourselves, and I think the people who are tasked with talking about climate change at the official U.N. conferences are very good at making it seem less urgent than it is. I don’t think they mean to, but, you know, careers in bureaucracy manage to do that.

So, there have been these voices before who have pierced through, from the Global South. Unfortunately, it’s mainly been Democracy Now! who covers them, and very few other media organizations. Greta has broken through. And she’s such an amazing voice for her generation. And it’s a very different voice, I think, in part because, as she talks about, what makes her different and her understanding of this crisis having to do with neurodiversity. She has a different way of seeing the world as somebody on the autism spectrum.

AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to go to the question you asked her. Why don’t you set it up for us, as you spoke from your own personal experience, as well?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, I wanted — I was just asking her about the tremendous sense of responsibility she must feel, because, in very short order, she’s become the most prominent, it seems, voice on the climate crisis, or one of them. But she’s also, from what I can tell, the most prominent voice of somebody who self-describes as being on the autism spectrum. And she talks a lot about that. She’s made a choice early on. And so I wanted to just get her reflections on that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you spoke personally of your own experience. We’re going to start with your question and then go into the answer.

NAOMI KLEIN: I wanted to ask you about this other responsibility that you’ve taken on, which has to do with being very public, from the beginning, about being on the autism spectrum. It was in your Twitter bio: “a climate activist with Asperger’s.” And that leads to a whole other level of responsibility, because you’re probably also the most prominent person in the world right now who self-identifies as being — I’m sorry — being on the autism spectrum. And that’s really, really important to people who identify with you. And I can speak about that personally because I have a 7-year-old son with special needs, and you are his hero.

GRETA THUNBERG: I really didn’t think about being public of it, because I just — it was in my profile and biography on social media, and I didn’t think about it. I mean, it was just: Why should I not be public about that? Why should that be something to not be public about? But then I sort of noticed that it was a big thing, that not many people were public about their diagnosis. But I just — I just think it’s so important, because still many people see to have a diagnosis to be neurodiverse to be something negative, and it doesn’t have to be. And, of course, it can limit you in many ways. It has limited me a lot. But it can also — you can also convert that in to be something good, something positive. And that is what I have done. And that is what I think we should encourage more people to do.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Naomi?

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah. I was — as I’ve gotten to know Greta a little bit and thought about her impact, I am really struck by the way she talks about her — she talks about it as a kind of a superpower — right? — that she has this amazing ability to focus, which is true for many people on the spectrum. You know, there are many people on the spectrum who are in the sciences, you know, who are amazing classical musicians. But, as Greta says, not everybody has these — you know, there are a lot of struggles. There are a lot of challenges. So it’s not to romanticize it.

But one of the things that’s really interesting is that therapists talk about how kids on the spectrum don’t do something which most kids do, which is called mirroring. Right? So, most kids, like if you play a game of Simon Says — right? — they get it right away. You move, I move, and we mirror. That’s something that humans do. We’re constantly mirroring each other. We’re looking to one another for social cues to tell us how to act. That’s how we build relationships and cohesive communities. A lot of kids on the spectrum just don’t have that instinct. They don’t have that impulse. They just do their own thing, right? Which is why they get bullied, because they’re following their own path.

So, what’s interesting to me, as it relates to the climate crisis, is that I think this — the fact that we do mirror each other has become a huge problem, because we live in a culture, in an economy, that, on the one hand, is telling us we’re in the middle of this existential emergency — and, you know, we see footage of Arctic sea ice loss, and we hear about an insect apocalypse, we hear about a million species facing extinction — but then, the next minute, it’s like, well, go shopping, you know, watch a makeup tutorial on YouTube, imitate celebrities, so — and politicians talking about pretty much everything except for this, as Greta has said. So, if your impulse is to mirror, you’re getting very conflicting messages. You’re like, “Is this a crisis or not? Because, you know, I’m hearing a message that it’s a crisis, but everywhere I look, I’m getting the opposite message: 'Everything is fine. Continue as usual. Keep the system going.'”

And so, I think what’s so interesting about Greta — and she’s not the only young person on the spectrum who is playing a leadership role in this movement — is that it’s precisely because they lack that impulse to look to other people to tell them the right way to feel about this, that they trust their initial instinct. I don’t know a kid in the world who doesn’t have their first response to the climate crisis being “Oh my god! Why isn’t everybody acting on this? Why isn’t everybody understanding this is an emergency?” The problem is then that the next wave of messages they get is a message of “be reassured,” when we shouldn’t be reassured. So I think that’s part of why Greta is playing this prophetic role, because she trusted her first instinct, and she’s not mirroring this insane society.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Naomi Klein for the hour, senior correspondent at The Intercept. She has a new book out today, called On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal. Back with Naomi in a minute.

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